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17 October 2017

The Divas: Hema Malini

This category – The Divas – came about because I didn’t know how to categorise the gamut of 60s heroines who, unlike their predecessors, weren’t getting as many author-backed roles – they were mostly arm candy in the candy floss films that came out of the colourful 60s. However, both Sharmila Tagore and Sadhana (my previous entries in this category) had managed to transcend their limited opportunities to make the most of the few good roles that came their way within the parameters of commercial cinema of the time. 

Actresses like Padmini, Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda had already paved the way for the influx of the twinkle-toed South brigade but the one person who broke the dam that began the deluge was a doe-eyed beauty who was packaged as the ‘Dream Girl’ in her very first film, Sapnon ka Saudagar – Hema Malini. The ‘Dream Girl’ sobriquet hasn’t been bestowed on anyone since, even if the veteran actress was gracious enough to say that she thought the tag fit Aiswarya [Rai] very well indeed.

Incidentally, Hema Malini had been rejected by a producer/director CV Sridhar as ‘not star material’. (The role – in Venniradai – went to Nirmala.) After a couple of outings in side roles in Tamil, she got her big break – the role of heroine in a film called ‘Sapnon ka Saudagar’, opposite Raj Kapoor. The film flopped but the industry sat up and took notice of the slim, tall girl with large beautiful eyes.  
Hema was the quintessential delicate beauty  – she was the woman every man dreamed of taking home to their mothers. but she has steel in her sinews. She may never have been regarded as a great actress, but she lit up the screen every time she appeared on it. She had that star quality, a charisma that broke the fourth wall between star and audience. With her drop-dead gorgeousness and a natural ease in front of the camera (she was never camera conscious, and the camera loved her back), Hema had millions of fans swooning every time she appeared on screen.

Her initial failures only spurred her determination to succeed. And succeed she did; Johnny Mera Naam saw her catapult to the big league – she played a unwilling but definitely-not-helpless gangster’s pawn in this Vijay Anand directorial, headlined by his brother Dev Anand.
Films sold on her name, ran on her name, and she commanded great   box-office clout.  Despite not being considered a thespian, Hema took on roles that her contemporaries rejected as not worthy of a heroine – the vengeful ex-mistress of Lal Patthar comes to mind. A slew of hits followed – and suddenly, she was box-office gold. By the time Sholay and the feisty chatterbox Basanti came along, Hema was the uncrowned queen of Hindi filmdom. She could rightly be called the first female super star.

Her star wattage continued to shine as she continued to take on projects that were not exactly big ventures – Gulzar’s Khushboo, Kinara and Meera all came along in the 70s. She also committed to roles that were not exactly ‘heroine material’ – Ek Chhaddar Maili Si and Rihaaee were bold themes for the time. At the same time, she consolidated her status as a purely commercial heroine, forming popular star-combinations with Dharmendra (she did 28 films with him), Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra, and Sanjeev Kumar. 
Despite a heavy south-Indian accent, which years in Hindi cinema hasn’t managed to obliterate, Hema played a variation of romantic heroine in over a hundred films – a feat that no other heroine has bettered. 

She commanded a respect that few heroines have managed – even a hurried marriage with an already-married man didn’t dent her reputation any. People talk about Dharmendra’s and Hema’s iconic romance, quite forgetting Prakash, Dharmendra’s first wife. However, Hema held her head high, worked and danced and produced and directed after marriage, all without a breath of scandal. If you ask about an actress who lived her personal life and managed her career on her own terms, it is she. 
Like the other two actresses whom I profiled in The Divas category, Hema Malini made even the most run-of-the-mill commercial films her own, playing self-respecting, strong characters within the constraints of a Hindi film heroine. After a long sabbatical where she focused on her dance and ballets, and a couple of TV serials (that she directed), she returned to the big screen with her erstwhile co-star, Amitabh Bachchan in Baaghban – it was one of the few commercial films that focused on the relationship between a couple in the winter of their lives, and showed them openly and unashamedly in love. 
Reportedly, she’s collaborating with Ramesh Sippy in a new movie – going by their track record, it’s sure to be a decent role.

While she’s always been a favourite of mine for her sheer charm on screen, it’s also been refreshing to see that she’s quite forthright and honest: when asked (on a talk show) about the gossip about her and the untrue stories that were spread by the media, she laughed, saying, ‘They wrote only true things about me.  [Those episodes of Koffee with Karan Hema with Zeenat, and Hema with Jaya Bachchan were two of the most interesting episodes on that chat show.] Yesterday was her 69th birthday, and in celebration, I present a selection of what I consider her most definitive work. 

