A nation watched mesmerised as she swayed to Dum maro dum in her debut film Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Many years later, she danced with the same youthful vigour to Aap jaisa koi in Qurbani.
That is the magnetism of Zeenat Aman [ Images ].
One of the first actresses to revolutionise the concept of the Hindi film heroine, she was considered the epitome of sensuality and sexuality. Not many can forget her performances in Dhund, Yaadon Ki Baaraat, Manoranjan, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Don, Satyam [ Get Quote ] Shivam Sundaram, Qurbaani and Insaaf Ka Tarazu.
She is back in films after a long hiatus with Kaizad Gustad's Boom! She is also acting in Ramesh Talwar's play, Chupke Chupke, for which she was recently in New York. Tanmaya Kumar Nanda caught up with the actress in NYC:
What brings you to theatre?
It happened quite accidentally. I met producer Sanjay Goradia and director Ramesh Talwar in Delhi [ Images ], where I had been asked to present a play to the prime minister [Atal Bihari Vajpayee [ Images ]] and the Cabinet, which I did.
Subsequently, they asked me if I would be interested in doing theatre. They seemed like nice people. It looked like they were having fun with what they were doing. So I said if they had a good part, I would think about it.
Is this your first attempt at stage?
Yes, it is. It has been good. We have had a terrific response. People understood all the nuances. They laughed at all the jokes. They had a lot of fun. Many people come backstage and say how much they enjoyed the play. I don't know whether they mean it or not, or whether they were being polite face-to-face, though!
I play a woman born in the backstreets of Goa [ Images ] -- what they call a Goakarni -- who has had a tough and difficult life. Eventually, she ends up as the mistress of this man who is almost like a feudal lord. She has been his mistress for 25 years. The play starts with her having tricked him into marrying her. A whole series of events unfold. His wife is dead and he now wants to marry this young, 20-year-old girl.
How different is it from films?
It is so different, so difficult. If you flub it, you flub it (laughs). It is an actor's medium. The performance is different; every theatre is different. Where you're coming from, the audiences, their participation, each one is different.
Films are not an actor's medium. The writer writes it, the director tells you what to do, the editor cuts it. You are just a tool in other people's hands.
Theatre is challenging, it is tough and it is a great exercise. For someone like me, who has been away from the entertainment business for so long, it is a great exercise to come back. I accept it as a challenge.
You started out by playing a grey character, a junkie, in Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Now you play this dark character in Boom!
(Laughs) Yeah, now I play a black character! Now, I am open-minded to doing some good work. Honestly, it just happened. The film was 60 per cent over. I met Kaizad and, a week later, he called from Dubai [ Images ], saying, "This is an SOS. You have got a part and we can't cast it here."
I told him, "Kaizad, your film is almost over." Ayesha and Jackie -- who had been very supportive with finishing [actor-director] Mazhar's [Khan, Aman's late husband, with whom she has two sons] film, Gang -- said I should do it.
How did it turn out?
After so many years, I just went on the sets and there was Mr [Amitabh] Bachchan and everybody. I didn't know what I was doing, since I didn't have a script. I went blind to the first day's shooting. But it was great. It was great fun. It was like coming home.
It really doesn't matter. In cinema, I would not really rate my costar and I would not pick a project because of the costar.
I would pick a project because of the director. And the script.
So which director have you enjoyed working with the most?
I worked with some fantastic directors. I started with Devsaab at Navketan. I worked with Raj Kapoor [ Images ]. Like I keep saying, I am one actress who has worked with all the actor-directors -- Shammi Kapoor [ Images ] in Manoranjan, Feroze Khan, O P Ralhan. I have also worked with directors like B R Chopra.
Was that a deliberate move, to pick all these directors to work with?
I didn't pick them. They picked me (laughs). I have always thought it was my good fortune, since I got some great music in the bargain. Music that is alive and kicking even today in all the remixes -- Chura liya, Dum maro dum, Ek ajnabee haseena se.
