Behind the wrought iron gates of her multi-storeyed bungalow in Bandra, Mala Sinha does not live locked in any ivory tower. Mala is astringently honest when she reminisces about her career: “I was not particularly good looking like Madhubala. All I had going for me was my talent.”
Mala Sinha’s sell-it-to-the-last-seat theatrics immensely pleased the 60s audiences. But she forgets to mention her incredible adaptability and staying power. Nobody could have seemed less destined for stardom than the harum scarum Nepali Christian girl with unruly curly hair who made her debut in the Bengali film, Roshanara (’52). The only child of an ambitious father, Mala shifted with her family to Bombay when she signed Badshah (’54). Mala’s career was in danger of being lost in a maze of mythologicals and secondary roles till she signed Kidar Sharma’s Rangeen Raatein (’56) opposite Shammi Kapoor. Kidar’s friend and Shammi’s wife, Geeta, took Mala under her wing and effected a metamorphosis.
By the following year, Mala Sinha was the epitome of smouldering glamour in Pyaasa (’57) as the mercenary Meena who chooses a rich man (Rehman) over her love (Guru Dutt). Mahesh Bhatt, who saw Pyaasa as a child in a theatre where instead of being issued a ticket, an imprint was stamped on one’s hand, feels that though the stamped imprint got washed away with time the impact Mala left on him was indelible. “Oh my God,” he raves, “the sensuality she exuded!”
Pyaasa turned Mala into a star and soon she was working with her childhood idol, Raj Kapoor. It was however her hankie wringers like Dhool Ka Phool (’59), Hariyali Aur Raasta (’62) and Anpadh (’62), that won her lasting fame. The public loved the way she worked herself into a histrionic frenzy.
In 1963, with two held-in-rein performances as the straying wife in Gumraah and the buffoon’s wife in Bahurani, she made it to the A-list. But thereafter, it was as if she had exiled understatement from her repertoire. Nevertheless, when she was in full cry, the films were hits —Himalaya Ki God Mein (’65), Aasra (’66) and Do Kaliyan (’68).
When the late 60s dictated a rise in the glamour quotient required from heroines, the adaptable Mala revealed a svelte figure in form-fitting gowns and short dresses in films like Aankhen and Maryada.
Inevitably, after her marriage to Nepali actor, C P Lohani in 1968 and the birth of her daughter, Pratibha, Mala’s star dimmed. Her long- distance marriage (her husband lived in Kathmandu), could not provide the support she needed and Mala turned to religion. With all the fervour of a born-again Christian, Mala talks about how she burst into tears before a shocked congregation when she recovered her faith.
Today, Mala is often derided as the queen of melodrama. But what is often forgotten, is that Mala cared not a whit for major heroes (she even turned down the Dilip Kumar starrer Ram Aur Shyam) and willingly worked with lesser names as long as she was the central figure. Her greatest achievement lies in holding high, in tumultuous times, the torch of the `women’s picture’.