If the actors of today are uninhibited about their sexuality and not afraid to strut around in “bold" clothes on the screen, clothes that a generation or two ago only the vamp would have dared to wear, they have Zeenat Aman to thank for it. It was Aman who opened the door for a Priyanka Chopra or a Katrina Kaif to emerge. She smashed the existing template of the Indian heroine—trendy but traditional—that had dominated Hindi cinema for decades. She constructed a new one—hip, stylish, Western.

Aman entered the film business at a time when female stars, for all their affected modernity, were comfortable in the seedhi-saadhi (simple) girl mould. A beauty contest winner, Aman was everything her compatriots were not—anglicized and perfectly in tune with the urban youngster. She was posh in a manner that the others weren’t. This meant that she would never really become a star for the masses, but improbably, she did because roles were created to fit her.

Zeenat Aman in Qurbani.
Zeenat Aman in Qurbani.

It was clear that the big producers were excited about this young, bold actor and wrote exploitative scenes around her—Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) comes to mind—but her persona was such that she never looked cheap. If anything, she brought a certain sprezzatura to all her roles—can we imagine anyone else in Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) swaying to Chura Liya Hai or belting out Aap Jaisa Koi in Qurbani (1980)?

Much was made of the fact that Aman was weak in the acting department and her dialogue delivery in Hindi was stilted. Who cared? Along with Parveen Babi, Aman was the new Indian girl on screen, much needed at a time when the young urban woman was shedding off the previous generation’s inhibitions.

Between them, Aman and Babi forced their peers to move with the times. In Don (1978), she was the perfect foil to Amitabh Bachchan, and in Insaf Ka Tarazu (1980), she was creditable as the brave girl avenging her rapist.

Soon after, a rocky personal life, poor choice of scripts and changing audience tastes drove her career into a decline. Qurbani and Laawaris (1981) were followed by the likes of Teesri Ankh (1982) and Jaanwar (1983), films that did her no justice. She was a misfit in the crude 1980s and gradually faded away from the screen.

Sidharth Bhatia is a freelance journalist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story.