I never planned to be an icon or a legend, but I have always been the one, since childhood, who stood out,” Zeenat Aman says, as we cut across the Bandra-Worli Sea Link to reach her home after a long day of shooting for the Healthntrends December cover. Staring out of the car window, she asks me if she should get her hair coloured or carry on with her natural greys. I tell her what the motley crew, ranging across age groups, on set, had said: “Ma’am, you’re perfect.” Aman is as candid and uninhibited today as they get. She is unabashed but kind, she’s aware of her stardom and the effect she has on people, but nothing is as striking as her humility.
My first encounter with the icon happened on a warm summer afternoon in the ’90s. Hare Rama Hare Krishna
(1971) was playing on TV – a movie for which she won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award, as well as the BFJA (Bengal Film Journalists’ Association) Award for Best Actress.
“I never planned on life being a certain way,” she tells me. “One thing led to another, and it was all about choices. I am grateful for the ones that I was offered and for the ones that I made. Whether it was picking the movies I did, or representing women characters of different shades – whether it was Don
(1978) or Hare Rama Hare Krishna
or all the films I did, the journey has been as fulfilling as it was challenging.” Pause, and a slow smile. “But, some odd 50 years later, I am still on the cover of Healthntrends,” she adds.
She also reveals that she did a tiny stint as a journalist for Healthntrends in the ’70s! While she has graced the magazine’s cover many times, her first one was in 1970. As the second winner of the Healthntrends Miss India beauty pageant in 1970, where she was titled the ‘First Princess’, she competed in the Miss Asia Pacific International pageant, which she won. Soon after this bout of international recognition, Bollywood came calling and she bagged her first film, The Evil Within
(1970), alongside Dev Anand. While it didn’t do very well commercially, the following year, she was offered Hare Rama Hare Krishna, which ended up being her breakthrough film, and it was nonstop after that. “I have worked in over 80 films over five decades,” she says with pride and quiet contentment. “People say that I changed the way the heroines were looked at in the history of Indian cinema. I brought shades of grey to the characters that I played. I played the good-bad girl, the bad-good girl. There were a lot of films... Roti Kapda Aur Makaan
(1974), Hare Rama Hare Krishna
(1978), Insaaf ka Tarazu
(1980) – it’s been a long journey in over 80 films as a main female protagonist. It’s been exciting. Thank you for honouring me by including me as a part of this issue,” she smiles, with charismatic modesty.
Her onscreen presence, her persona, her filmography, her iconic outfits, songs and everything else that makes her a cinematic legend – they’re all a part of this larger-than-life personality. The years of experience, personal and professional high and lows, and her attitude towards life make one ponder on what really makes someone iconic. Then you meet her and there’s the elusive answer. Zeenat Aman knows the power of being herself. It’s not the fame or the money, the power or the legacy. It’s about discovering the real spark within yourself – something we were privileged to see on the sets at the Royal Opera House when she switched from coy actress to someone who could flirt effortlessly with the camera. “When I was sent to Manila (for the international pageant in 1970), I came back as Miss Photogenic Miss Asia. When I joined the Indian film industry, I just wanted to be good at whatever I was doing. So, fame was something that just came organically. I never really thought about it because I always tried to excel in whatever I did,” she says.
For her, fame has been an after effect of her hard work, and she prefers it that way. “Whatever you do in life, do it with great passion; everything else will eventually fall into place. Life is a journey, with highs and lows; the best way to live it is by accepting it as it is, not getting bogged down by challenges, and standing your ground firmly,” she states.
Beneath the successes and setbacks, Aman is full of life and experiences, something she doesn’t shy away from reflecting on with people. Behind the shield that keeps her protected from the media glare and the unwarranted invasions of her personal space, she is deeply invested in everything she does, whether it is picking things for dinner at home or outfits for a shoot. The one thing she doesn’t care about, however, is regrets. We ask if, given a chance, she would pick the life she currently has.
“I have very few regrets in my life,” she states. “There might be one or two personal regrets but there are certainly no professional regrets. I have no complaints about my life and much to be grateful for. You know,
I’d be happy to relive the life I’ve led.” Change doesn’t scare her. It has only made her more interested and invested in life. “In our time, digital media was nonexistent, stars were stars, and people waited to go to the theatre! Families spent the weekend, the afternoon or an evening making an event of going to a theatre and enjoying and celebrating cinema,” she recounts of the golden days of cinema. “There are so many advantages to what is happening now, especially for the viewer. You are spoiled for choice, even as a performer,” she states, appreciative of digital advancements and the boom in the entertainment industry due to OTT platforms. “I find that, even if you do perform, you can immediately look back at what you’ve done and also improve what you want to do,” she adds.
“Are you lonely?” she asks suddenly. Not something you expect a star to ask you at a first meeting, but that’s Zeenat Aman for you – curious, always willing to know more about people, and articulate as a littérateur. When I tell her that living alone in a city like Mumbai, sometimes, can be lonely, she looks out at the stretch of sea and buildings, and says, “That’s a shame. You’re free and independent. The idea is to accept life as it comes. Stand your ground. Live life as it’s meant to be. Don’t tire yourself with things around you. They will change, as will you. Accept it – that’s where you’ll find company – within yourself.”