A Bollywood Icon in Action: Zeenat Aman in Crime and Suspense Films
By Brian GreeneFebruary 5, 2020
If you’re like me, you’ve long had an interest in Bollywood movies, but haven’t explored this corner of cinematic history much. The problem is, where do you start in trying to learn about such a vast pool of films that haven’t been part of your cultural life? Well, in a situation like this, sometimes the best entry point is to study the career of one individual leading figure within a realm of motion pictures, be that a producer, director, or actor. I started with Zeenat Aman (born 1951), an iconic Indian artist who broke into acting stardom in the early 1970s and who broke ground for what female characters could look and act like in Bollywood films.
In her young, post-academic life, Aman worked as a journalist on a popular women’s magazine for a while, before turning to a career in modeling. Her voluptuous good looks and magnetic charisma led her to take the crown in two prestigious beauty pageants in 1970. Her big breakthrough in acting came when Dev Anand, a leading light of Hindi cinema, cast her in a prominent role in his classic 1971 hippie film Haré Rama Haré Krisha. For this memorable performance, Aman won two acting awards: the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress and the Bengal Film Journalists Association Award for Best Actress. Beloved by audiences for her work in this title, her career in Bollywood took off.
Aman has starred in something like 90 feature films, and played in approximately 50 during the most notable period of her career: the early 1970s through the early ‘80s. She remains active in movies today. While it may have been her undeniable photogenic qualities that made her seem right for the big screen when she first entered the profession, her early roles were often substantive. The characters she played in these influential features did much to promote women’s liberation causes. In some of these films, she plays a successful woman who doesn’t need men to prop her up, and who can fight back when society tries to limit her independence and personal growth opportunities. In others, she’s a hard-edged lady as tough as any male character in the story. And she’s a versatile thespian, able to convincingly play a wide variety of personality types and to make us feel, and be moved by, a broad range of emotional phenomena her characters experience.
Speaking about her formative years in the acting profession, Aman has been quoted as saying that she was in the right place at the right time, and that “Without planning (it), I blurred the lines between the vamp and the pristine goddess. By accident, I was given the cards to create an icon.” Having recently watched a slew of the movies she’s been in, below I highlight a handful that might be of special interest to Criminal Element’s readership. As a last preface to that list, here’s a few things that tie together the disparate set of films I’ve been watching while working on this piece:
- They love to tell the stories by way of flashback scenes.
- The characters are likely to break out into songs at any given moment, singing about the events of the dramas, rather than merely acting them out (and these are often the most imaginative and entertaining parts of the films).
- They’re sometimes stuck in a place between being camp fare and actual compelling stories; you can chuckle at their over-the-top melodramatic outrageousness at times, yet you feel genuinely drawn into the goings-on, and care about the characters.
- Outstanding, exotic soundtrack music plays throughout them.
- They are imbued with eye-dazzling experimental cinematography that can make you feel like you’re tripping.
- They tend to be really, really long.
This is at once a murder mystery, a love triangle melodrama, a police procedural, and a courtroom drama. Its rambling plot is sometimes ridiculous enough to render it a “crime against film” entry, yet it’s highly enjoyable. The story has enough twists to make a viewer just about give up on trying to make sense of it all. Things start when a man who’s been driving alone and who has a non-fatal, single-driver accident, goes to a home that’s near the wreck, hoping to use the residents’ phone to call for help. In the house, he happens upon a man who has just been killed, and the guy’s exotically beautiful wife (Aman). The newly widowed lady explains to the stranger that she shot her spouse, because she could no longer abide by his abusive cruelty. Car wreck guy takes pity on the woman and concocts a see-through story they can tell to the other people living under the roof, as well as to the police, that will cover the widow and make it look as though the killing was the result of a home invasion. All manner of shape-shifting, head shakes-inducing intrigue follows. What makes this flashback-happy feature worthwhile are the so-bad-it’s-good script, a few wild song and dance routines, Aman’s gorgeousness, and some far-out soundtrack sounds. If you’ve read a little about Aman’s personal life, it’s especially interesting to watch her in this role, knowing that she was deeply unhappy in both of her marriages to date.