Johnny Mera Naam (1970)
Directed by: Vijay Anand 
This is as commercial as it gets, but while Hema’s Rekha is the regulation heroine and love-interest of the hero, she has more to do than just play arm candy. Nav Ketan’s heroines were always slightly hatke and while this was not produced by Nav Ketan, it was directed by Vijay Anand and starred Dev. Here, Rekha is a gangster’s moll. What Johny (Dev Anand) has to decide is whether she is a willing accomplice or an unwilling pawn. It turns out that intrepid Rekha has infiltrated the gang to prove her father’s innocence. But despite that back story, Rekha is a smuggler, all said and done, but she gets to have a happy ending. Hema looked absolutely stunning and this film would prove to be her stepping stone to the big league. (She was barely seven films old then, and while she had been cast as the heroine, the resounding success of this film would catapult her as a box-office force to reckon with.)

Abhinetri (1970)
Directed by: Subodh Mukherjee
Anjana (Hema Malini) is an orphan who has established herself as an accomplished – and acclaimed – stage dancer. A chance meeting with a young scientist, Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor), turns into love and the two get married. Anjana is happy to have a mother (Nirupa Roy as Shekhar’s mother) and a house and husband to call her own. The first few months go by in a flurry of playing house; then, Shekhar’s job intervenes and he begins to spend more and more time in his laboratory. Bored out of her wits, and wanting to help her financially-troubled dance teacher, Anjana decides to go back to the stage, much to Shekhar’s dismay.

As Anjana, Hema was fantastic in a thankless role. Her Anjana gets to walk out of her marriage to assert her own individuality when faced with a possessive, mopey husband (Shashi – aarrrgh!) but the lame-duck ending had me engraving the QWERTY on my forehead. It was a bold film that chickened out on the ending: both women – mother and wife – make valid points about a woman’s identity, her feelings and desires – and while the ending is ambiguous enough to make one fantasise that the son/husband has learnt his lesson, the film does not delve into the problems that led to the impasse. However, Anjana was a nuanced character who is the least bothered by what society has to say about  her, and Hema played her with sincerity.

Lal Patthar (1971)
Directed by: Sushil Majumdar
Das baras pehle ek aur gudiya bhi ghar laaye the, lekin byaahkar nahin.
Hema is Saudamini rechristened Madhuri by the man who rescues her from dacoits and unkind in-laws. A zamindar of some prestige, Kumar Bahadur Gyan Shankar Rai (Raaj Kumar) is adamant that he will not get married – the family curse of insanity makes him vow that his lineage will end with him. However, the zamindar is not short of a few of his ancestors’ vices. His rescue of Saudamini is self-serving – he lusts for her. Unfortunately for the poor woman, he soon loses interest in the uneducated, uncouth, unsophisticated Saudamini. Ten long years later, he falls in love with another young woman, Sumita, and forgetting his vow, weds her and brings her home as his bride.

Saudamini is furious – hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Hema plays Saudamini as a woman of strong passions, hell bent on defying societal norms to attain what she considers hers. If, in doing so, she ruins Sumita’s life, well, that’s collateral damage. Hema changes from the docile young woman who initially enters the haveli to the unquestioned chatelaine whose every word is law to a wounded tigress refusing to let go her claim to her man. So what if she’s not wedded to him? She’s his woman, not this milk-faced tremulous young woman he’s replaced her with.

Andaz (1971)
Directed by: Ramesh Sippy
The same year she excelled in Lal Patthar, Hema played a diametrically opposite character in Ramesh Sippy's Andaz. It would be the first of their many collaborations. Sheetal is a young widow whose in-laws do not accept her as their daughter-in-law after their son’s (Rajesh Khanna in a cameo) death. They refuse to believe she was married to their son, or that the child she’s carrying is their grandchild. Grieving but unwilling to fall apart, Sheetal is brave enough to move away, and bring up her son on her own.

If that’s not refreshing enough for a Hindi film heroine, Sheetal actually gets a second chance at love; her student’s widowed father begins to feel attracted to her, and she responds, though not without feeling confused – her guilt over moving away from Raj’s memories, and her nascent attraction to the attractive widower who seems to understand her was well etched by both director and actress.

