Hema Malini was the third South Indian actress after Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rehman to be a major Hindi film star. At her peak, she wielded such strong commercial clout that top actors like Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna had to turn to her to give them that much wanted hit. When Dev Anand’s films in the 70s, particularly those with Zeenat Aman crashed, Ameer Gareeb (1974) with Hema Malini was a hit and kept him going as a leading man. When Rajesh Khanna’s films started sinking, her Prem Nagar (1974) with him gave him a new lease of life, even if temporarily.
Ironically, for someone who ruled the Hindi film industry, her career almost ended before it began. Born on October 16, 1948, her first director, CV Sridhar, threw her out of a Tamil film that he was directing in 1964, saying she had no star appeal! Stung by this, Hema resolved she would make it big where it mattered the most – the world of Hindi cinema. Not only did she do so, but when she did, the very same Sridhar had to eat humble pie and come back to her for Hema to star in his Gehri Chaal (1973).
Hema began her career replacing the great Vyjayanthimala opposite Raj Kapoor in Mahesh Kaul’s Sapnon Ka Saudagar (1968) where the posters splashed her picture with the catch phrase – ‘Dream Girl.’ The film flopped but she was appreciated and survived. With Waaris (1969), opposite Jeetendra, and Johny Mera Naam (1970), where she had Dev Anand as her hero, Hema became a top star in Hindi cinema. With Ramesh Sippy’s gender twist on Ram Aur Shyam (1967) – Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), she showed splendid comic timing and perfectly played, both the timid Seeta and bindaas Geeta, becoming the the top female star in the country, taking over from Mumtaz. She also won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for her find work in the film.
A string of successful films, particularly opposite Dharmendra (Raja Jani (1972), Jugnu (1973), Dost (1974), Sholay (1975), Charas (1976), Dream Girl (1977)), followed as Hema’s stock only went higher and higher. It was also a pairing that began in 1970 with films like Sharafat and Tum Haseen Main Jawaan, and one that captured the imagination of the movie going public at the time. The fact that the two of them also fell in love with each other helped tremendously.
Even as Hema reached the highest rung of stardom, film critics dismissed her as generally a one-note actress. But to be fair to her, she did occasionally show that she could give a performance of much depth were she directed properly. As Raaj Kumar’s scheming mistress in Lal Patthar (1971), she not only made the audience empathize with her negative character but also stole a march over no less an actress than Raakhee in the film! It is still perhaps her best realized and nuanced performance till date. The same year, she dared to convincingly play a young widow with a son falling in love with a widower, played by Shammi Kapoor, in Andaaz (1971). A take off from the French film, A Man And A Woman (1966), it was a role turned down by most actresses, who did not want to risk an image change by playing a widow and a young mother. Nevertheless, Hema took on the role and it has to be said, made it her own. She also tried to change her glamorous image by working with a sensitive filmmaker Gulzar and did some of her best and perhaps most introspective work in his films – Khushboo (1975), Kinara (1977) and Meera (1979). Also re-uniting with Ramesh Sippy after Andaaz and Seeta aur Geeta, she showed her comic timing and versatilty once again in the multi-starrer Sholay, where she is spot on as the over talkative but lovable tangewali, Basanti.
After ruling the world of Hindi cinema right through the 1970s, acting with all the top actors of her time and being directed by Hindi cinema’s foremost filmmakers, Hema’s reign as the numero uno ended by the early 80s with another actress from the South, Rekha, taking her place. Even as she continued acting in films, turning now to playing strong characters with feminist undertones, she concentrated more and more on her classical dance performances. Among her later films, she gave a particularly strong performance as a cop in Andha Kanoon, a surprisingly effective one in Ek Chadar Maili Si (1986) and a finely modulated one, one of her best ever, in Arunaraje Patil’s Rihaee (1988) as a rural woman who has an affair when her husband, Vinod Khanna, is away and what’s more, has her lover’s child. She continued to be seen in the occasional film as an actress like Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram (2000).
Hema made a remarkable return to the screen in Ravi Chopra’s Baghban (2003) opposite Amitabh Bachchan. The two of them scored heavily playing an elderly couple split up and made to suffer by their inconsiderate children. What’s more, she looked absolutely ravishing. Her subsequent films have seen her paired mainly opposite Bachchan – Veer Zara (2004), Baabul (2006) and the Bhojpuri film Ganga to name a few.
Acting aside, Hema has dabbled in film production having produced Swami (1977), Sharara (1984), Awaargi (1990) and Marg (1992 but unreleased) besides directing Dil Aashna Hai (1991), Tell Me O Khuda (2011) and Mohini (1994) for Television.
On the personal front, Hema had her share of admirers. Both Jeetendra and Sanjeev Kumar proposed marriage to her but it was Dharmendra, though a married man with children, who wooed and won her. She flouted convention by becoming his second wife in 1979 and even having two daughters, Esha and Aahana, by him but so strong was her morally upright image that she was able to go through the marriage and motherhood without being slandered by an otherwise unforgiving press and public.
Hema Malini has also directed the TV serials Noopur (1990) and Women of India (1996). She has been awarded the Padma Shri in 1999 for her contribution to Indian Cinema and is today a Member of Parliament with the ruling party of the country, the BJP.