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The Star Power of Mala Sinha

Coastweek -- A Hindi film heroine is all too often seen as arm candy who does her songs and dances and is finally presented to the hero in the end, writes DINESH RAHEJA.

What is remarkable about Mala Sinha is that most of her 1960s hits were fuelled by her own star power as much as the heros’.

When she acted opposite big stars, she made sure her role was as good as theirs.

If that was not always possible, she didn’t mind doing smaller films with lesser names (Aasra, Dillagi).

But her character always had to be the crux of the story.

Today, her unforgettable performances (Pyaasa, Phir Subah Hogi, Gumraah), have been relegated to the shade, while her weakness for over-the-top, mawkish melodrama is remembered.

Born a Nepali Christian, the young Mala was a chinky-eyed girl with curly hair and average height.

Mala’s initial name was Alda and her friends at school in Calcutta (now Kolkata) used to tease her by calling her Dalda (a brand of vegetable oil), so she changed her name to Baby Nazma on getting her first assignment as a child artiste.

Later on, as an adult actor, she changed her name to Mala Sinha.

As a child, she learnt dancing and singing.

 

Coastweek -- Mala Sinha (born 1936) is a former Bollywood actress who has worked in Hindi, Bengali and Nepali films.

Although she was an approved singer of All India Radio, she has never done playback singing in films.

As a singer, she has done stage shows in many languages from 1947 to 1975.

Mala began rather humbly in the early 1950s in Bengali films like Roshanara.

A journalist in Kolkata came across her photograph profiled in a photo studio and got it printed in the Filmfare magazine.

When noted film director, Amiya Chakravarty, came across a photograph of young Mala in Filmfare, charmed by her picture, he called her to Mumbai and signed her for a three-film contract.

“I had a bumpy ride. Ami Dada’s Badshah (1954) flopped!

“He cancelled my contract. He went ahead and made Seema with Nutan and Kathputli with Vyjayantimala instead,” she says.

Her other two films, Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet (1954) and Ekadashi (1955), also failed.

“We’d keep looking from the veranda of our house, hoping for a producer’s car to drive in.

“But not a fly came by. We were about to pack up and go back to Kolkata,” she says.

Fortunately, actor Janki Das came to their rescue.

Director Lekhraj Bhakri was making Naya Zamana (1957).

Janki Das urged him to watch Mala’s Hamlet, which though a flop, had won Mala acclaim.

 

Coastweek -- Mala Sinha & Rehman in a deleted scene from Pyaasa (1957).

“I’d played Oephilia in it. I was a thin teenager. Kishore Sahu’s wife got me padded costumes and wigs,” she smiles.

The filmmakers watched the film and signed her for Naya Zamana.

“I was not as good-looking as Madhubala, all I had going for me was talent,” she remembers.

With time, she fine-tuned her looks, inspiring Mahesh Bhatt to comment, “She exuded sensuality in Pyaasa.”

When colour seeped into films, she made the audience sit up, revealing a surprisingly slim new look in films like Aankhen, where she swayed memorably in a figure-hugging, strappy gown to Gairon pe karam apnon pe sitam.

While most of her contemporaries looked old-maidish once they entered the dreaded mid 30s, Mala looked chic in chiffon saris and butterfly blouses in Maryada, where she matched Rajesh Khanna’s mannerisms with captivating coquetry in the impish Chupke se dil de de.

Was her role as good as the superstar’s?

Well, she had a double role and romanced both Rajesh and Raaj Kumar in the film.

During Kidar Sharma’s Rangeen Raatein (1956), hero Shammi Kapoor’s girlfriend, the vivacious Geeta Bali took an unsure Mala Sinha and groomed her.

The spotlight first shone on her in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957).

Mala’s character had negative shades as she played an ambitious woman who betrays her impoverished poet lover (Guru Dutt) for a millionaire publisher (Rehman).

 

Coastweek -- Mala Sinha and Raaj Kumar in the muslim social romance drama Mere Hazoor (1968).

Yet Mala won the audience. Her trump card was her ability to emote with her pain-heavy eyes despite being mute about her remorse.

Mala soon made the grade from promising newcomer to star when she signed three films with a biggie like Raj Kapoor: Parvarish (1958), Phir Subah Hogi (1958) and Main Nashe Mein Hoon (1959).

Based on Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, the stark Phir Subah Hogi showcases Mala in a performance that’s eye-openingly subtle.

In latter years, however, Mala Sinha sacrificed subtlety for melodrama but she had no regrets - it paid her rich dividends.

In 1959, Mala had, on one hand the merry Dev Anand musical Love Marriage; while at the other end of the spectrum was her role in B R Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool.

In Yash Chopra’s debut directorial venture, Dhool Ka Phool, Mala Sinha again had a dark-shaded role of a woman who abandons her illegitimate child.

A trio of hits in 1962 - Anpadh, Hariyali Aur Raasta and Dil Tera Deewana - preceded her career best, B R Chopra’s Gumraah (1963).

