Why Zeenat Aman Continues to Win Hearts

It’s 45 years since the actor made jaws drop in Satyam Shivam Sundaram and she remains a gift that keeps giving
Why Zeenat Aman Continues to Win Hearts

When the legendary Raj Kapoor first started working on Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), his original idea had been to make the film’s heroine someone who stands out not because of the way she looks, but because of her voice. He convinced playback singer Lata Mangeshkar — a woman defined best (and sometimes, solely) by her legendary voice — to act in the film. For Kapoor, she was the perfect person to bring to life the story of a plain-looking woman who has the voice of a Greek siren. In his book Raj Kapoor Speaks, the director wrote, “No wonder god doesn't endow a woman with [both] a heavenly voice and exceptional beauty. She could wreck the world!” What Mangeshkar wrecked were his plans. Entirely unamused by Kapoor’s insinuations about her appearance, Mangeshkar is said to have flown into a rage and she backed out from the acting commitment (even though she did sing in the film’s soundtrack). 

With Mangeshkar’s exit, the film had to change. Perhaps the female doesn’t need to be completely “ugly”? The final form that Rupa took was that of a village belle with a glorious voice, who is both the embodiment of beauty and also repulsive thanks to the burn that has left one half of her face scarred. Kapoor approached some of the top working actresses (including Hema Malini) to play Rupa, but everyone declined due to the kind of skin show that Kapoor demanded for the role. Eventually, the part went to Zeenat Aman, who dressed herself up in a ghagra-choli, gave herself a burn mark using make-up and showed up at Kapoor’s doorstep. She left with a few gold coins from Kapoor – her signing amount.

Zeenat Aman and Shashi Kapoor in Satyam Shivam Sundaram
Zeenat Aman and Shashi Kapoor in Satyam Shivam Sundaram

The original ‘dirty’ picture

Upon its release, Satyam Shivam Sundaram faced an ironic fate. Despite his problematic inspiration, Kapoor did make a movie about “inner beauty”, urging his hero (played by Shashi Kapoor) to look past both Rupa’s scars and the sensuous figure she cut. For all the titillation she offered the audience, Rupa was also a multifaceted woman, both sexy and innocent; compassionate and self-loathing; devotional and full of desire. On one hand, she’s modest while on the other, she lusts after her man, escaping into fantasies that are reminiscent of Rani Mukerji’s Aiyyaa (2012). Unfortunately, Aman’s electric sensuality, along with a scene that features the passionate jostling of limbs under a waterfall, left audiences in a tizzy and Satyam Shivam Sundaram was charged with obscenity. Actor Dev Anand – a frequent collaborator of Aman’s and who would later in his autobiography admit to being in love with her – called the film “dirty”. Kapoor later defended his film saying, “If a Fellini shows a woman in the nude, it is considered art. If I show off a woman's beauty, it's called exploitation!” 

Four weeks ago, Aman posted a throwback picture of herself on the sets of Satyam Shivam Sundaram on Instagram. Drenched in sepia, Aman's chiselled, confident and younger self is a reminder of why she ruled hearts in the Seventies and Eighties and why her work deserves to be valued. In the post, the star calls herself “a director’s actor” and comments on the accusations of obscenity that the film faced in 1978: “I was always quite amused by the accusations of obscenity as I did not and do not find anything obscene about the human body. … Rupa’s sensuality was not the crux of the plot, but a part of it.” Not only did Aman pull focus towards the intent of the film, she also won Gen Z hearts for her assertive stance on body positivity – a movement mired in polarising opinions on social media. 

Woman on top

Authenticity isn’t a new look on Aman and neither is taking risks. Although the actor made her debut in Hindi cinema with a small role in O.P. Ralhan’s Hulchul (1971), it was her role as a drug-loving hippie, Jasbir, in Hare Ram Hare Krishna (1971) that catapulted her to fame. As a student in Southern California, Aman had witnessed the growing popularity of marijuana and was more than willing to take on the risque part at the beginning of her career. Aman was well-aware of the woman’s role in a Hindi film – “sing and dance and prance around the leading man” as she put it in an interview – but harboured ambitious goals for herself as an actor. “The women in India should have something to identify with,” she tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the late Seventies. 

While she did play the audience-pleasing heroine, like in The Great Gambler (1979), Laawaris (1981) and Qurbani (1980), the actor leveraged her popularity to snag complex characters as well. In 1974 alone, she appeared in three films, playing characters with distinct shades of grey: A sex worker who rejects the male saviour in Manoranjan; an ambitious model who contemplates abortion in Ajnabee; and an opportunistic woman who chooses to marry a rich man rather than settle with her poor boyfriend in Roti Kapda Aur Makaan. Aman also delivered memorable performances in the hit Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), where she plays a vengeful and murderous rape survivor, and of course, Don (1978). As the radiant, smart and stylish Roma who infiltrates a criminal collective, she matched Amitabh Bachchan’s charisma. 

Zeenat Aman and Amitabh Bachchan in Don
Zeenat Aman and Amitabh Bachchan in Don

Insta queen

In stark contrast to the very public life she has led since she was 16 years old, Aman is now known to be an intensely private person. The actor has been a part of two difficult marriages, both of which have been extensively written and gossiped about. In the face of Simi Garewal’s shrewd and frank questioning about her late husband on an episode of her talk show, Aman emerges humble, kind and self-aware, clearly nourishing the hindsight life seems to grant those who are willing to receive it. Time and again, Aman has shown the kind of candour that is rarely seen in the Hindi film industry today and her recent Instagram debut is a precious extension of that. Over her 20 posts, the actor shares old pictures of herself and the stories behind them, articulates the pleasures of growing old and lets us in on the wisely gentle outlook with which she views life. “I nurture optimism, not expectations,” she writes. Amidst the minutely-curated posturing that so often crowds Instagram, Aman’s feed is a reminder of a life well-lived. 

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