By standard parlance film actors should be handsome, winsome and sex-exuding-some, though it is not always the case because some even very ordinary looking ones have ruled the roost. If Hollywood produced handsome guys so has Hindi cinema, but the only difference is where it comes to women. Some of even the most ordinary looking Hollywood heroines exuded sex, charm, looks, style that was to be universally their own. In comparison, if one looks at Bollywood A-list heroines of 1950s and 60s one cannot point a finger at more than three or four who were either conventionally beautiful or generated oomph: Nargis, Nimmi, Nutan, Nigar Sultana, amongst other, hardly enhanced the flow of adrenalin in the male viewer, but even the ones who did—Naseem Bano, Veena, Nalini Jaywant, Shyama, Suraiya, Bina Roy failed to create a lasting image through style. The way, for instance, Sadhana did through the famous ‘Sadhana cut’ in the late 60s or the 70s.
This is because it is the people from the show-world who create styles and trends that millions emulate for decades to come. In India, it has always been the male stars who have influenced generations of moviegoers even if they cannot be called conventionally handsome, say, for instance, two great phenomena of Hindi cinema: Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. Both had unconventional looks—one finding instant fame without looks, style, height, the other rejection because of some of these very factors. In fact, more than looks it was Bachchan’s height that came in his way to acceptance. But they really worked very hard to create styles that took the viewer’s look away from their faces, both benefitting tremendously from advise from their dress designers. The same continued before and after them all.
After the Meena Kumaris, Waheeda Rehmans and Mala Sinhas ran through their glamour-less innings, the beautiful and sexy Sadhana had broad-faced, Asha Parekh as her bête noire, but the later found more opportunities coming her way. The former’s thyroid problem that almost damaged the right side of her face helped, in the absence of any plausible competition (Rajshree just disappeared without a trace) Rakhee was short and plumpish while tall and elegant Saira Bano’s squeaky voice proved to be a handicap. But despite Sadhana’s unparallel example, none of her competitors tried to or succeeded in becoming a style icon—whether in terms of dressing, walk, talk, looks, or sheer exclusivity the way, for instance, Kimi Katkar came to be so long as she lasted, outwitting Zeenat Amans, Parveen Babis in almost every department. The only other conventionally beautiful women to have had a sustained box-office innings have been Hema Malini, Jaya Prada, and Farha—and in that order—though some would also wish to include Poonam Dhillon. Unfortunately, none of them made any conscious attempt to become a style icon in the absence of acting talent, except, to some extent, Jaya Prada. In contemporary times, apart from Madhuri Dixit, it was Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Kareena Kapoor who can lay claims to working on their good looks, though sadly Sen squandered her sensuality for reasons best known to her.
There is no denying the fact that where it comes to matter of looks, it is films and the film stars who create trends. Dev Anand was conventionally handsome with a toothless smile, but what made him heart-throb of the masses (perhaps the only one of his generation whose popularity ran through the sexes) was not his acting prowess but the angular walk, brisk dialogue delivery, short ankle-length trousers, and the famous puff. Comparisons with Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson and Gregory Peck being odious; Dilip Kumar, at times compared with Clark Gable for that deep, sardonic look, straight or ruffled hair lacked Anand’s appeal though later in the day his poor clone, Rajendra Kumar surprised everyone with his box office draw coming to be hailed as ‘Jubilee Kumar’; Shammi Kapoor an incomparable trendsetter whose shift from a naïve expressionless look to a semi-wild style with collar-up B-or-T-shirt made him women’s first choice; Rajesh Khanna’s unexpected meteoric rise is comparable only with George Cloney: ordinary unconventional devilish look, a little tilt of the head that made him the sexiest Hindi hero; Amitabh Bachchan, roughly the Indian Marlon Brando is cast in his own special mould. And of the present lot, only Ranbir Kapoor and Tom Cruise can share honours. None of the 40-plus heroes: Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan could even remotely become a trendsetter. Sadly Hindi cinema has also not produced heroines who could be considered trend-setters, in matters of fashion or otherwise. Here one is not talking of boldness or sex appeal through taught figures, buxom looks, bare long legs because in her heyday any one could draw settees, even Asha Parekh in skin tights. This is despite the presence of a whole host of fashion designers. Comparisons between Madhubala and Madhuri Dikshit can at best be onerous. But despite their sex-exuding bodies what else can they be remembered for, especially when one seeks equivalents with Hollywood heroines then and now? Even now but for, perhaps, a Sanjay Leela Bansali the job of dressing the hero or heroine is either left to the stars themselves who sometimes approach their favourite designer, or the film’s costume designer—from Bhanu Athaiya to Anna Singh, in terms of specialists or designers otherwise.
But leave aside any specific style statement one cannot even recall a dress, weird or trendy, sported by any heroine in any film which got the cat amongst pigeon rolling in the market place, or drums down in memory together with the film as well and the star who had worn it in what scene. But when one recalls American cinema and its female actors a million costumes flash in front of one’s eye. How many of today do viewers can even vaguely recall the face of an Usha Kiron or Ameeta the way one think about ordinary petite brunette actors like Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Portman. Do we have a match for Ursula Andress bikini-clad frame emerge from the deep sea in Dr No? Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, or even a lesser heroine? Or the dazzling ensembles that made old Egyptian designs a rage once the dazzling Liz Taylor was seen sporting them so gracefully in Cleopatra. Aishwarya’s looked patch-works in both Umrao Jaan and Jodha Akbar. Faye Dunaway’s chic beret look as Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde or the moolah that rained in salons and beauty parlours after the release of The Way We Were. Unbelievable but true, even long, impeccably manicured nails a style staple in California. So one has to revert to Sadhana and how her hairstyle contributed to her short but sweet success story and what she meant to her viewers.
By Suresh Kohli