“Laughing at the places life takes me. Why hello there, Instagram.” Thus began the Instagram takeover of Zeenat Aman, whose bio reads: “Actor. Mother. Maverick.” Accompanying the caption was an image of the veteran actor seated at her home on “a lovely sunny afternoon”, wearing a grey-and-white cord set and sporting a silver bob. The post became a talking point as it marked the screen sensation’s return to a public platform over half a century after she burst into popular consciousness playing a troubled young flower child in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971). Holding a marijuana pipe, she was seen swaying to the iconic Dum maaro dum song. Comfortable in her own skin, the model-turned-actor was hailed as a ‘game changer’, an unconventional heroine with Western looks.
Now the 71-year-old actor has reclaimed the game-changer tag. This time around, the moniker has come as a recognition for her remarkable use of social media. A rare dignified presence on it, her nuanced posts offer perspective, nostalgia and charm. Aman might have unwittingly ushered in a new chapter in social-media engagement by celebrities.
Even as Aman is wowing legions of fans on social media, making a connection with Gen Z, and adding grist to contemporary discourses, those who have known her over the decades are hardly surprised. “She has always been an exceptionally intelligent and articulate person. It can come only from her. It’s not like she has been tutored. I don’t think even she could have imagined such a response,” says author-columnist Shobhaa De, who has known Aman since their modelling days when they did several ad and fashion photoshoots together.
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Aman, too, in one of her posts confesses to being “gobsmacked by the sheer geographic diversity” of her followers and the appreciation that her Instagram handle — @thezeenataman — has been receiving. Yet, she was quick to realise the significance of her social media presence. In about 22 posts (and counting), this self-confessed “notoriously private person” has covered a gamut of issues — from advocating adopting “a dog from a shelter or the streets” to commenting on how “social worth” of women is associated with their “youth and physical beauty”; from older women missing in the public eye to the need to respect the private lives of celebrities and putting the onus on men to ensure their female co-workers are paid fairly. The posts have duly received applause as well as glowing praises from many including Zoya Akhtar, Kajol, Manisha Koirala, Richa Chadha, Shwta Bachchan and Shilpa Shetty.
The answer to how the veteran actor is making better use of Instagram than most new-age users, probably lies in the fact that whatever she does, she gives it her best. At a special conversation hosted by Algebra, an arts and ideas club in Gurugram, in November 2018, Aman said, “I was raised to be an achiever. I worked very hard — whether at my school (St Joseph’s Convent, a girls’ boarding school in Panchgani) or when I won a scholarship to study (journalism) in America. When I was not sent to Miss World, but to Miss Asia (competition), I said to myself, I have to win the crown. So, I came back with Miss Asia Pacific and Miss Photogenic titles. When I was in the (film) business, I wanted to be the best.”
Even at the peak of her film career, her acquaintances knew her as a “well-read” and “well-travelled” person without any hang-ups. “She was westernised in the way she carried herself — the way she dressed and in her thoughts. She broke the traditional image of the heroine in more ways than one,” remembers Bharathi S Pradhan, senior journalist and author. In spite of being a headturner and star, she was warm and approachable. Pradhan recalls how one Saturday she had driven to watch a movie at Strand cinema in south Bombay with Aman and other friends. “When we reached, Zeenat was the first to jump out of the car to get tickets for us. She was always grounded. You could laugh with her and make fun of her. And she would give it right back to you,” says Pradhan, and adds that in those days she was the only beauty queen, other than Nutan, to make it big in the movies.
The reason Aman stood out in the ’70s, says senior journalist and author Deepa Gahlot, is because her personality was not shaped by the film world. Before she became famous as an actor, she was a beauty queen and had been the face of several ad campaigns. She even briefly considered learning languages and becoming an interpreter at the United Nations. Gahlot believes the actor was a lot like her screen persona — independent, intelligent and aware. “Given the kind of career and life most celebrities have, one never knows where the person and the actor intersect. But it was different in Zeenat’s case. Coming from a modelling background, she was comfortable with her body. In Heera Panna (1973), when she wore a bikini in the song Mein tasveer utarta hoon, she didn’t appear uncomfortable being sexy,” says Gahlot. Prior to Aman, it was Sharmila Tagore, who as a leading lady, had brought in an urban and sophisticated persona, says Gahlot. Parveen Babi, who debuted with Charitra (1973), and Tina Munim, whose first film was Des Pardes (1978), carried it forward.
The life and career of Aman followed an uncommon trajectory. Born in 1951 to screenwriter Amanullah Khan, who was said to be of Afghan descent, and Vardhini Karvaste from Maharashtra, Aman was two when her parents separated and her mother went on to marry a German national. Aman’s father was a scriptwriter who had worked on landmark films such as Mughal-E-Azam (1960) and Pakeezah (1972); she took on his pen name as her surname.
