Celebrating the timeless appeal of three Scorpio stunners — Zeenat Aman, Rehana Sultan and Sushmita Sen

What binds this trio of scintillating Scorpio women together? Rehana Sultan, Zeenat Aman and Sushmita Sen…all three stunning ladies broke the mould of Hindi film heroines. They all also share a common birthday, 19 November.

Subhash K Jha November 19, 2021 12:22:43 IST
Celebrating the timeless appeal of three Scorpio stunners — Zeenat Aman, Rehana Sultan and Sushmita Sen

What binds this trio of scintillating Scorpio women together? Rehana Sultan, Zeenat Aman and Sushmita Sen…all three stunning ladies broke the mould of Hindi film heroines. They all share a common birthday, 19 November.

Having had the privilege of knowing all three incandescent women for many years, I have to say all them are unforgettably appealing. They also proved to be trendsetters way ahead of their times.

When Zeenat Aman swished in to sight with her hour-glass figure and bikini body at a time when heroines were more voluptuous than slinky, more saree than sarong, more Hema Malini than Zeenat Aman, Zeenat was the odd one out.

“I couldn’t speak Hindi properly. I thought in English which I was told, automatically disqualified me for stardom in Hindi cinema. In Hare Rama Hare Krishna I was the bad girl, smoking and drinking, running away from home to become a hippy. A slur to my family. So many established actresses had said no to the role. I was warned that it would finish off my career. But I was young, reckless. I did my own thing in film after film….Satyam Shivum Sunderam, Manoranjan, Qurbani.…Miraculously it worked,” says Zeenat , who turns 70 .

They often compared Sushmita Sen to Zeenat Aman. A comparison that Sushmita didn’t mind. If Zeenat had Hema to contend with, Sushmita had Aishwarya Rai who was more the ‘heroine material’: demure dainty and wholesome.

Sushmita had once said to me, “Not for a minute did I believe I had to be Madhuri Dixit just because I came into the film industry as Miss Universe. I knew I had to work hard to get there. Some people get there more easily than others. But that’s life. Maybe I’ve made some major mistakes in my career. And I continue to make them even today. But that’s part of the growing experience. The one thing that nourishes me constantly is my self-identity. I’m very comfortable with who and what I am. I am an actress only when the camera is switched on. The minute it's over I go back to being myself. I don’t make an effort to make other people comfortable. I feel I can’t be an image for people. I have to be a real person. I have to be absolutely me. My ambition as an actress has never been to wear dazzling dresses, to look absolutely immaculate, doing five songs, six scenes and that’s it. I’ve always been extremely secure within the space I occupy, no matter what I’m doing. By now I know only too well that the movie industry is terribly hierarchy-ridden. But things like the first lead and second lead don’t bother me.”

Another trait in common between Sushmita and Zeenat is their intelligence. They could never play airheaded bimbos because they were not. Is overt intelligence a liability in Hindi cinema?

Sushmita thinks it is. “I would say yes, and I’d underline the word a million times(laughs). But if you’re referring to me, I really don’t know what your definition of intelligence is. I don’t think I’m intelligent in the traditional sense. I’m street smart. But yes, over here if you have a mind of your own, you’re a problem. If you say something that makes perfect sense it could go against the film industry’s ego. Yes, there are problems on the sets sometimes. I don’t mind the arguments as long as at the end of them the other person understands my point of view.”

The reclusive Rehana Sultan who turns 71, blazed a trail in the 1970s playing sexually vibrant women in highly-acclaimed revolutionary films like Dastak and Chetna.

Her rise in 1970 was meteoric. Then she vanished.

Rehana Sultan corrected me. “Gayab nahin hui. I did a lot of films. Some worked, others didn’t. I had no guidance for my career, no one from my family had anything to do with the industry. I went to the Pune film institute. Career toh achchha-khaasa hi raha. When I got married I decided to take a break. The offers kept coming for a while. Not lately, though. I don’t mind working. But the role should give me something to do.”

How did the startling unconventionality of Chetna, Haar Jeet and Dastak happen to her career? “I didn’t plan to be unconventional. It just happened. I was at the Pune Institute when Rajinder Singh Bedi Saab saw a short film of mine. He offered me Dastak. Yeh sab ho jaata hai. I must admit that the image damaged my career. Filmmakers would come to me only with those kinds of roles. The character would be a simple girl, but she was required to do all kinds of things. They wanted some sex in any movie that I featured in. I said, no thanks. Ek simple si middle class ladki bathtub mein kahaan se pahunch gayi?! She wouldn’t have known what a bathtub is. I had heated arguments with filmmakers. Nowadays, look at what the heroines are doing!

