Zaheeda – Memories
I received a lot of offers to work in films but my aunt, Nargis, was dead against me joining the industry. She would keep saying ‘Apart from the glamour, there is lot of insecurity and disappointment in this industry. It is not for girls like you’. I was a very sensitive child. She thought I wouldn’t be able to cope up with the ways of the industry. But somehow, I did want to be an actress, maybe because I was in awe of my aunt. Though I was not great looking, I was young and ambitious. Producers who came to meet her, would also offer me roles. By the time I decided to join the industry, my aunt was already married. I got offers from good filmmakers like J. Om Prakash, Guru Dutt, Asif and Mohan Saigal. My aunt used to get very upset and throw them out. She was very protective about me.
Nargis was more like an elder sister to me. There will never be another like her. If she were alive today, things would be very different. I regard her with more respect than I do my own mother. As children, my two sisters and I, were under her constant care. She decided on our clothes, our schooling and everything. She would carry us to the swimming pool on her shoulders and throw us into the pool, so that we could learn to swim. She did a lot for us. I don’t think any bua would do as much as she did for us. When she was dying, she told Sunil, `Call my family, I want to see them’. When we went to her, she could only cry and nod her head.
She was very emotional and at 40 the same time, extremely modest. She never considered herself a star. She would even sleep on the floor. Once, her tailor had called her home and she gathered all of us to go to his small house for lunch. She didn’t for a moment think she was some big personality and that she shouldn’t be mingling with poorer people. She was so emotional that my father and she would fight almost every day. Then he would tell her to get out of the house and she would promptly run away. And the next day, she would be there, sitting down below. We would plead with her to come up but unless my father called her, she would keep sitting outside.
Sunil Dutt is also a very nice person. He was very resentful of the fact that I got into films and was paranoid about my lipsticks. Once, we had to go to a village to attend a wedding and he told Nargisji, ‘Tell your niece not to apply too much lipstick because the villagers might not like it’. When my aunt told me this, I said, ‘Excuse me, you are married to him, not I. I am not going to listen to him’. When we arrived there, all the village girls had applied dark lipstick and heavy make-up! Both my aunt and I were in splits looking at Dutt sahab’s face! He still comes to visit my father, who is a paralytic patient.
Eventually I told her, ‘Pappoo, I want to work just for the heck of it. At least I want to know what it is all about’. She hesitantly agreed. Guru Dutt was then making a film called, Alibaba Chalees Chor. He told my father that he wanted to try me out. He had the reputation of picking girls and boys for his film and then dropping them after taking the screen test. I told my father, ‘I don’t want to work with him because he might just drop me and ruin my career’.
Fali Mistry (actress Shyama’s husband), who was a known producer and camera man, was a close family friend. He was then making a film called Sajan Ki Galiyan with Dev Anand and Sadhana. There was a role of a princess in the film which he thought I would suit because I am tall. My father was a little hesitant because Sadhana was a great star at that time and he thought I wouldn’t get any importance. But I convinced him by saying that if I had to make it, I would make it anyway. Didn’t Baby (Nargis) do small roles initially? For some reason, the film got shelved. Then I started getting second lead offers. I rejected them all because I wanted to be a leading lady. Once, I visited my aunt while she was shooting at Mehboob studios. She was very friendly with Dev Anand. I met him there and one day, I got an offer asking me to do a screen test for Navketan. That’s how I bagged Prem Pujari.
Meanwhile, L. B. Laxman came to me with an offer of a double role in his film, Anokhi Raat. I liked the script so I decided to do it. Sanjeev Kumar and Parikshit Sahani, both newcomers at the time, were to be my co-stars. So both Prem Pujari and Anokhi Raat were being shot simultaneously. Anokhi Raat was an average success, while Prem Pujari flopped badly. It was a controversial film that dealt with Indo-Pak relations and people didn’t take kindly to it.
I started getting a lot of offers through actors like Feroz Khan, Sanjay Khan and Sanjeev Kumar. But I had a contract for three films with Navketan and I thought, when I had the backing of Dev Anand, why should I look for something else? He wanted me to play the sister’s role in Hare Rama Hare Krishna but I refused it because I thought people wouldn’t accept me as his sister, since I had played his girlfriend in the earlier film. He was upset with me for refusing the film. which Zeenat eventually did and the rest is history.
