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19 November 2020

The Divas: Zeenat Aman

Zeenat Aman was no ordinary Hindi film heroine – she heralded the spirit of freedom and a certain comfort with being herself. Not for her the coyness of the regulation Hindi film heroine of those days. She exemplified the ‘western’ woman; not the ‘bad’ woman of earlier morality tales, but the bad-good woman who could be both modern and heroine – in other words, she could drink, smoke, wear western clothes, and still get to have a happy ending. She was the woman who didn’t play by the rules. If she did, she made them up as she went along. 
On screen, she had a charisma that kept you watching – a vulnerability behind the sexuality that caught you off-guard. Her acting talent was middling, but she turned the notion of the ‘good girl’ Hindi film heroine on its head. She had sass, she had spunk and she was certainly aware of her own sexuality. She owned it. She celebrated it. And if you didn’t like that, well, who cared? Not she, certainly. Zeenat’s rise to superstardom was meteoric, and soon, she became the face of the new Indian heroine – letting her hair down, both literally and figuratively.
Her choices in films too balanced the conventional arm candy roles with slightly off-kilter ones – the don’t-care hippie with a chip on her shoulder in Hare Rama Hare Krishna, opportunistic lover in Roti Kapda aur Makaan, the ambitious wife who flirts with the idea of an abortion because a baby would derail her modelling career, a prostitute (and not the virginal kind) in Manoranjan, a woman embroiled in an extramarital relationship in Dhund. Alongside, of course, there was Dharam Veer, Lawaaris, Chori Mera Kaam, Dostana, etc.
Zeenat’s initial tryst with the movies didn’t go too well – her debut Hulchul and the badly-scripted Hungama were box-office duds. She was all set to fly off to Los Angeles, when Dev Anand spotted her smoking a pipe at a party. He was on the lookout for girl to play his sister – his initial choices, Zaheeda and Mumtaz both having refused. (Mumtaz went on to play the regulation heroine in the film, a choice she must have regretted.) The rest, as they say, is history. Even though the ruling queen of the box office was Hema Malini, Zeenat found herself being pursued by big-name directors – BR Chopra, Nasir Hussain, Manmohan Desai, Shakti Samanta, Manoj Kumar, et al.
The biggest feather in her cap was when she persuaded Raj Kapoor to sign her for Satyam Shivam Sundaram – heroines from Hema to Dimple had refused the project, when Zeenat dressed herself in a [travesty of a] ‘tribal’ costume and visited Raj Kapoor at RK Studios. Unfortunately for both director and actor, the film was an unmitigated box office disaster. However, Zeenat’s career continued unchecked – both Dharam Veer and Don were bonafide hits.
However, despite an odd Qurbani or Insaaf ka Tarazu, she was more or less confined to playing arm candy, and there was competition in the ‘western’ heroine stakes – Parveen Babi and Tina Munim, the latter now the Nav Ketan heroine. 
Regardless, while she may not be as much of an actress as the others profiled in this section – Sharmila, Sadhana, Hema or Rekha – it’s always a pleasure to see ‘Zeenie Baby’ on screen. She had chutzpah, and serious ‘actress’ or not, she marched to her own drummer, setting the screen on fire while doing so.
On her 69th birthday, a purely subjective list of some of her landmark songs /films.
Dum maaro dum
Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971)
Directed by: Dev Anand
n what many consider to be her ‘debut’ (which it is not), Zeenat played the quintessential flower child – the anglicised, lost little girl, who’s on her own trip – literally and figuratively. She was not the quintessential Hindi film heroine. Indeed, she played what was generally considered a career-ender for most heroines – the hero’s sister – but her character’s (Janice/Jessie) devil-may-care attitude and Asha Bhosle’s crooning won Zeenat plenty of fans, and set her feet firmly on the road to stardom.
Goya ke chunanche
Manoranjan (1974)
Directed by: Shammi Kapoor
Goya ke chunanche quite literally means ‘as if’ and ‘that is’.  Meaningless words in context but the story (apocryphal or not, I don’t know) that RD had a habit of putting in nonsensical words as fillers while composing the song. When Kishore Kumar heard him, he insisted on retaining the words. Manoranjan, based on Irma La Douce (the play, not the film, according to Shammi Kapoor), was a fun-filled ride, with Zeenat playing the happy-go-lucky prostitute who is quite happy to support her lover by selling herself. Of course, that didn’t go down well with either the critics or the masses who found the film ‘immoral’. While Shammi was his usual zany self and Sanjeev Kumar ambled along with his natural charm, the star of the show was really Zeenat, who seemed to have found the free-spirited Nisha much to her liking.
It's a tip o' the hat to Shammi's directing that Zeenat was able to bring out the complexities of her character. Manoranjan was thought-provoking, subversive, naughty, humorous, and true to its name, completely entertaining.
Ajnabee (1974) 
Directed by: Shakti Samanta
'Bambai ka baarish’ and Zeenat Aman = the mercury rises. Playing Rashmi, a girl who finds name and fame waiting around the corner, but fears her circumstances might not let her grasp the opportunity, Zeenat brought in the very real contradictions in a character that could have turned into a vampish caricature. But before the complications arrive, there’s time for a sweet bit of romance, with her husband played by Rajesh Khanna. Magic abounds. 
Chura liya
Yaadon ki Baraat (1973)
Directed by: Nasir Hussain
Regulation heroine in a multi-starrer, Zeenat provided the soupcon of romance to leaven the separated-siblings’ revenge drama. Therefore, she got the bulk of the songs. This one, in which she’s pretending to be in love with Vijay Arora, only so she can have the last laugh, is justly famous – for her white jumpsuit, her oversized hoop earrings, her understated sensuality lending credence to the oomph in Asha’s vocals. Incidentally, she was supposed to wear a white salwar suit for the song. Trying it on, Zeenat changed into the jumpsuit at the last moment, claiming that she didn’t feel like herself in the demure salwar kameez. Singer Bhupinder played the introductory guitar riff. 

