Marriage was a mistake she had promised never to make again, but as the cliché goes, time is a great healer. And so 60-year-old Zeenat Aman, glamour goddess of the silver screen and mother of two 20-somethings, will soon marry the man of her dreams.
Naturally, she doesn’t want to go into details, but Zeenat does reveal that her sons, Azaan (26) and Zahaan (23), are thrilled by her decision to remarry. "They told me, ‘go unwind, and be happy,’" she says excitedly.
Zeenat was in a tumultuous relationship with actor Sanjay Khan, after which she married actor Mazhar Khan who passed away in 1998.
Today the leggy actor doesn’t want to look back on her life unless it’s about the good things. For instance, the way she destroyed
stereotypes of what a movie heroine was supposed to be. At a time when leading ladies sobbed and sang, Zeenat became the symbol of the new woman: urban, sexy, sensitive and intelligent. And she swayed generations with her style statements.
Born to a Hindu mother and Muslim father, Zeenat completed her schooling in Mumbai and moved to California on a scholarship for further studies. She won the Miss Asia contest and later entered the film industry and made a name for herself with Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna. After a spate of successful films, some challenging roles, and some setbacks in her personal life, Zeenat has emerged stronger.
On the eve of HT Café’s Mumbai’s Most Stylish 2013 awards, for which the actor and style diva joined the jury, we took the opportunity to chat with Zeenat at a suburban five-star hotel.
Congratulations! We’ve heard you’re planning to marry again.
Thank you. Yes, I am planning to go that way again. I was dead against marriage after my children’s father (Mazhar Khan) passed away. The thought of it was dreadful. But our resolutions are nothing against’s God’s will. I have met someone and he’s become a significant part of my life, but I don’t want to discuss it any further. He is from India, and we are planning to marry. So I am in a much happier space today. I feel I am young again.
Many people think you’re still with Zaheer, your partner for many years.
Oh no! It’s been off since about four years back.
Looking back at your career, do you think that your overriding sensuality onscreen dominated your good performances?
I don’t regret or feel bad about anything that happened or may not have happened. If I lost something, I gained something more. The fact that I can look back at my career with so much pride and happiness means I have had a good run without any complaints.
Have you anything to say about domestic violence, which is something you faced in your own life?
It’s inexcusable and a punishable crime. There is nothing further to say about it. The victim in an abusive relationship has to speak up. She needs to tell someone in the family or an authority in the family about it. If that doesn’t work, she must seek social counsellors or someone who can intervene. Unless your voice is heard, no one will be able to help you.
Don’t you miss the limelight?
When I was actively working, I had more than my share of limelight. But over the last many years I have been leading a quiet life and I’ve learnt to value my privacy.
For many years, I used to run to the opposite direction when I saw photographers. Today, I don’t crave the limelight at all because I am secure and don’t need to be noticed to feel good about myself. Also, I don’t like the idea of being constantly watched.
Why do you think women in India are not treated with respect?
I cannot understand this repulsive mindset in the subcontinent. Why can’t they accept the fact that women are not lesser beings? I’m sorry, but some of our films also propagate this attitude because of the way they treat women on screen.
The only way we can change things is by empowering ourselves. Let’s see to it that we are not treated as lesser beings. Speak up and believe in yourself. We also need to inculcate values in our male children. I have two sons and I have taught them to respect women. They have also seen how I, a single mother, have raised them.
‘I have faced many challenges in my life’
You have had many ups and downs in your life, including a tumultuous relationship. Did you ever lose faith in life?
Not even for a second. I still have my joie de vivre. If something was taken away, then God substituted it with courage, good friends and stronger beliefs that helped me regain myself. And what is perceived as a ‘low’ from an outsider’s perspective is essentially a challenge that many people painfully and fearlessly face. Challenges are not permanent. Life is just a journey and how you traverse it is what matters.
Your contemporaries Shabana (Azmi) and Hema (Malini) continue to act. Why don’t you?
After my husband passed away, I was in a different state of mind. There were too many unhappy things happening. I needed to plan my life with my children. Their well-being was my main concern. I wanted to give them a quality life and didn’t want to miss out on their growing up years. By the time things started falling in place and I gave a thought to acting again, I had gone too far from the movie world. I didn’t want to come back. This time around, I stepped back from my career out of choice. I guess my priorities had changed by then.
Were you engaged in anything specific after you retired from public life?
In the last 15 years, I have been busy teaching, doing theatre, and managing my own affairs. That took all my time. When you are happy with what you are doing, you don’t miss anything. There’s so much more to my life today. Acting is just part of it.
Are your sons Azaan and Zahaan getting into movies?
They are still young and figuring out their future. They have completed their education and are preparing to get into the next level of life. Azaan is keener on going behind the camera while Zahaan is interested in acting. But it’s too early to talk. They may change their plans. As a parent, I’ll support whatever career choices they make. And as a mother, I will always be concerned about them. I am sure they will fall, get up, dust themselves down on their own and carry on.
Will you accept acting offers now?
Unless there is a wonderful role, it’s unlikely that I will make a comeback. Acting used to be my life once upon a time. Right now, my life is my personal life and acting is a small part of it.
Would you want to act with your contemporaries?
Why just my contemporaries? I have no objection to acting with young actors as well. A nice story with such a pairing would be fabulous.
There was a report somewhere that the first time you entered a film studio, a place that is usually grimy and grungy, you told your producer that the glam quotient was missing.
Yes. I went in and looked around, and asked loudly, ‘where’s the glamour?’ And they said, ‘Well darling, you are supposed to be it!’
Can you go about the city today, unrecognised?
I don’t have instances like that to share. I think television has kept me alive in people’s memories. Whichever corner of India I go to, people meet and greet me with a lot of affection. Recently I escaped to Kulu Manali with a few friends. We were taking a walk in a deserted lane and I was amazed to hear my name being called out by some youngsters. I was touched! The same thing happened
in Anandvan recently. I find this very mystifying.
How does it feel to be called the original sex symbol of Bollywood?
I guess I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. After I completed my studies in California, I returned to India. I had a western sense of style and also a strong western sensibility in my personality. I joined the glamour world, modelled briefly and then joined the movies. Those days, western characters were shown as bad guys in movies. After doing one film, Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), in which I played Dev Anand’s sister, I was lucky to go beyond that perception and get a chance in Heera Panna (1973), from where things took a turn. I guess since then, western sensibilities and looks became part of the movies.
Do you throw parties?
No, I don’t entertain. Probably because I was a single child and a bit of a loner in that regard.
Tell us about your childhood.
I am essentially a Mumbai girl. I was born at a nursing home that was a stone’s throw away from the Taj Mahal Hotel. My father was a scriptwriter from Bhopal. He wrote for films like Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Pakeezah (1972). He died when I was young. He was very loving. He used to write beautiful letters to my mother and me. I didn’t have great proximity to him because I was away at boarding school. But I remember him expressing a lot of affection for me.
Who has inspired you the most in your life?
I think that would be my mother. She was just incredible. She was very emancipated and did a lot of things ahead of her times.
How did it feel to rule Bollywood back then?
We never had slots for actresses like there are today. We were called leading ladies. Even if there were slots, I didn’t realise it as I was too busy working. Work was my life, so all that didn’t matter. But I realised I had been at the top when I moved from movies.
Do you meet up with your contemporaries often?
When I am invited to a bash organised by them, I make it a point to go, such as Amitabh Bachchan’s birthday where I caught up with Jaya (Bachchan) and others. Parveen Babi is no more. But Shabana keeps having little get-togethers for our girlie group. Recently there was a party at Hema’s place too. We caught up and had fun.