It was an unusual role for a heroine to play so early in her career – playing mother to a young child would have been seen as career suicide then. (Perhaps even now.) However, Hema did sign on, and she did a wonderful job as a young single mother who’s making her own way through the world.

Seeta aur Geeta (1972)
Directed by: Ramesh Sippy
Upar aa jaa, moti…
By the time Seeta aur Geeta was released, Hema had already become a name to reckon with. In this gender-bending remake of Ram aur Shyam, Hema essayed the roles of both the demure Seeta and the hoydenish Geeta, twin-sisters-separated-at-birth, with utmost elan. While Seeta was the regulation Hindi film heroine, Geeta was a spunky lass with impeccable comic timing. Whether it was the scene in the police station where she trades quips with her aunt (whom she doesn’t know), or whether she was squabbling with her partner-in-crime Raka (Dharmendra), or even romancing Ravi (Sanjeev Kumar), who’s under the impression that she’s Seeta, she was brilliant.

Geeta tells off Raka when he trails after her announcing his love for her, and is not loath to ‘talk back’ to her [foster] mother, but she has strong sense of loyalty and responsibility towards the woman even after she learns that she was kidnapped at birth. What’s more, in Geeta, we had a heroine who didn’t need the hero to ‘rescue’ her; in fact, she does quite a bit of rescuing, herself.

Sholay (1975)
Directed by: Ramesh Sippy 
Yun toh, humein befizool baat karne ki aadat toh hai nahin…
Basanti redefined the ‘simple’ village folk of Hindi films. Strong, independent, earning her own living in what’s essentially a man’s world, Basanti has no qualms about demanding the correct fare (no bargaining allowed), or about the way she expects her male passengers to treat her. She’s no damsel in distress either – she may have been forced to dance on glass to save her lover’s life, but she gave them a good fight before she was caught. Who can forget her heroic attempt to escape and her mare’s valiant effort to help her mistress? ‘Chal Dhanno, aaj teri Basanti ki izzat ka sawaal hai’ is forever enshrined in the dialogue hall of fame.

Satte pe Satta (1982)
Directed by: Raj Sippy
Aap log itne hi hai ya char-paanch aur bhi hai?
Another commercial film, where Hema’s Indu is seemingly the regulation heroine – just there for the songs and a few tear-filled scenes. However, in this adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Indu is a strong, independent woman who has no time or patience for the stalking that masquerades as love. It teaches him to woo her (as opposed to stalking her until she falls in love with him), but when she does realise that her husband’s story was a charade from beginning to end, she still gives him one chance. A chance that is squandered almost as quickly – and Indu doesn’t mince words when she tells off her brand-new husband. Indu was that rare Hindi film heroine – a strong, independent working woman who could be warm and nurturing without losing one ounce of her self-respect or self-worth.

In a film that was headlined by Amitabh Bachchan (in a double role), Hema proved she could not only stand up to him, but force him to rethink his ideas about women. Her Indu is a no-nonsense person who refuses to give up her principles however much she loves her husband. The film showed a mutually respectful husband-wife relationship and we (I watched this with Shalini) loved that Hema’s character didn’t just disappear into the woodwork or become a doormat once she was married.  As I wrote in my review, both Shalini and I agreed that such respect for a female character was so seldom seen in a mainstream film. Hema’s portrayal of Indu helped that perception. Her Indu was a refreshing departure from standard female characters of the time, and Hema once again displayed the comedy is her forte. Witness the scene where she's teaching her brothers-in-law to behave.

Ek Nai Paheli (1984)
Directed by K Balachander
Bhairavi is another unusual character for a mainstream heroine to play – at  least in the Hindi films of the time. She is an established classical singer, independent and alone – her backstory indicates the presence of a husband, who is missing – but he’s not important to the story. Not yet. She comes across young Sandeep (Kamal Hasan) in circumstances which force her to offer him the sanctuary of her house. While recuperating, Sandeep begins to be attracted to Bhairavi. The conflict? He’s years younger than she is. In a story that explores an intricate web of parallel relationships, the relationship between Bhairavi and Sandeep is not based on love – at least, not initially. It is lust (on Sandeep’s part), the attraction of a young man towards a beautiful, desirable, woman.

