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Zeenat Aman Revolutionized the Portrayal of Indian Women

Coastweek -- A well-known actor known for his wig and witticisms, saw Zeenat Aman in the late 1960s and spontaneously described her as a lamba khamba (tall pillar), writes DINESH RAHEJA.

Little did he know that his words would prove quaintly prophetic.

The tall, occidental-looking actress went on to revolutionize the concept of the Hindi film female star, and became one of the pillars (along with art film actresses like Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel) of the 1970s cinema who helped usher in a new, emboldened heroine.

Zeenat’s sultry personality was refreshingly different from the marquee queens then.

Synonymous with zest and zing, Zeenat possessed a convent schoolgirl accent and a penchant for revealing dresses (she matched Gina Lollobrigida in the battle of oomph at Shalimar’s launch).

While other heroines wore bouffant and huge chunks of jewellery to complement elegant saris, Aman let down her silken hair (literally and figuratively) and sported hoop earrings (so casual) and a tighter-than-a-tourniquet mini (so sexy).

Coastweek -- Dev Anand and debutante Zeenat Aman in the 1971 Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

Fortunately, the difference was more than just than skin-deep.

Zeenat Aman’s persona was a contrast to many of the more conservative stars of the era.

At a time when heroines were obedient wives and lovers on the screens of Hindi Cinema, Aman was drawn to more unconventional roles – she was cast as the opportunist who deserts her jobless lover for a millionaire (Roti Kapda Aur Makaan), the ambitious girl who considers having an abortion in order to pursue a career (Ajnabee), the happy hooker (Manoranjan), the disenchanted hippie (Hare Rama Hare Krishna), the girl who falls in love with her mother’s one-time lover (Prem Shastra) and a woman married to a caustic cripple, but involved in an extramarital relationship (Dhund).

Intelligently, she managed to balance these roles with acting in more conventional films such as Chori Mera Kaam, Chhailla Babu, Dostana and Lawaaris, which is considered by many to be a landmark in Indian Cinema and ensured her stay on the distributors’ radar for a good 14 years.

She did her schooling in Panchgani and went to University of Southern California in Los Angeles for further studies on student aid, but she could not complete her graduation.

Upon her return to India, she first took up a job as a journalist for Femina and then moved on to modeling.

One of the first few brands that she modeled for was Taj Mahal Tea in 1966.

She was the second runner-up in the Miss India Contest and went on to win the Miss Asia Pacific in 1970 - being the first Indian to ever win that title.

To get the A to Z of the Zeenat Aman story, you have to begin with her nondescript role in O P Ralhan’s Hulchul (1971).

Zeenat, whose father Aman had been a film writer, came to the movies with the tepid thriller Hulchul.

She failed to make a splash.

Hungama (1971), which was a series of gags masquerading as a film, did nothing for her either.

She was ready to pack her bags to leave India and was ready to go to Malta with her mother and stepfather.

However, a mistake on actress Zaheeda’s part changed the course of Aman’s life.

Dev Anand offered Zaheeda, his second heroine in Prem Pujari, the sister’s role in Hare Rama Krishna (1972).

Overlooking the fact that the role was the lifeline of the film, Zaheeda wanted the heroine’s role (eventually played by Mumtaz), and she opted out.

Zeenat was roped in as a last-minute replacement.

When Hare Rama was released, Zeenat, aided by R D Burman’s trance-inducing Dum maro dum song, hypnotised the audience as Janice, the sad-eyed libertine with a queen-sized chip on her shoulders.

It was perhaps Zeenat’s purest, least affected and most effective performance.

She earned a Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award and BFJA Award for Best Actress.

Zeenat walked away with all the accolades shunning Mumtaz - never before had the Hindi cinema seen a newcomer overshadow the reigning queen.

Coastweek -- ’Do Lafzon Ki Hai Dil Ki Kahani’ Amitabh Bachchan & Zeenat Aman in The Great Gambler.

Zeenat went on to revolutionize the Hindi film actress.

She was the first Indian actress who refused bouffant, cropped a bob at the height of her career and hardly appeared in saris and bindis and could easily carry off a bikini dress without looking vulgar.

She took on roles of the modern urban Indian woman, who made no excuses and took no prisoners.

The Navketan banner and other producers went on a Dev-Zeenat overdrive.

The Dev-Zeenat pair was seen in half a dozen films: Heera Panna (1973), Ishq Ishq Ishq (1974), Prem Shastra (1974), Warrant (1975), Darling Darling (1977), Kalabaaz (1977).

Baring Warrant, none of them could warrant success at the box-office.

Zeenat, a true go-getter and a hard-working professional, found success with other heroes and banners.

Even if Hema Malini ruled the roost, big names like B R Chopra, Nasir Hussain, Shakti Samanta, Manoj Kumar, Manmohan Desai rushed to sign Zeenat.

Her hip looks in Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) as the girl carrying a guitar, singing Churaliya hai tumne jo dil ko (in Asha Bhosle’s voice) has won her more popularity and the hearts of millions of fans.

She appeared on every Hindi film magazine’s cover during the 1970s.

In December 1974, Cine Blitz magazine was launched with Zeenat Aman on its cover, a testimony to her popularity at the time.

Her biggest catch in the 1970s, Raj Kapoor’s massively publicised Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), however, didn’t amount to much.
She gamely sported a burnt look to win Kapoor’s approval and bagged the much-coveted role.

But the film proved a case of all body no soul.

The subject ironically dealt with the notion of the soul being more attractive than the body, but Kapoor chose to showcase Zeenat’s sex-appeal.

Zeenat was able to break barriers by kissing her leading man on the mouth for the first time on the Indian screen post-Independence
And both Kapoor and Aman had to dodge flak from the critics.

