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Actress underrated: Hema Malini

It’s the bane of any big female star that has the X-factor and good looks to match: they are never considered great talents! Hema Malini, who turns 75 on October 16, also a danseuse, producer-director, singer (now specialising in Lord Krishna bhajans) and politician, was always a mega-star. But she was never taken seriously as an actress.

And yet, Hema has proved her acting mettle right from the beginning. I dare say that it was her performance and the dancing skills shown in her debut film, ‘Sapnon Ka Saudagar’ (1968) that made the industry, in a rare case, welcome her as a star even when it was a massive flop! The PR sobriquet of ‘Dream Girl’ was thus accepted and Hema truly had a dream run, that has not really exhausted its course, if we look at her multi-faceted work. It was as recent as Janmasthami that Hema released her latest devotional songs.

Hema’s next memorable turns came in 1970 with ‘Abhinetri’ and ‘Sharafat’, in which she played an actress-wife and a tawaif respectively. In the 1972 film, ‘Lal Patthar’, as the stern and scheming mistress of Raaj Kumar, Hema exhibited an unexpected grey shade and drew admiration as an actor. The once-reluctant actress (Hema had never wished to become one but did so because of her mother’s insistence!) had finally established herself!

The year proved doubly lucky when ‘Seeta Aur Geeta’ (her first of multiple dual roles all the way to home production ‘Sharaara’, 12 years later), deservingly won Hema a Filmfare award for acting. The blockbuster saw her exhibit the range needed to showcase both a yielding Seeta and her fiery twin, Geeta.

Two contrasting memorable roles came also in 1975. Among her most underrated performances remains ‘Dulhan’, in which she played a mentally-traumatised bride after she loses her husband on her wedding night. In the same year, the now-iconic Basanti, garrulous to the extreme, stood out even in the testosterone-high ‘Sholay’ with her fluttering eyelashes, incandescent expressions and evocative body language.

Hema stayed the commercial course with an array of performances of all kinds later, even taking on the vengeful woman avatar in potboilers like ‘Aandhi Toofan’, ‘Ramkali’, ‘Durga’ and more when the trend flourished in the cinematically-violent 1980s. But then, it was her versatility and star-power (her movies really did not need a top hero to sell!) that made her a glove-fit in such roles. True acting talent is about excelling in every kind of work, where one has to dance, sing, fight and emote in a way the audiences connect with.

In this phase, Hema excelled in two films. In ‘Ek Nai Paheli’ she was in love with a man (Kamal Haasan) of her daughter’s age. And in the classic ‘Ek Chaddar Maili Si’, she was the long-suffering woman who has to marry an abusive, much-younger brother-in-law (Rishi Kapoor) when she is widowed after the death of her equally abusive husband.

In the 1990s and beyond, Hema seemed to select her roles and movies based on other considerations rather than pith in the roles. Still, standout essays came in the bold Arunaraje film, ‘Rihaee’, in which she played a sexually-deprived villager, and ‘Baghban’, which needs no introduction. But it was in ‘Noopur’, her own TV production, in which she put in another memorable turn in a role similar to her own persona — showcasing a Bharatanatyam dancer and the problems they face.

As a top star of rare stature, she is evergreen. But more importantly, Hema Malini is also the complete actress.

(Published 13 October 2023, 23:38 IST)

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