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Divya Bharti, Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Shah Rukh Khan cutting a cake. Bharti and Khan starred in Dil Aashna Hai, which was produced by Malini | Photo from the book
Divya Bharti, Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Shah Rukh Khan cutting a cake. Bharti and Khan starred in Dil Aashna Hai, which was produced by Malini | Photo from the book

Hema Malini was not only the Dream Girl of Bollywood, she was also the first female superstar in an industry ruled by male actors. Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s Hema Malini: Beyond the Dream Girl tells readers how this girl from Madras [Chennai] managed to beat all odds and make it big in Bollywood, braving through the phenomenon that was Rajesh Khanna, as well as the succeeding era of the Angry Young Man.

The book is an authorised biography, and so it contains plenty that is little-known; for instance, the fact that Malini fell into severe depression after the man credited with discovering her, ditched her before her first film, claiming she was a bad actress. On the other hand, there was another director who told Malini’s detractors that he would drop the prefix of ‘director’ from his name if she failed — such was his belief in her talent. Both these gentlemen — C.V. Sridhar and K. Subrahmanyam respectively — did her a great service as Malini explains in the book.

The book traces Malini’s evolution from the beginning of her career until the present time. It tells of the 16 films she did with Rajesh Khanna; apparently all was not well when the two first worked together in Andaaz. She reveals that she considers the character of Saudamani in Laal Patthar — for which Raaj Kumar had recommended her — her first challenging role. Portraying a jealous mistress, this was one of the rare early films in which the lead actress played a negative character.

Hema Malini’s authorised biography is full of new information about her

To say that a lot has been written about the role she played in Sholay would be an understatement, but when Malini shares her own thoughts, she sheds a whole new light on her character Basanti, the vivacious village belle. According to this book, Malini was hesitant to play a tongay-waali, but accepted the part because of her trust in director Ramesh Sippy, with whom she had done two films earlier, Andaaz and Seeta Aur Geeta. The narrative on Sholay is filled with interesting tidbits, such as how she endured heat and pain to give the perfect take for the dance number ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’, or how her future husband Dharmendra, then merely her co-star, would deliberately bungle a certain scene which required them to embrace just so he could hug her again and again.

The book does well with a narrative that is simple and unbiased. However, author Mukherjee’s constant inputs seem irrelevant. He fails to include many of the films from the 1980s in which Malini worked with a host of remarkable and popular actors, yet writes ‘How I Feel About Hema’ as if anyone interested in her career cares. Yes, the payment issue that surfaced during the shooting of Meera, as well as the hint of bisexuality in Razia Sultan, is well-described, but Malini’s association with her dear friend Vinod Khanna could have been explored more; there was not much mention of their collaboration in Kudrat that proved to be his last film before his disappearance from the industry. Many of her films with Amitabh Bachchan also get just a passing mention when they could have become a separate chapter in themselves, easily.

This recollection features some memorable photographs from Malini’s life, both as an actress and as a dancer. Even now she still looks as beautiful as she did in the early days of her career, and her smile can still launch many a product. She discusses nearly everything regarding her family except the controversy that surrounded her marriage to Dharmendra. It was rumoured that the already married Dharmendra had changed his religion in order to marry Malini, as in Hinduism a man cannot have two wives at the same time. Malini was also said to have converted to Islam in order to marry Dharmendra. However, while the actress strongly denies the hearsay, she doesn’t proffer her own version of the story, making readers wonder if perhaps the rumours might have been true after all.

Not many remember that it was Hema Malini the director who introduced Shah Rukh Khan to films. The book tells us that she liked Khan’s nose and told him to groom himself if he wanted a lengthy career in the industry. Khan appears to have listened to her advice: from his Malini-produced and directed film Dil Aashna Hai, he has gone from strength to strength to become one of the most popular celebrities in the world.

Malini’s recollections include how the Hollywood great, Richard Attenborough, decided to cast her as Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi over Shabana Azmi after having seen Malini in Razia Sultan. She also discloses that while she agreed to act in B-grade films in the ’80s to pay off her taxes and didn’t ask Dharmendra for help, she did ask him to call a certain young man named Govinda to get his act together when they were shooting for a film. Maybe that’s the reason why Naseeruddin Shah refused to kiss her in Rihayee, claiming that if he did so, Dharamji would have been very angry!

Along with chatting about her relationship with her stepsons Sunny and Bobby, her elevation to Hunter Wali Hema in the ’80s, and working with legends such as Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, Malini talks about her special relationship with her mother — who was a constant part of her career — and her mentor Vyjayanthimala, who inspired her to become an actress in the first place. Readers also discover that at the height of her fame, her status was equal to that of her male stars, and that’s why when she engages in a fight sequence in character as a policewoman in Andha Qanoon, she overshadows both Bachchan and Rajinikanth. The book also has quite a bit about her move to television at a time when mainstream Bollywood stars considered the small screen a mediocre platform. She did several projects on TV that changed the way actors thought of the medium, and this change helped Indian television grow into the huge industry it has become.

In a most interesting chapter in the book, Malini’s daughter Esha Deol talks about her mother, making more personal disclosures in that single chapter than in the rest of the book. Her mother’s reaction to Deol’s poor grades in primary school, her relationship with her stepbrothers and her own special bond with her mother make for some engaging reading. Sadly, a letter from Malini to Deol breaks the tempo, as do the chapters on dance, spirituality and Malini’s political career. The mood of a near-perfect biography is dulled with the silly inclusion of a story about how “[the sight of] a Pakistani fan (with a knife in hand) gave Hema’s father a fatal heart attack”, a story that is neither believable nor acceptable. Had the writer stayed away from making daft accusations, people on this side of the Wagah Border might have been happier with this otherwise engaging and informative book.

The reviewer writes about film, television and popular culture

Hema Malini: Beyond the
Dream Girl
By Ram Kamal Mukherjee
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9352773220
313pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 11th, 2018