A man has been hanged for a crime he hasn't been proven guilty of beyond reasonable doubt; India's economic growth projection has been slashed to 5%; Narendra Modi has unofficially started his campaign as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate; there are wars raging in Syria, Mali, Afghanistan and god knows where else. But all I can think about is that Zeenat Aman is in love again.
I've been a Zeenat Aman well-wisher since I first saw her face on the Yaadon Ki Baaraat LP I had received as a gift on my fourth birthday - when Zeenat was 24 and two years after the film had been released. From the album cover, she radiated utter sunshine, clutching her hair with a smile. It was only a matter of time till I would consider Zeenat as the gold standard of female beauty. So as a well-wisher, I should be very happy for Zeenat's announcement last week that she has "met someone and he's become a significant part of my life." At 61, and after a bad marriage to the late actor Mazhar Khan in which she was a victim of domestic violence, for Zeenat to have found love again is wonderful. I guess.
My knowledge of, or fondness for, Hindi mainstream cinema doesn't put me in a position to talk about the films we saw Zeenat in with any authority at all. The films, in any case, were ramshackle affairs that became box-office hits because they played on and catered to popular taste that rarely moved out of the formulaic. If Hare Rama Hare Krishna, in which Zeenat made her film debut in 1971, was hailed as a 'bold depiction' of the evils of hippie drug culture and 'western' values, this was largely because of the cult of Dev Anand (who pigeon-nods throughout this morality tale) and not because the film was any good as a film.
But Zeenat is stunning. In the famous 'Dum Maro Dum' scene, essentially a proto-music video of an RD-Asha nugget, she is ethereal first in her sunglasses and then with the pair perched on her head. In her glowing pink silk kurta with yellow flowers wrapped around her wrists and neck, she fits into neither the 'Indian' nor the 'western' aesthetic slot, but is a beautiful apparition made flesh. The hammy presence of the white extras vanishes in the vortex of Zeenat dancing away wrapped in her own cloud.
Two years later in Yaadon Ki Baaraat, this girl-woman reappears, but infused with more 'cute appeal'. But even this enforced prettiness largely fails to eclipse sheer beauty. It's in the 1974 Shakti Samanta film Ajanabee that we find Zeenat actually getting to act for the first time. She appears in Rajesh Khanna's flashbacks where she plays out the dynamics of a difficult marriage.
But Zeenat's tragedy as an actor is that she was in movies at the wrong time. The 60s and certainly the 70s and 80s were decades in which, along with memorable dialogues, the Star - and the rise of Amitabh Bachchan and of the Item Number matches this trajectory - became the priority. The story and cinematography (the look of the film) were pretty much done away with. If Zeenat could have been in the movies two decades earlier, her sheer physical presence could have been hitched on to great cinema the way Waheeda Rehman's was. If she was in films three decades later, she would have been riveting in films such as Dev D. I keep seeing her play Rene Russo's role to perfection in the stylish 1999 remake of the 1968 The Thomas Crown Affair.
Her depiction in Raj Kapoor's 1978 Satyam Shivam Sundaram was kitschy and never went beyond a hyper-eroticised (hyper-hypnotic, yes) vision of the one-part innocent, two-parts sexual Tribal Beauty®. Her physical presence becomes far less two-dimensional in the same year in Don. The scene in which Roma goes to a judo-karate teacher to start preparing to avenge her brother's death is immediately followed by a metamorphosis. Gone is the long-haired, black salwar-kameez girl upset about injustice. Zeenat enters a café, her hair cut short and wearing a black trousers-jacket combo with a scarf wrapped round her neck as she lights a cigarette and proceeds to shoot two policemen who have come to arrest her. Aphrodite has turned into Pallas Athena.
But she becomes a dark-haired Venus in the 1981 Qurbani as she out-Ursulas Ursula Andress' famous scene in the 1962 Dr No when she comes out of the night sea in a white bikini, casually wraps a sarong while talking to Feroze Khan seated next to a fire. Those four-odd minutes are unmatched for their cinematic depiction of untrammeled, uninhibited beauty.
As a well-wisher - my use of that word a bit too many times may have made me a suspect well-wisher, I know - I am glad that the most beautiful woman to be ever depicted on film has found love. I'm glad Zeenat isn't telling anyone who the man is. On my part, I certainly won't tell either.