But for a conservative Muslim girl to do those bold shots in Chetna and Dastak must have been very difficult? “First of all, the belief that I’m Muslim is wrong. I’m a Bahai. My husband (the late filmmaker BR Ishaara) was a pucca Brahmin. So I lead a completely cosmopolitan life. I did Chetna because I liked the story of the rehabilitation of a prostitute. I had a problem with just one bedroom scene where my character was supposed to be nude. It was impossible for me to actually do a nude scene. I kept asking Ishaara Saab about it until he must’ve thought I’m interested in doing it. My hairdresser Maria bailed me out. She styled my hair with a wig in such a way that it covered my upper torso completely. As for the controversial shot of my legs in an inverted V, I had to do nothing, just hitch up my skirt a bit. But the effect was very bold. I’d say the bold scenes were more in the mind than body.”

The boldness of the mind characterises the larger-than-life out-of-the-box personalities of all three screen queens whose unconventional interpretations of a Hindi film heroine’s role made them so resolutely irresistible. It wasn’t about the body at all. It was the never-say-why spirit.

Zeenat’s top five ground breakers

Celebrating the timeless appeal of three Scorpio stunners  Zeenat Aman Rehana Sultan and Sushmita Sen

1. Hare Rama Hare Krishna: Starting out your career as the heroine’s sister? No way! Many leading ladies said no to the role of Dev Anand’s hippy sister. Zeenat grabbed the part and added Dum dum and more dum into her career.

2. Satyam Shivum Sunderam: With her face scarred and her body more exposed than any mainstream heroine dared, Zeenat romped across this epic film with a couldn’t-care-less grace that most heroines only dream about.

3. Manoranjan: A full-on whore, not the filmy kind whose activities are more perpendicular(dancing) than horizontal. Zeenat played a full-blown streetwalker in Shammi Kapoor’s directorial debut. She oozed oomph in the shortest of dresses and longest of coitus situations.

4. Pyaas: Playing a sweeper, yes you heard right, in a film directed by her discoverer O.P Ralhan Zeenat was as convincing as Smita Patil would have been were she to play Zeenat in a bio-pic. She failed. So what? Zeenat never shied away from trying.

5. Roti Kapada Aur Makaan: Another unconventional role where the heroine dumps her middleclass jobless boyfriend to marry wealth. Sharmila Tagore had refused the role.

Rehana Sultan’s top five ground breakers

Celebrating the timeless appeal of three Scorpio stunners  Zeenat Aman Rehana Sultan and Sushmita Sen

1. Chetna: A prostitute who can’t adjust to a life of a normal housewife. It couldn’t get any bolder than that.

2. Dastak: A Muslim housewife who moves into a home earlier occupied by a prostitute and must deal with leery men knocking on her door all day long. Even today heroines who pride themselves on their unconventional choices would shudder at the prospect of doing this one.

3. Prem Parbat: Playing a 20-year old woman married to a 75-yar old man Rehana was assigned the thankless role of a woman whose sexual needs were frankly addressed by the script. She rose to the occasion.

4. Savera: Here’s the thing. Rehana Sultan could play against conventions and get away with it. In this film she plays a girl pregnant with her dead lover’s child .She hides the pregnancy to the man chosen for her marriage , only to discover later that he’s incapable of siring children.Can’t get any bolder than that.

5. Sajjo Rani: A prostitute’s daughter looking to break away from the family profession. Finally it was her bold eschewal of stereotypes that destroyed Rehana Sultan’s career.

Sushmita Sen’s top five ground breakers

Celebrating the timeless appeal of three Scorpio stunners  Zeenat Aman Rehana Sultan and Sushmita Sen

1. Sirf Tum: Imagine playing the Other Woman in a Sanjay Kapoor-Priya Gill love story! But Sushmita took the risk. She never cared about the length or the impact of her role.

2. Biwi No 1: While Karisma Kapoor got into a saree, Sushmita played the sautan with a certain élan usually denied to the Other Woman.

3. Chingari: As a hard-hitting village prostitute Sushmita tried hard to eradicate her chic and svelte personality. Full marks for trying.

4. Samay: When Time Strikes: Another gritty unconventional part of a cop and a single mother tracking down a serial killer.

5. Filhaal: Sushmita played a surrogate mother to her best friend Tabu’s baby. This was the mother of Vickey Donor.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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