Jiska mujhe tha intezaar
Don (1978)
Directed by: Chandra Barot
Jiska mujhe tha intezaar
was the regulation romantic duet (or pretend romance duet in this case), but Zeenat’s Roma was anything but regulation heroine. She was a badass woman, someone with guts and spunk, on a mission to avenge her brother and his fiancĂ©e. She also looked like a million bucks, with her short snazzy hair and high-wattage smile.

Do lafzon kii hai
The Great Gambler (1979)
Directed by: Shakti Samanta
After her turn in Don as a mole who infiltrates the gang to take revenge, Zeenat goes full on bad girl in this under-rated caper by Shakti Samanta. She not only gets a meatier role than ‘good girl’ Neetu Singh (and three songs to the latter’s one), she gets to fall in love with two men, and despite a rather iffy past – someone who has no qualms about helping in a criminal enterprise, who seems pretty okay with murder, who betrays the hero, and who’s actually another man’s girlfriend – gets to redeem herself and have a happy ending to boot. Do lafzon kii hai is my favourite song from the film, but Raqaasa mera naam showcases Zeenie Baby at her sensual best. 
Laila o Laila
Qurbani (1980)
Directed by: Feroz Khan
While it was Aap jaisa koi that became the rage after the film released, and continues to be a cult hit decades later, I prefer the sheer abandon of Laila O Laila. Qurbani was the ultimate masala bromance, and Zeenat was there as eye candy and for the songs, but within the conventional heroine narrative, Feroz Khan and his script writers gave us a strong, independent, self-respecting woman. Reviewing Qurbani, I wrote: “
Her unabashed sexuality, her innate self-confidence and the fact that her character is accorded a respect seldom offered in the commercial cinema of the time, makes her rather special.”  
Ironically, Laila O Laila was never intended for Qurbani. According to Zeenat Aman, the song was recorded and shot for another film, but Feroz Khan scrapped the film, its title, and script overnight. Instead, he decided to start filming Qurbani, and the iconic song found a place there. 
He agar dushman dushman
Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (1977)
Directed by: Nasir Hussain
Zeenat only had an extended cameo in this film, and just one song that looked like it – and she! – were airlifted out of another movie and dropped in this one. But What A Song! Rishi Kapoor and she had so much ‘chemistry’ (that over-used expression) in this one song than Tariq and Kajal Kiron, the ostensible ‘leads’. (The less said about the way her character is treated, the better.)
Iswar satya hai
Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)
Directed by: Raj Kapoor
Yearning to be taken as a ‘serious’ actress and wanting the cache of being a Raj Kapoor heroine, Zeenat gambled – and won the role. But both she and the director came in for a lot of flak when the movie released – for a film that purported to be about inner beauty, the skin show seemed an oxymoron. The score was beautiful, though, from this, the title number penned by Pandit Narendra Sharma to the underrated but sublime Bhor bhaye panghat pe
The basic concept of the film was something that Raj Kapoor had conceived soon after his debut film Aag (1948), inspired by Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. In fact, he had initially offered the film, then titled Soorat aur Seerat to her as well.

Haay haay ye majboori
Roti Kapda aur Makaan (1974) 
Directed by: Manoj Kumar
Who knew a rain song could be so sexy? Zeenat was sultry and flirtatious, teasing and coquettish, sensual and erotic. Her Sheetal makes a choice too – wealth over romance. Of course, she pays for it with her life, but hey, at least she got to make a choice. Not to mention lip-syncing to a smashing song.

Dhund (1973)
Directed by: BR Chopra
The trapped wife of a disabled psychopath. An accidental intruder. An attempted cover-up. And a dead body. Dhundh was an excellent murder mystery, and unlike many of its genre, didn’t lose its way by incorporating romance/comedy, etc. A series of conversational set pieces sees Zeenat holding her own as the scared young wife who, fearing her lover has shot her husband, takes the blame upon herself.
Inspired by Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest, Dhundh was a fairly gripping thriller which leaves you guessing right up to the end.
Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980)
Directed by: BR Chopra
Loosely based on Lipstick (1974), Insaaf ka Tarazu took a progressive – and for those days, bold – look at society’s double standards when it comes to women. As Bharti, Zeenat plays a model who’s definitely not coy around men. She has a boyfriend, Ashok (Deepak Parasher), whom she loves and she is in the least bit interested in the advances of Ramesh (Raj Babbar), a playboy who thinks that any woman he’s interested in should return his interest. When he brutally rapes her, Bharti takes him to court. Where, as expected, she is slut shamed, and loses the case, suffering all the consequences of that loss. She is forced to move to another city to try and lead a ‘normal’ life. But when her sister undergoes the same fate, Bharti is forced to make a choice.
What was intriguing about the film was that Bharti did not need a man to defend her, or ‘accept’ her. Nor does she commit suicide. Despite the trauma, there’s nothing to say that Bharti didn’t/wouldn’t put her past behind her. By casting Zeenat, who was openly and unabashedly sexy, the film made a stronger point about societal blaming of the victim.
To the actress who exuded charm, joie de vivre and sensuality on screen, and showed a generation that followed what it meant to be comfortable in your own skin
Happy Birthday, ma'am!

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