She essayed a woman forced by circumstances to marry her sister’s widower (Ashok Kumar), but is tormented by the presence of her ex-lover (Sunil Dutt).

Mala made her character’s dilemma over whether to succumb to an extramarital affair seem identifiable and human.

Mala next had a huge hit as a village belle in Himalaya Ki God Mein (1965), though her performance seems contrived today.

Strong, women-oriented roles were known as her forte.

 

Coastweek -- Sharmila Tagore and Mala Sinha in Joy Mukherjee’s directorial debut, romantic spy thriller, Humsaya (1968).

Guru Dutt cast Mala in an author-backed role (as a working woman pinning her hopes on a hopeless romance), in his production, Baharen Phir Bhi Aayegi.

When he passed away, the film was reshot with Dharmendra in the lead.

Interestingly, Mala Sinha did three films each with three of the biggest banners of her times: B R Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool, Dharamputra and Gumraah; Vijay Bhatt’s Hariyali Aur Raasta, Himalaya Ki God Mein and Holi Aayee Re and Ramanand Sagar’s Aankhen, Geet and Lalkaar.

In 2007, Biswajeet and Mala won the Star Screen Lifetime Achievement Award, calling them on stage together giving due respect to their popularity as a pair who have tasted box office success.

She is said to have refused a fill-the-bill role in Ram Aur Shyam opposite a stalwart like Dilip Kumar.

To Mala’s credit, she could shoulder hits like Anpadh, Aasra and Do Kaliyan, on her own slender shoulders.

In most of her films from the 1960s, she got first billing in the credits, even before the heroes, with the exceptions being those with Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Pradeep Kumar and Kishore Kumar.

She was the highest-paid actress from 1958-65 with Vyjanthimala, and second with Vyjanthimala from 1966–67, and then shared the second spot with Sharmila Tagore from 1968-1971, and third position with Sadhana and Nanda in 1972-73.

In 1968 Sharmila Tagore and Mala Sinha were teamed up with Joy Mukherjee for the classic suspense thriller Humsaya, which was also produced and directed by Joy.

Though known to be thorough professionals, Sharmila and her co-star Mala were part of a much-publicised cat fight on the sets during the shooting of the film.

There were screaming headlines those days that the two had a physical fight on the sets and rumours also has it that Mala Sinha had actually slapped Sharmila!

But since playing the central role was a major motivating factor for Mala Sinha, she also worked in several films with upcoming stars like Dharmendra (Anpadh), Manoj Kumar (Hariyali), Sanjay Khan (Dillagi) and Amitabh Bachchan (Sanjog), besides doing 10 films with Biswajeet.

After this project, the two never shared screen space in another films.

Even after she married Nepali actor C P Lohani (with whom she had done the Nepalese film, Maiti Ghar) in 1968, she had a huge success playing a Japanese girl in Aankhen.

 

Coastweek -- Mala Sinha playes the royal character of Jahan Ara and Bharat Bhushan as Mirza Yusuf Changezi, in  a historical movie Jahan Ara (1964).

But after Mala gave birth to daughter Pratibha, her career began to wane.

Subsequently, she paired with Rajesh Khanna in Maryada and won accolades for her moving performance as Sanjeev Kumar’s grey-haired wife in Zindagi.

She did do some character roles. But after Khel in 1992 and Zid in 1994, she has stayed away from the arc lights.

Mala Sinha’s marriage was a long-distance affair - she lived in Mumbai, her husband in Kathmandu - but it has lasted 34 years.

Though Mala evinced as much interest in her daughter Pratibha’s career as her father did in her career, she was unable to achieve the same success for her daughter.

Of her repertoire, she said in 2001, she was rather partial to Jahan Ara (1964), a historical movie that Meena Kumari passed on to her:

“Meena-ji turned down the role saying that she would not look the part whereas I would. Given my ignorance of Urdu, I was rather sceptical, but Meena-ji was convinced that I could do justice to the role.

“Playing Mumtaz Mahal’s eldest daughter entailed gruelling Urdu classes and learning royal tehzeeb.

“It was hot on the grand sets erected at Ranjit Studio and the film had Madan Mohan’s haunting music. It was a film replete with lyrical moments.”

The actor was recently awarded the Lifetime Achieve-ment honour at the Filmfare Awards 2018, but is not overjoyed at the belated recognition.

“Do you know, I’ve never won a Filmfare Award before this?

“During my heydays, I was nominated several times. In fact, I’d be nominated almost every year during the 1960s.

“But for reasons unknown to me, the award always went to some other actress,” Mala said.

She recounted that in 1965, she was nominated for two very contrasting roles in Jahan Ara and Himalay Ki God Mein.

“The then-editor of Filmfare BK Karanjia told me to come for the function as I was the most likely winner for either of my performances.

“I excitedly got up in the morning to put together my clothes and accessories.

“But when it came to getting the award in the evening, it went to Vyjayanthimalaji for Sangam.

Today, Mala, who is heavily into religion, lives in a multi-storeyed bungalow at Bandra.

The sprawling bungalow a testimony to the huge stardom that was once hers.

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