This one makes the list if only for the soundtrack, which is like the most acid-tinged, avant-garde funk you would’ve heard in the grooviest Bombay nightclub in the late ‘70s. The film’s an action thriller and leans heavily on the camp end of the camp/compelling drama scale I discussed in an earlier paragraph. The titular character is a debonair, cunning, merciless leader of a drug-smuggling ring. Beautiful women throw themselves at Don’s feet, the police can’t pin him down, and rival gangs’ threats are child’s play to him. Aman plays a likable young woman whose brother is a reluctant member of Don’s syndicate. When the brother decides to try and leave the gang, Don murders him. Aman’s character then becomes a judo master vigilante who’s fiercely determined to take Don out. A convoluted plotline involving Don’s doppelganger emerges and makes the story even sillier than it was before. Don is cartoony in the way some of the more exaggerated Blaxploitation films can be. It makes for good laughs and a great listen. Break out the cheese popcorn, hit “play movie” and crank the volume. Aman’s character is straightforward and edgy, though, and reminiscent of the one Pam Grier plays in Coffy (1973).
The Great Gambler (1979)
Summarizing the plot of this action thriller is gonna make my brain hurt. Do I have to? There’s one major similarity between this title and Don: namely, that frequent Aman co-star Amitabh Bachchan plays two different male leads, and people confusing one man for the other is much of what drives the story. One of his characters is a government agent and the other is a card shark. Aman portrays a Mata Hari-like cabaret dancer who uses her dancing skills, as well as her considerable sex appeal, in the employ of a crime syndicate. Don’t ask me to explain how this works, but somehow the mob she works for is able to use her dance routines in a system they work to decode secret government information, which they then sell to foreign countries for big payouts. The action moves from Bombay to Europe, where the lives of the look-alike men get intertwined and everything just goes nuts. This is less purely camp than Don, but still plenty outrageous. And it’s utterly entertaining. A highlight comes when we see Aman’s character dancing to a KC & the Sunshine band song at an Italian disco. Car chases, boat chases, fisticuffs, romance, happening nightclub scenes, a superb soundtrack, and always a song story just around the bend. I wish I could’ve seen The Great Gambler at a drive-in theater.
Insaf Ka Tarazu (1980)
In a role that brought her a Filmfare Awards nomination for Best Actress, Aman again plays a character whose circumstances partly borrow from her actual life story. She is Bharti Saxena, a popular and successful fashion model and beauty contest champion. Bharti has a lot going for her. Her professional career is thriving, and meanwhile she’s on the brink of being engaged to a man with whom she enjoys a mutually loving relationship (although he’s made it clear that he wants her to quit modeling and do little more than mother their children after they’re wedded). Turbulence enters Bharti’s life when an affluent man (who looks alarmingly like an Indian Bert Convy) falls for her and becomes determined to possess her. When Mr. Suave’s luxurious gifts and untiring attention don’t sweep Bharti away from her boyfriend and into his own arms, he becomes violent. Like Dhund, much of the story occurs inside a courtroom. This is a straight-up crime drama that’s sometimes difficult to watch, but that tells a powerful story from a feminist perspective.
Haré Rama Haré Krishna (1971)
Ok, this can’t be called a crime, suspense, or thriller movie. But any article that provides an overview of Zeenat Aman’s acting career would be woefully incomplete without some coverage of the film, regardless of the piece’s slant or focus. This wasn’t the first motion picture Aman acted in, but it’s the one that brought her stardom and led the way to her becoming a Bollywood icon. It’s said that the afore-mentioned Anand, who wrote, produced, directed, and acted in the film, knew Aman was right to play a role in it when he happened to see her smoking a pipe. It’s a fully serious film and one that’s ultimately a traditionalist, conservative, negative assessment of Westernized hippiedom arriving in Asia. Anand himself plays an upstanding pilot who comes to Kathmandu in search of his long-lost sister. He finds her to be a freewheeling hippie leading a decadent lifestyle, and in danger from some of the parasitic, sordid characters in her midst. Aman was ideal for the part, not just because of the way her beauty lit up the screen, but because in her actual life she’d spent a short time studying in California, before returning home to India and finding a way for herself in modeling and then acting. This movie was Dev Anand’s baby, but it was Zeenat Aman’s striking style and endearing acting performance that left the biggest impression on most theatergoers of the time. India had a new star of the screen, one who was about to blaze a trail that changed how people from the country thought about women in the cinema.