You had some very unconventional roles -- a junkie in HRHK, a call girl in Manoranjan, a cheating wife in Dhund, a girl who dumps her boyfriend for a rich guy in Roti, Kapda Aur Makaan. What were you thinking of when you took these against-the-grain kind of characters?
I really had faith in the script and the directors. I have always been a director's actress. That was it.
As simple as that?
Yaaaaaaa. Like, right now, I am playing a mistress. I am not playing this good mother or good grandmother or good aunt, you know. I am playing this raging mistress who has tricked this man into marrying her after 25 years and she springs surprise after surprise after surprise on him until he does not know if he is coming or going!
So Zeenat Aman hasn't changed much?
(Laughs) Well, she's older! Yeah, I like doing stuff like that.
Which role would you like to be remembered by?
I came into films with Hare Rama Hare Krishna. My first film was actually Hulchul, but it was released after HRHK. I was groomed in Navketan and HRHK was a milestone. Working with Rajji in Satyam Shivam Sundaram was an amazing experience, then Feroze Khan, then Manoj Kumar.
I had the good fortune of working with the best at the time.
But SSS never did well at the box-office.
No, no, no, that is a fallacy. It made a lot of money for everybody. The person who pointed that out to me was Jeetendra [ Images ].
He used to keep track of all the box-office records. We used to call him the Walking Trade Guide. He told me if anyone tells you the film didn't make money, tell them that is absolutely wrong. SSS made everybody money, nobody lost money. People were just expecting it to be a huge blockbuster, which it was not. But it did well.
How did you react to the tag of being the national sex symbol?
You know, I used to resent it a lot at the time. I always thought of myself as a fairly cerebral person. I love to read, I love to travel, but I understand where that came from.
It was great while it lasted. And the cerebral Zeenat was smart enough to realise that since I had been slotted in this niche and it would not last forever, the thing to do was accept it and laugh all the way to the bank.
How did you handle competition at the time? You broke the mould. How did they react to that? Were they ever resentful?
I have no idea. Maybe I did not realise it then, but I think a lot of people were really happy when things did not pan out for me later in my life. That is when I realised maybe there was a lot of resentment.
[Husband] Mazhar [Khan] fell ill. His film was not released. Then he died, I was on my own and everything that happened, some people were like, 'Okay, she had it too good for too long,' so...
Where do you go from here?
Well, there are talks to produce a film here, an Indian-English film. I am looking at a couple of scripts. We are tentatively planning to go on the floors in September.
I did a short role with Naseeruddin Shah [ Images ] in Bhopal Express, but I was not in the frame of mind then for films. Now I am ready. I am looking forward to doing some good work. I am in the right place at the right time; a lot of Indian films have roles for women my age.
At one point, there was the chance that you could break into Hollywood, especially after Shalimar. What happened?
I was very committed in India [ Images ]. To make a breakthrough in Hollywood, you have to be committed to doing it, which is true of anything in life. I was already a big star in India and I stayed with that.
It did not make sense to stop being a big fish in your pond to become a small fish in somebody else's pond. There weren't very many ethnic roles for ladies [in Hollywood]. It didn't make sense to give up everything and come here and struggle for what may or may not have been.
Gang took a long time. Mazhar had some problems with its making. How did that experience impact you?
I had worked with a lot of successful producers and directors. For the first time, I saw a project could take that long.
Mazhar fell ill; Gang was released after he died. It just makes me very sad. I wish he had been alive and could have made it exactly the way he wanted to.
A lot of things in the film turned out the way they should have, but I think he would have released it with a lot more love and care.
Any plans of going into direction?
No way. I saw what happened to Mazhar. I don't want the responsibility. I just want to be responsible for myself, go there, be an actress, have fun with the part and go home. I have two boys, 13 and 16, and that itself is a responsibility. I owe them quality time.
How do you react to the name Zeenie Baby? Who gave you that name?
I have no idea (laughs)! Devsaab called me Zeenie and I think Stardust called me Baby after that. Stardust started the same time I started my career.
After a while, it was crazy. You had the babies going 'Zeenie baby'. It was so strange. It should be Zeenie Aunty now (laughs).