The actress was highly criticized for her exposure, but somehow at a later stage, the film had a great deal to do with Aman’s fame and the movie itself was distinguished as a work of art.

She also earned a Filmfare nomination as Best Actress for this film.

Zeenat’s big chance to get a backdoor entry into Hollywood also backfired when Krishna Shah’s Shalimar (1978), costarring international names like Rex Harrison and Sylvia Milles, proved to be a badly-scripted dud.

Aman possessed a convent schoolgirl accent and a penchant for revealing dresses.

Coastweek -- Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman in the movie Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978).

1978 could have been a disaster year for her, because of the diminishing box office returns of Shalimar and discouraging critical reviews of Satyam Shivam Sundaram but Aman had other successful commercial films during that year such as Heeralal Pannalal and Chor Ke Ghar Chor, yet it was Don that came to the rescue with its success.

Her reasons for accepting the role in Don were altruistic and she didn’t even take any remuneration for it because she wanted to help the producer Nariman Irani who died midway through filming.

Her role of a Westernized revenge-seeking action heroine contributed to the film’s huge success and her fans reconnected with her.

Westernised heroines like Parveen Babi and Tina Munim now followed in her footsteps.

But Zeenat’s career steamed ahead uninterrupted with hits like Dharam Veer, Chhailla Babu and The Great Gambler.

By the beginning of the 1980s, multi-starrer films became a trend and Zeenat Aman was increasingly asked to just provide sex appeal in hero-oriented films, despite success in so many films.

In contrast to this trend was her performance as a rape victim seeking justice in B. R. Chopra’s Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), for which she received a Filmfare Best Actress nomination.

Zeenat began a new trend, helping launch careers for male actors - something Indian actresses never did.

She signed Insaf Ka Tarazu with then unknown Raj Babbar and Deepak Prashar, signed films opposite even Mithun, Kanwaljeet Singh (Ashanti) and Tariq Ali (Hum Kissi se Kum Nahin and Yadon Ki Baarat).

Insaaf Ka Tarazu was followed by success in the love triangle Qurbani (1980 film), Alibaba Aur 40 Chor, Dostana (1980) and Lawaaris (1981).

Her last role as the female lead was in the movie Gawahi, a courtroom drama in 1989.

Zeenat enjoyed a phase of notoriety and a whiff of success when she associated with Sanjay Khan during Abdullah (1980), a colourful costume drama set in the arid desert.

The two had wed in Jaisalmer in 1978, a marriage that lasted less than a year.

Many had warned Zeenat against it since Sanjay was already a married man with three kids, but she defended him fiercely, stating time and again, “I love this man. Don’t you understand? I will back his every move and will make him a king one day.”

Coastweek -- Zeenat Aman and Sanjay Khan.

Regrettably, her choice of her partner transformed her life forever.

A story in Cine Blitz dating back to 1980 details how Sanjay beat Zeenat black and blue at a five-star hotel in Mumbai, in the presence of several onlookers who did not lift a finger to help her.

It was the steward who came to Zeenat’s rescue, who by now had blood and tears streaming down her face.

Even as she required eight days of medical attention to recover from this beating, she did not report Sanjay to the police, as she was still in love with him.

Life was never the same for Zeenat after this thrashing as she consequently lost a substantial amount of vision in one eye.

Her doctor revealed to the noted publication, “This is not the first time this man has beaten her. Once before she was given a black eye and kicked in the ribs so hard that I insisted on an X-Ray for fear of a crack.”

This episode disintegrated their relationship and they parted company, Zeenat tried valiantly to reconsolidate her career.

When she agreed to do Daku Hasina (1987), even her diehard fans had to admit the Aman story had run out of steam.

Towards the end of her career she took on mature roles in Bhavani Junction, Haathon ki Lakeerain, Bandhan Kacche Dhagon Ka etc. the movies did average business at the box office as by late 80’s cinema shifted its focus to front bench whistlers.

At that time Zeenat settled in matrimony with fellow actor Mazhar Khan and gave birth to two sons, turning down multiple film offers.
The marriage ended bitterly in divorce, but soon after Mazhar died.

In a candid chat with Simi Garewal on her talk show, Zeenat revealed how she still bore the scars of her previous relationships.
Zeenat was at the peak of her career when she married the relatively unsuccessful Mazhar Khan.

On being asked what drew her to him, Zeenat took a long pause before finally uttering the truth.

She said, “My biological clock was ticking and I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to raise a family and now I think Mazhar just happened to be there at the right time.

She also said even though Mazhar did not possess the qualities and attributes she wished to have in her life partner, she tried to fit him in.

Though Zeenat’s mother was totally against the match, Zeenat who had already suffered heart break decided to go on with her decision and married Mazhar.

But Zeenat’s mother could not take this too well and had a heart attack.

“During the very first year of marriage I realised I had made a huge mistake, but I decided to live by it and make it work.

“I tried to make it work for another 12 years. There was no light at the end of the tunnel for me.

“There was not a single moment of happiness or joy during those 12 years. But I still tried making it work.”

Talking about the infamous Sanjay Khan episode she said,” I have closed my mind to it, I pretend that it never happened. I don’t think about it. I don’t talk about it.

“That’s the best way to cope up with it.”

In the same interview she also said, “I have always let my heart rule my head, but if I could rewind and start afresh I would listen to my mother. I would agree and follow whatever she told me.”

She received a Lifetime Achievement Award during the Zee Cine Awards function in 2008 as recognition of her contribution to Hindi Cinema.

She also received An Outstanding Contribution to Indian Cinema award at IIFA awards 2010 held at Colombo, Sri Lanka. She dedicated this award to her mother.

Her histrionic abilities may be a moot point at times. However, one cannot help but admire Zeenat for being her own person.

And she was at her attractive best when she communicated this aspect of her personality on screen.

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