Two women from two different eras in Bollywood, both of whom made path-breaking choices in their careers and personal lives, and emerged stronger from the fire of tabloid gossip and finger pointing. Known for their grace and poise as well as their talent, Sushmita Sen and Zeenat Aman celebrate their birthdays today. Sushmita turns 46, while Zeenat Aman turns 70. While Sushmita tried numerous genres and worked hard to move away from the glamorous typecast, Zeenat Aman embraced it in the era when actresses played sari-clad virtuous women. They were both bestowed that tag — ‘ahead of her time’.
Similar to Sushmita, Zeenat transitioned into modelling and beauty pageants after a short stint as a journalist. In 1970, she was the second runner-up in Miss India, but won Miss Asia Pacific. She began her career in 1971, and then shot to fame with Hare Rama Hare Krishna, where she brought a Western sensibility to her role as Janice. One of her most well-known roles include the sensuous Satyam Shivam Sundaram, where she played Rupa, a simple village girl with severe burns. While many actresses preferred to stay in the folds of convention, Zeenat Aman experimented with her fashion choices as well as roles. Her choice of nuanced characters defined most of her career.
On being ‘ahead of her time’, Zeenat once said, “I get this quite often. People do tell me, even now, that I have been ahead of my time in terms of fashion and choosing scripts, but it was all not planned. It just happened and I am happy about it. You just go with the flow, do what you like the most and your taste reflects your personality,” she had told Deccan Chronicle. However, owing to her difficult relationships and marriages that began to make more news than the actor herself, Zeenat faded out of the limelight quietly, but never forgotten. After all, she did belong to the rollicking 70s, and dared to venture where other women hesitated.
And then there’s Sushmita Sen, an era apart. She has done it all — the first Indian woman to become Miss Universe, exploring a different career choice and refusing to be tied down to what the society considers ‘right’ for women. Refusing to be slotted in just one category of the glamorous woman, she played the role of a stalker in her debut film Dastak, and then attempted comedy in the David Dhawan film Biwi No. 1, where she played Salman Khan’s mistress. She took her time to prove her real mettle in acting, something she ‘takes responsibility’ for, as she honestly told Filmfare later. “I’m an outsider but I was approached to be a part films default because of the beauty pageant I won. I never thought of becoming an actor, but when I took it up, I felt I can learn and grow here. May be at that point I wasn’t an evolved person and it showed on screen. I take responsibility for that. I kept working hard, but was never desperate.”
Sushmita made the difficult transition from the loud, over-the-top, blustery 90’s to the 2000’s, which saw a shift in the audience perceptions. They didn’t just want excessive melodrama in a family set-up, or a heroine waiting around while the macho hero scales heights.
She didn’t leave the masala behind though, as Main Hoon Na in 2004 proved. As the attractive teacher to Shah Rukh Khan, she showed that she was not shy of doing what people expect from a typical Bollywood leading lady. She de-glammed and played the role of a police officer in Samay –a film that doesn’t get enough credit and quietly slipped through the cracks.
Sushmita’s films might not have worked, and she perhaps doesn’t have quite so many blockbusters to her credit, but she never faded out of the limelight. Her relationships made headlines, but she remained nonchalant about it, however ugly the rumours became.
While her film career had its ups and downs, Sushmita made an unconventional choice at the age of 24. She adopted Renee, and then later Alisah in 2010, taking a sabbatical from films. Later, she explained that she had different approaches to motherhood with the both of them, and expressed regret that she did not give Renee enough time. “I thought that I have to keep making money, keep paying the bills. My approach to motherhood with Renee was more like a father – the provider. I didn’t have the time to be the provider and the nurturer because there was just so much work to do. I literally had her in a sack, with Chi Chi (Govinda) and David Dhawan holding her on the sets, and I’m giving my shot! I worked like that because I wanted to stay close to her, the best I could,” she said.
View this post on Instagram
However, Sushmita knew that she would not do the same thing with Alisah. “I wanted to see her through her formative years. After she turns six, I can look back at working. If my career in films is done by then, so be it. I’ll get into business or I’ll do something else. But this, I cannot miss,” she said. Sushmita is going strong with model Rohman Shawl currently, and doesn’t hold back from expressing her love for him in her Instagram posts. He is well ingrained in her family, During an interview with Rajeev Masand, she revealed that her daughter once asked “What if we don’t like your boyfriend?” A nonchalant Sushmita responded, “You don’t have to like him. I have to like him.” Clear-cut, and honest, there’s probably a million reasons why Sushmita Sen continues to wield an influence over her fans.
Two stars born on the same day, years apart, yet leaving behind a luminous legacy.