Those days, I had a lot of reservations about a lot of things. Like my name should appear first and so and
so is junior to me, things like that. When one is young, one tends to do a lot of unreasonable things. I lost out on good films like B. R. Chopra’s Dastaan and E C. Mehra’s Lal Patthar due to this attitude of mine.
Dev was always very encouraging. He would tell me, ‘You will make something of yourself. You will be the winning horse’. Perhaps that went to my head and I started thinking too much of myself. Then word got around that she doesn’t think of herself as less than perhaps Dev himself. People kept saying, ‘Inko to bas Dev Anand hi chahiye’. This was not true. Any new girl who worked under a great actor like Dev would be in awe of him because he is a very charming and caring man. He knows how to pamper his stars, which I don’t think very many men do. So why pick on me?
Sanjeev Kumar and I went on to become very good friends after we finished Anokhi Raat. It is very strange but during the making of the film, we were like strangers to each other. He was very shy, except when he got drunk. Once, the late Roshanji had hosted a dinner for all of us at his residence. I was standing on the balcony and Sanjeev Kumar came by. He had a drink in his hand and I could make out that he was drunk. He said, ‘Can I have your number… your telephone number’? I was very irritated. I thought, Why should I give him my number? He is just a co-star’! I replied rather sternly, `Take it from the producer’. The next day, he was very sheepish on the sets! He had a lot of experience as a stage actor, while I was a total novice. Of course we had a fabulous director in Asit Sen. He would just instruct you and leave it to you totally to emote. Comparatively, Dev wanted everyone to act like him. There was no individuality allowed. You had to go by his style and deliver dialogues according to his tempo. Not that he is a bad director, it’s just that the artistes perhaps feel like caricatures, with no individual creativity involved.
I was very fond of wearing heels and in those days, we used to wear bouffant hairstyles. So I would look really tall and Sanjeev would request me to flatten my hairstyle because I used to tower over him! The director would also come to me and say, ‘If you can’t do anything about the hairstyle, at least take your heels off’. I was so irritated, I thought, ‘God, why can’t they get a taller hero’? I didn’t seem to realize that Sanjeev was such a fabulous actor. After the film we became very good friends. We would visit each other’s houses. His mother was a strict vegetarian, so we would sneak shami kababs into his room and gorge on them behind her back!
Sanjeev had a wonderful sense of humour. He was so much fun to be with. I also got along very well with Parikshit. He is a very quiet chap. He had basically entered the industry to become a cameraman but since he was good looking, he was forced into becoming a hero. He had a lot of problems with long dialogues, so they would actually write down the dialogues on a big blackboard in front of him! When the camera started rolling, he would literally read from the board!
My career didn’t really take off after this point of time because everybody thought I had a contract with Navketan and Navketan didn’t do any more films with me. I refused a lot of offers in the hope that Navketan would back me. I waited for a while. What came my way did not appeal to me and what I wanted, I couldn’t get! I did one film down south and one film with Vinod Mehra. Another lovely man very kind and gentle. He was a thorough gentleman who never made a pass at me. I cannot believe that he married three or four women. He wouldn’t even look at us with that idea, unless I didn’t appeal to him in that way. He was such a sweet, wonderful man. My father had a very nice script titled Nilima and I told him we should produce the film ourselves. Vinod was also ready to co operate. We wanted Zeenat for the film but since she was too busy, we settled for Sonia Sahni. When we finished the film, we were stuck because there were no buyers, since there was no star value. By then, I was very tired and meanwhile, I met my husband. He was financing the film and my aunt really liked him. She said, ‘He is such a big zamindaar and he is so good looking, why don’t you marry him’? I had never regarded him as anything more than a friend but when I got to know that he was also keen on marrying me, I agreed to.
Today, I don’t regret not really making it in the industry. God has bestowed me with other blessings. I have a wonderful husband and two lovely sons. I don’t think there is anything I desire which my husband cannot provide me with. What more could I ask for? God has been more than kind to me.
Today I am actively involved with Premdaan, an institution which deals with orphans. I have been sponsoring a child since the last twelve years. Premdaan is doing a wonderful job. Now at Premdaan, we are planning to build an orphanage near Vashi, New Bombay (As told to Shubha in 1997).