A still from the song 'Dum maro dum'
A still from the song 'Dum maro dum'

‘Humko na roke zamana, jo chahenge hum karenge.’

It is difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that Bollywood's definitive sex symbol for all times, Zeenat Aman, enters her 70th year on November 19. She makes for a sharp Sophia Lorenesque septuagenarian. The westernised Zeenat boldly kickstarted the skin-is-in revolution in the film world; conservative clothing is not the only convention she refused to kowtow to. For a dozen years, Zeenat was a major film star who had the guts to trash thematic taboos in several daringly different roles that added multiple dimensions to the Hindi film heroine.

The Dum maro dum babe put audiences in a trance with a new rebellious motto: ‘Humko na roke zamana, jo chahenge hum karenge.’

Zeenat became a sensation with the unthinkable...in the role of the hero’s sister! The lissome model had featured in two forgettable films, Hungama and Hulchul, before actor-director Dev Anand cast her in a role rejected by actresses Tanuja and Zaheeda. The role was that of his drug-addict sister, Janice, in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1972). The nation rocked to the song ‘Dum maro dum'; Anand explored the then topical hippy movement, projected Janice as desirable and glamorous, and Zeenat became a bonafide film star.

She was on the cutting-edge of cool. When major filmmakers flooded Zeenat with films, they offered her stereotype-shattering characters. She played a woman having an extramarital affair who is suspected of murdering her paralytic husband in B R Chopra's Dhund. In Shakti Samanta's Ajnabee, she considers putting her modelling career ahead of marriage and motherhood. And defying the cliche of the tear-soaked prostitute, she essayed a saucy, happy hooker in the Shammi Kapoor-directed Manoranjan. The film was inspired by the hugely entertaining Irma La Douce featuring Shirley Maclaine.

In her next blockbuster, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Zeenat played the gold-digger who ditches her poor boyfriend (Manoj Kumar) for a suave businessman (Shashi Kapoor). In a telling scene, she deftly turns Manoj Kumar's framed photograph towards the wall once the rich guy proposes. Remarkably, she was not the vamp or the second lead, but the film's main leading lady, who the hero remains in love with till the end.

Off screen too, Zeenat built a reputation as the new woman — liberated in her personal life while being ambitious and a go-getter in the professional space. Legend has it, at a function for her first international film Shalimar, when she saw what her legendary co-star Gina Lollobrigida was wearing, Zeenat changed into a dress with daring decolletage that stole the show.

And when Raj Kapoor was on the lookout for a heroine to play the scarred Roopa in his ambitious venture Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Zeenat landed at the RK cottage, having already donned scarred-face makeup; thereby impressing Raj Kapoor and scoring the role.

While I can't say Zeenat was right for the Satyam Shivam Sundaram role, it was a cultural milestone; not only because of her famously abbreviated costumes and because she and Shashi Kapoor brought back the kiss to Hindi cinema, but also because of the sheer intensity of her character. Her disappointment in her husband's inability to see beyond the physical unleashes a cosmically cleansing flood.

While the exploitation aspects of some of her films may be up for debate, Zeenat also was in the vanguard for roles more oriented to the modern point of view. In B R Chopra's Insaaf Ka Tarazu her character is raped, but refuses to be a victim. She bravely stays within the legal system and later takes the vigilante revenge route to bring the rapist to justice.

Of course, Zeenat also played a multitude of arm candy roles opposite A-list heroes that helped preserve her box office status. But let’s doff a host at the effort. When creative ambition converges with guts, a repertoire like Zeenat Aman’s takes shape.

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