LEGENDARY ACTRESS ZEENAT AMAN LOOKS BACK ON HER INCREDIBLE JOURNEY IN INDIAN CINEMA
by ASJAD NAZIR
Legendary leading lady Zeenat Aman is a globally renowned film icon, who helped to define a generation and was once widely regarded as the sexiest woman on the planet.
The Bollywood siren made noise in the seventies and early eighties with a string of successful films that left a permanent mark on the cinematic landscape.
She also empowered the Hindi cinema heroine and bravely battled through personal challenges during her extraordinary journey.
She celebrates her 68th birthday on November 19 and returns to the big screen next month in Panipat. I caught up with her for a free-flowing conversation to speak about her amazing career, the leading ladies of Hindi cinema today and a tell-all book she is considering.
When you first faced the camera, did you feel you would go onto do such amazing things? No, not at all. I wasn’t even sure that I was going to continue in the business at all.
Is it true that you thought about leaving after your first few films? Yes, I was ready to leave. I had packed, and my stuff had been shipped out to Europe, so there were no expectations on my part.
When did you feel acting was something you wanted to pursue? After we had shot for Hare Rama Hare Krishna in Kathmandu, Dev (Anand) saab said wait until the film is released and then take a call. So the film got released, and it was really liked. My character was appreciated and I won a Filmfare Award for it. Then he started writing scripts for me such as Heera Panna and Ishq Ishq Ishq. Then one thing just led to another, and I signed films, including Yaadon Ki Baaraat, and the audiences liked them. I liked working on them and that was the beginning. It continued for a good 15 years. I was a teenager when I started and grew into womanhood in the business. I stopped working after I had my son.
The whole world was in love with you, but you just seemed to be working. Did you get a chance to enjoy your success and stardom? Well, work was my reality, and I had no idea of the quality of my success because I was just working round the clock. It is only now when I travel to the far flung corners of the world, whether it is Israel, South Africa, across Europe or North and South America, that I see how much people know and love Hindi cinema. They know who you are and know your work. They meet you while singing your old songs; so now I realise the impact of the work I did then.
You are the leading lady who truly broke the shackles for the Hindi film heroine. Was that a conscious decision on your part to be a rebel and change maker? No, not at all Asjad! It is just that I had met Dev [Anand] saab, who had a western mind set, and he was writing roles and felt I just fit the part. Then one thing just led to another. My acceptance by the Indian audiences in those roles led to other filmmakers casting me as the bad girl, who had a reason to be bad. She is basically a good girl who became bad like in Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, where she chooses the rich guy over the poor one due to circumstances, but then she gives up her life for the poor man. So there were all these interesting roles. There were a lot of really fun parts too like Chori Mera Kaam and Manoranjan. There were fun films that did really well like Dostana, Lawaaris, Don and Qurbani.
Is there one role that’s closest to your heart? Not really, there were so many. It was a long journey, and there were many milestones along the way. They were all memorable in their own right and there were many things to celebrate. When you look back, you remember and think, ‘yes, it was good’.
Your film Satyam Shivam Sundaram was way ahead of its time. What was the experience of working on that film? Raj Kapoor was a legendary director, and he was very much an actor’s director. He knew exactly what he wanted from his artists and was very meticulous. He had a history of pampering his leading ladies and there was all of that, so it was an amazing experience.
It was seen as a very controversial film. Did you think it would cause so much debate? No not all! I did not think about that. I was just a director’s actor, and I just put my faith in what Raj [Kapoor] ji was doing. (Laughs) I didn’t expect that kind of debate.
Was there any one leading man you enjoyed working with the most? Not really. I will be really honest with you. I was never an actor’s actor. I was a director’s actor. To me what mattered more was who was directing and what they expected of me, and how I could deliver. It really didn’t matter who the leading man was.
Back then, there wasn’t a big team of stylists, but you were also a big fashion icon. How did you make those amazing fashion choices? I think there was this concept of me being very westernised. You are right Asjad, there were no big styling teams then. Even when I won an international film award recently, there was a styling team with a big team of girls, but that time, you were very much on your own. You did your own styling, walk, speech and conversations. It was all home grown and no big entourage advising you.
How do you feel about Bollywood remaking old films and songs, including yours? I am okay with that. Like I always say it’s old wine in new bottles and they are bringing it to the next generation, I don’t have a problem with that.
The whole world was in love with you, but who did you love most? I tell you what, I was just in love with my work. I just worked non-stop with blinkers on, and my life was just studios and home. And there was no time for anything else. That is why subsequently when things did go a bit awry, I had no exposure to anything, but studios and home.
What is your opinion about the leading ladies of today? I think they are enormously talented and very beautiful. Don’t forget this is an industry that if you don’t know your craft, are not attractive and don’t have what it takes, you are not gonna be successful. So our girls are extremely talented and successful.
We still adore you. Why don’t we see more of you in films? Thank you. There are no great age appropriate roles for ladies my age. They are very few and far between in Hindi cinema, so that’s it, but I wouldn’t say no if a really great role came along.
Today what inspires you? When you become a parent you stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about your children. In terms of what specifically inspires me, I don’t know, I just look forward to a wonderful future for my children.
What kinds of films do you like watching as an audience member today? I watch a lot of Netflix. I like dramas, comedies and thrillers. I binge watch. It just depends on one’s frame of mind.
Would you ever write a book about your life? I have been approached to write a book about my life. As a matter of fact, I just got a message this morning from a filmmaker who wants to do a biopic. So yes, it is something to think about. I haven’t ruled out the book or biopic. Right now I am just contemplating.
You filmed all over the world, what was your favourite location? Italy was really lovely (for The Great Gambler).
Do you have any big unfulfilled ambitions? Your ambitions shift to becoming ambitions for your children. You just basically want to see them happy. That is what it is all about.
What advice would you give to young women and girls starting off on their journey? Believe in yourself! Never stop believing. It is not always going to be easy, but perseverance is what matters. If you have passion for something, then you can make it happen.
Why do you love cinema? I love cinema because it transports you completely away from your mundane life and your regular problems. The music is elevating, the music is captivating and you see a slice of life, you may or may not be exposed to otherwise, so yes I love cinema surely.
How do you feel about being loved and even today with many millions watching videos of you on YouTube and enjoying your classics? No, I haven’t got used to it and feel very blessed. Like I said to you, it is only now I have realised how blessed I am. I see people watching my films and songs as a blessing. There is a wonderful feeling of nostalgia when they see my films and songs. Whenever I am in their city, they reach out to me with that love and I feel very blessed and grateful for the same.