Hema, with a couple of decades of acting behind her, beautifully portrayed both the maturity and the confidence of a woman who has spent years on her own. Yet, she’s no cougar awaiting a sexual relationship with a much-younger man; the attraction on her side is both emotional and intellectual. As the relationship matures, so does Sandeep, and the love he feels for Bhairavi is no less ‘pure’ for there having been a sexual attraction before. It was refreshing to see an ‘older’ woman shown as a living, breathing, desirable, sexually attractive character. Casting Hema (in a role that the late Sri Vidya played in the original) as Bhairavi was a stellar move – I wonder how many of her peers would have dared to take on such an unconventional love story.

Ek Chhaddar Maili Si (1986)
Directed by: Sukhwant Dhadda
Izzat ka sawaal baad mein aata hai, pehle pet ka...
Originally meant to star Geeta Bali and Dharmendra, the project was put on the backburner due to Geeta’s untimely death. Eventually, it was made two decades later with Hema Malini taking on the role of Rano, a Punjabi housewife whose husband is an alcoholic. Berated by her mother-in-law (Dina Pathak) for her inadequate dowry, Rano’s only solace is her two children, and her young brother-in-law, Mangal (Rishi Kapoor). Based on the novel (of the same name) by Rajinder Singh Bedi, the film questions the place of a woman in a traditional patriarchal society – where her worth is estimated by her marital status. The widowed Rano’s fight against pitiless societal norms, while standing up for her children, especially her daughter, brings her face to face with the ritual of chadar-andazi, where a widow is married off to her husband’s brother – in principle, this ritual was meant to protect the widow’s honour and allow her to lead a respectable life. Ek Chhaddar Maili Si explores the reality of people who go through that ritual and the ripple effects on other family members.

For Hema, this was another feather in her cap as she portrayed Rano with a sensitivity that made her anguish come to life. Her silences were eloquent as she allowed her eyes to express her emotions – in a film that was sensitively  handled, her Rano was both fiery and passionate, accepting and strong, and she played her part with remarkable restraint.

Rihaaee (1988)
Directed by Aruna Raje
Main aapke saamne koi safaayi dene ki zaroorat hi nahin samajhti kyunki ye mera apna gharelu maamla hai...
As I list Hema’s roles that are my favourites, I’m struck by how many unusual choices she made – like Lal Patthar, Ek Chhaddar Maili Si and Ek Nai Paheli, Rihaaee too follows an unusual trajectory for its female characters. A brave attempt at dissecting social mores that set boundaries for women, but another set of rules for men, Rihaaee questions the double standards not just through the women in the film, but through one of its male characters as well.

Set in a village, Rihaaee sets out to explore the plight of women left behind in the villages as their men migrate to the cities in search of work. The women are lonely, and sexually deprived, and the proximity of an unscrupulous young man leaves them vulnerable in ways they do not expect. Taku (Hema Malini) is the only one who staunchly refuses to have anything to do with him – this provokes Mansukh (a sleazy Naseeruddin Shah) into wooing his way into her heart and her bed, with predictable consequences. When the men return – they are furious.

The conflict lies in the double standards – Mansukh, who’s self-serving has already left the village; however, his father blames the women. The men who are excoriating their wives for infidelity have not been faithful to their marriage vows – they were frequent visitors to the city’s brothels, a pertinent fact that is pointed out to them by the elderly village women who have experienced this, and more.

The film has its flaws, but what makes the film an important one in feminist cinema is that it gives its women voices; what they say resounds beyond the film itself, and into the two decades since its release. While the men may or may not accept their women’s arguments, their hypocrisy is called out in the moment – what’s more important, the film underlines the fact that women have a need for companionship just as much as men do; that they have sexual desires, and are their own sentient beings, who are allowed their own choices. Rihaee displays, without judging, the the choices, and their consequences. It is important to note that film had the women take responsibility for their actions, without whitewashing their behaviour.

Hema’s Taku is at the centre of the conflict, and she turns in a restrained performance. It’s an interesting – and bold – character, and it says much that an actress of Hema’s stature agreed to take it on.    

Whatever the character she was playing, Hema imbued them all with dignity. Her own self-worth was evident in the characters she played, even if they were the standard romantic heroine roles. She’s conducted herself with dignity, lived her life with her head held high, and despite a controversial marriage, kept her self-respect intact. She’s actress and dancer, producer and director, choreographer and member of parliament, mother and grandmother – all roles she takes in her stride. 

To an actress who has always sparkled on the silver screen, here's wishing a long, happy, productive life.

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