It was meeting Dev Anand at a party in the early ’70s that gave her the breakthrough role of Janice aka Jasbir in Hare Rama Hare Krishna after her previous films Hulchul (1971) and Hungama (1971) had tanked. “Zeenat came as a breath of fresh air. She was full of zest and zing, a break from melodramatic characters. While other heroines wore bouffants, Aman let down her hair. Her attire bore Western influences and her look was casual chic. She went on to be a top star for nearly a decade, till the early ’80s,” says Dinesh Raheja, author and film historian. Because of her distinct personality, says Raheja, she stood out when the scene was dominated by Rekha, Hema Malini and Rakhee.
Unlike her contemporaries, Aman didn’t shy away from playing characters that didn’t fit into the ‘virtuous’ mould. She played Nisha, an unapologetic sex-worker, in Manoranjan (1974); Rashmi who chooses career over motherhood in Ajanabee (1974); and Sheetal, who ditches her unemployed lover for a rich man in Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974). Aman’s biggest gamble, however, was essaying the role of Rupa in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (SSS, 1978). Not only did she deviate from her urban image to play Rupa — a village girl with a divine voice and burn marks on her face — but also thought of an innovative hustle to bag the role. It’s now part of film lore that Aman stuck tissue papers on her face and applied make-up to give the impression of burn injuries before landing up at Raj Kapoor’s office. The role was hers.
SSS, the most controversial film of her career, did not change the perception around her. “Zeenat was seen as a Western symbol of sex appeal. Raj Kapoor did try to translate her sex appeal in that white sari, which was even more provocative than a bikini as a wet transparent white sari left very little to the imagination,” says De. Being a sex symbol is something that stuck with Aman. Talking about the “controversy and brouhaha” over Rupa, Aman wrote: “I was always quite amused by the accusations of obscenity as I did not and do not find anything obscene about the human body.” De, who calls Aman a ‘rule breaker’, is all praise for the actor’s amazing presence. “If you look at her picture from Shalimar (1978) that went viral, she could overshadow (Italian actress) Gina Lollobrigida. She looks completely wow. None of the girls today are close to her mega sex appeal. She was so natural,” says the columnist-author.
Being self-assured helped her cut through the clutter. It had some disadvantages, too. “Because she was confident and sophisticated, filmmakers didn’t know where to place her. A chunk of her career was in the Amitabh Bachchan era (they did several movies together, including Don (1978), The Great Gambler (1979), Dostana (1980) and Laawaris (1981). Within the constraints of the Hindi films that were being made at that time, she changed the image of the heroine from being a coy and simpering woman to being independent,” says Gahlot. Yet, notwithstanding her over decade-long run as a leading lady, during which she acted in over 80 movies, most of the public conversations have focussed on her personal life and her alleged abusive relationships with actors Sanjay Khan and Mazhar Khan. After her marriage with Mazhar and the birth of her elder son Azaan (her younger son is Zahaan), she made sporadic appearances in films.
Recently, actor Michelle Yeoh, in her acceptance speech at the Oscars, said: “Ladies, never let anyone tell you you are past your prime.” That’s definitely true for Aman, who in her own way has proved to be a trailblazer. The actor, who was last seen in Ashutosh Gowariker’s period drama Panipat (2019), while addressing the speculation around her social-media presence wrote: “I am not, per se, planning a return to the silver screen, but nor am I closing that door. Creativity does not retire, and I would love to sink my teeth into a nuanced and impactful character.” About collab requests, which are pouring in, she has already taken a stand: “I’m determined to broach these with caution… I will most definitely not copy-paste captions. I have grown to be possessive of this space we are creating and want to retain its integrity.”
Though she was one of the busiest actors of her time, her potential was never truly tapped. In a 2006 interview with rediff.com, she said, “In a lot of films that I did it didn’t go beyond the physicality because those were the qualities that worked and I think I never did get my just due as an actress. Nobody ever thought of me as dumb. They always knew me as cerebral, a thinking person. Educated and so on. But I was always given glamorous roles.” Still, she has a loyal fanbase and chartbusters from her movies such as Qurbani (1980), Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) continue to sustain her popularity. De vouches for Aman’s everlasting charisma. The author, who was part of an event in Melbourne where Aman was present, says: “I witnessed the kind of crowd that came to listen to her and how beautifully she connected with them. Zeenat has fan clubs across the globe.”
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The septuagenarian star might have withdrawn from the limelight but she kept challenging herself. In Saif Hyder Hasan-directed epistolary play Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba (2020), she plays the role of khadi-clad Kasturba in front of a live audience. When they started rehearsing, Hasan was struck by Aman’s punctuality, warmth and politeness. This, however, is not the first time she acted on stage. In 2004, she appeared as Mrs Robinson in the play The Graduate, which she considered to be “a wonderful challenge”.
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Recently, she returned to the ramp as the showstopper for designer Shahin Mannan’s show at the Lakme Fashion Week. Sharing her experience, Mannan says: “Ms Zeenat Aman is gracious and charismatic with an amazing sense of style. My label was built and raised on the values of courageous women, the trendsetters, the go-getters, the ones that find their own place in the world and I don’t think anyone could embody that ethos better than her. She brought originality, panache, timeless grace and beauty to our show.”
Aman’s posts have reacquainted us with her, as an intelligent artist with great insights. In them, we see her transformation from being a bona fide ‘thirst trap’ to a voice spawning a refreshing narrative.