She was a cardiovascular risk factor for men of all ages. Blood pressures would hit the roof, hearts would palpitate, tongues would hang out, grown men would drool as she swayed across Indian screens displaying almost everything she had.
Once upon a time, the Bollywood heroine was a goody-goody Bharatiya type, clad in a demure saree or a salwar-kameez, happy to play second fiddle to the manly hero, content to cook for him and sew buttons on his shirt, sing bhajans for the hero’s mother whenever required and bear as many children as deemed necessary or politely allow her man to marry another woman in case she was incapable. Anything remotely erotic was forbidden. At best, she would be permitted a dance or two in a wet saree. Any ‘bad’ behaviour like wearing short dresses, dancing in clubs, talking to strange men, drinking and smoking, was left to vamps like Helen, Bindu and the like.
And then in 1970, Zeenat Aman burst upon Indian screens and made the vamp unnecessary. With her first appearance in Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Zeenat Aman blew apart the very concept of a Bharatiya naari. Her debut song in the movie, ‘Dum maro dum’, introduced her to Indian audiences with a chillum in her hand, smoking pot with hippies, getting stoned out of her mind.
‘Dum maro dum’ became a cult classic. Kishore Kumar once said that ‘Dum maro dum’ was powerful enough to bring a dead man back to life. Although Mumtaz was the leading lady of Hare Rama Hare Krishna, nineteen-year old Zeenat Aman stole the show with that single song. And she won a Filmfare award for her role.
Zeenat Aman was born in Bombay, graduated from St Xavier’s college, moved to Germany with her mother and studied in the US, before returning to India. She briefly worked for Femina as a reporter and then got into professional modeling. People from my generation will remember her as the brand ambassador for Taj Mahal tea.
Hare Rama Hare Krishna made a cultural icon out of Zeenat Aman. After that movie, she went from one successful role to another, even as she became typecast as an unconventional, Westernised heroine. Where other heroines wore sarees and salwars, she sported slit skirts and tight shorts. Other heroines would take diction lessons to deliver their dialogs in a pure Northie accent, she spoke in a breezy convent accent. Other heroines were happy to give TV interviews in their homes or in a demure studio setting, she took her interviewer, Bikram Vohra out to a night club and danced the night away with him.
And where other heroines dared to display a small hint of cleavage, Zeenat Aman did not hesitate to drop all her clothes and leave very little to the imagination. The nation watched her in Satyam Shivam Sundaram in stunned fascination, as she went through the movie with hardly a stitch on her curvaceous body.
With Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1977), Zeenat Aman truly broke all the traditional norms, became India’s official sex-symbol and set the trend for other heroines to shed their inhibitions. Tina Munim, Parveen Babi, Reena Roy, Mandakini and Kimi Katkar followed in her footsteps – much to the delight of men across India.
With the song ‘Aap jaisa koi‘ in Qurbani, Zeenat Aman became an international name, and with her role in Don, she became an action-heroine as well. But it was her role as a rape victim in Insaaf ka Taraazu that earned her the respect that she truly deserved for her talent.
Personally, I liked her best in Manoranjan, a naughty comedy made in 1974, in which she played the lead role as a cheerful hooker, happily sleeping with other men in addition to the hero, played by Sanjeev Kumar. Manoranjan made light of the prostitution business, instead of ranting against it, unlike other movies on this theme. No wonder it didn’t do well, but Zeenat Aman was fun to watch.
Zeenat Aman won a Lifetime Achievement award in 1980. She lives in Bombay now, and is still as active, and as attractive, as ever.
Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye, Zeenatji. Ah well, one can but dream!
Cheers … Srini.