Happy Birthday Zeenat Aman: Accidental actor who redefined Indian film heroine but was unlucky in love
Happy Birthday Zeenat Aman: Brought up by a single mother, discovered by Dev Anand, hugely successful star who hardly took her stardom seriously, Zeenat Aman redefined Indian screen heroine with her free-spirited, westernised ways.Updated: Nov 19, 2019, 16:03 IST
In the early 1970s, a tsunami of sorts hit Bollywood – its world of white and black was about to get blurred. Fimmaker Dev Anand was looking for a new face for his film, Hare Rama Hare Krishna. It just so happened that his eyes fell on a pipe-smoking 19-year old Zeenat Aman. A statuesque beauty with devil-may-care attitude to boot, Zeenat was Dev sahab’s Janise/Jasbir. Incidentally, in the film, Zeenat played a hippie and Dev’s long-lost sister. Despite the film having a love angle (Mumtaz), it was Zeenat’s electric presence which lit up the screen.
The film made people in India sit up and take a good look at this young star who had absolutely no qualms about her unconventional ways. She flaunted her curves in elegant yet tantalisingly westernised outfits and was nonchalant about it.
So radical was the shift that Zeenat brought about that the benefits have been reaped by actresses right up to the ’90s. It was not about carrying off a bikini – Nutan had done it, and so had Sharmila. It wasn’t about sporting western wear – Tanuja and Sharmila did a decent job of it. It was a complete overhauling of the moral compass that shook Bollywood to its core. Zeenat brought oomph and a certain confidence that were alien till some years ago.
A hugely successful star through the 70s and early 80s, Zeenat’s personal life was anything but happy. She was married twice – first to actor Sanjay Khan and later to small-time actor Mazhar Khan, which too resulted in 12 years of marital abuse and mental torture.
On her 68th birthday, here’s a look at a woman who found herself courting stardom and success rather unexpectedly and later, was cheated in love, a sentiment she longed for the most in life.
Zeenat was born in Mumbai to a Muslim father, dialogue writer Amanullah Khan and a Hindu mother. She was rather young when her parents divorced and she was mostly brought up by a single mother, who later went on to marry a German and moved out of India. Barely out of her teens, Zeenat was crowned Miss India and later went on to win Miss Asia Pacific in 1970. Zeenat was exposed to the western way of life pretty early. Naturally gifted with a tall and lissome figure, modelling was definitely a natural choice till Dev Anand chanced upon her. Reportedly, he saw her at party smoking a pipe.
Zeenat made her Bollywood debut with Hare Ram Hare Krishna and became an instant craze. India had seen nothing like her before – she was no coy woman. She loved and liked being loved. In the film she played a ‘hippie’, a counterculture movement of the 1960s that spread across the West. Zeenat seem to exude that spirit with ease. She was to become the ‘bad-good-girl’ of Bollywood, a person who had her heart in the right place but wasn’t willing to play by the rules.
After that, in films like Hera Panna and Yaadon Ki Baraat and a bunch of films she did with Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, she would turn the notion of a virtuous Hindi film heroine on its head. Zeenat was a proverbial child-woman – spritely and vivacious and wholly aware of the effect of her sex appeal, and yet with an innocence about her.
Zeenat was to form one of the most successful pairing with Amitabh Bachchan. Together, they would star in a number of hit films such as The Great Gambler, Don, Dostana, Laawaris, Pukar, Mahaan and many more thrown in between. As she grew in age, the desire to do substantial roles led her to film roles like Raj Kapoor’s ambitious Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Insaaf Ka Tarazu.
All along, Zeenat’s love life was closely monitored by film tabloids. She reportedly had a steamy relationship with former Pakistani cricketer and now prime minister, Imran Khan. However, it was a rocky relationship with actor-filmmaker Sanjay Khan which is still talked about in the gossip columns. The relationship reportedly ended on a sour note as reported by gossip columns of the day and Zeenat chose to move on.
The desire for a family and children, led her to marry small-time character Mazhar Khan. Zeenat had told celebrity chat show Rendezvous’ host Simi Grewal that her mother was dead against the match, so much so that the elderly lady had a heart attack when Zeenat married Mazhar. Her mother remained angry with her daughter and matters softened only after Zeenat gave birth to her first child, Azhaan.
Few months into her marriage to Mazhar, Zeenat knew that she had made a huge mistake. Speaking about it Zeenat had told Simi Grewal how Mazhar never really wanted her to be independent. He wanted her to stay at home and take care of their children. She had to endure a lot of physical abuse yet she chose to stay in it for the sake of her children. Tabloids of the day were full of stories of what she allegedly endured.
“Mazhar never wanted me to grow as an individual or as an artist. He always wanted me to be with the kids and be at home. During the very first year of marriage I realised I had made a huge mistake, but I decided to live by it and make it work. I tried to make it work for another 12 years. There was no light at the end of the tunnel for me. There was not a single moment of happiness or joy during those 12 years. But I still tried making it work,” Times of India had quoted her from the interview as saying.
Having been a single child herself, she opted to have a second child so that her first son wouldn’t be without a sibling. However, her relationship with Mazhar was on a downward spiral. A few years into the marriage, Mazhar fell seriously ill, with his pancreas badly damaged. Zeenat did all she could to give him the best-possible treatment and also took him abroad for treatment. All along, she was running the household with her income. A time came when Mazhar’s body gave up on him. She had said how she had given all she had to save Mazhar. However, a time came when she could give no more – and chose to divorce him.
“93-97 was a continuous battle for me. I literally lived with him in the hospital all these years. From learning how to give injections to how to do the dressing, I did everything in my capacity single handedly. I looked after my children, I looked after my husband but there was no one to look after me. I am sure no other woman would have lasted in my situation for too long. But I held onto Mazhar. When the doctors in India gave up I took him to the best doctors abroad, and finally in 1997 he was allowed to go home. These 5 years I did not see day and night.”
Even after Mazhar’s death, life was a challenge for Zeenat – her in-laws fed negative stories about Zeenat to her son. Thankfully, the ordeal ended after a short while.
A free-spirited and independent woman, Zeenat’s personal life was always painful. Recalling the past, she told Shoma Chaudhury’s Algebra it was indeed odd that intelligent women could make such obvious mistakes in life. “A lot of intelligent women make foolish choices.”
She had told Simi Grewal that if she could go back in time, she would have listened to her mother and done exactly what she had wanted her to do. “I have always let my heart rule my head, but if I could rewind and start afresh I would listen to my mother. I would agree and follow whatever she told me.”
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