If anyone held the torch of the ‘woman’s picture’ it was Mala Sinha. She refused to play inconsequential roles opposite the biggest of heroes and willingly acted with smaller names, provided her role was the pivot around which the film evolved. It is said that she turned down biggies like Ram Aur Shyam (1967) opposite Dilip Kumar and acted opposite then-still-upcoming actors like Dharmendra (Anpadh (1962)) and Manoj Kumar (Hariyali Aur Rasta (1962)), where she carried these films entirely on her shoulders alone. And it is to her credit that she did have a long enough career as leading lady lasting about two decades.
She was born Alda Sinha in Calcutta, now Kolkata, on November 11, 1936. Her interest in films and acting began at a young age as she would imitate the scenes and songs from the films she saw in the cinema hall at home. This led to her father employing dance and music teachers for her. Studying at the Diocesan Girls High School in Calcutta, she was first noticed in a school play for her acting and subsequently made her debut in a Bengali film, Roshanara (1953). She made a mark as an actress of promise the following year with a supporting role in the Suchitra Sen-Bikash Roy starrer, Dhuli (1954).
1954 also saw her make her Hindi debut with Amiya Chakravarty’s Badshah supporting Usha Kiron, Pradeep Kumar and Ulhas. Chakravarty saw her photograph in Filmfare and cast her in the film, an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Ulhas playing the titular role. Baburao Patel was none too impressed with her as in the Filmindia review for the film, he wrote, “The newcomer Mala Sinha as Malti looks pleasant without being attractive and does rather amateurish work.” Still, Mala got other offers in Hindi like Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet (1954), where, incidentally, this time she got the only positive review in the film from the hard-to-please Patel. In spite of Hamlet, she was going nowhere in her career with B-grade mythologicals like Ekadashi (1955) and costume dramas like Riyasat (1955). Fellow actress Geeta Bali, spotting tremendous potential in her, took her under her wing and recommended her to Kidar Sharma, who not only cast her as a village girl in Rangeen Raaten (1956) opposite Bali’s to be husband, Shammi Kapoor, but groomed and polished her as well.
Mala finally became an A-star with Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957). Guru Dutt’s masterpiece of a struggling poet thirsting for recognition in a materialistic world saw an extremely competent performance from Mala in a role that originally Madhubala was to play – that of Guru Dutt’s college sweetheart, who marries a big publishing baron opting for financial comfort and luxury over love. When The Guru Dutt character re-enters her life, she grapples with her feelings for him, which haven’t quite dies out yet. Though having what was considered as negative shades at the time, Mala’s role is, frankly, the more interesting role in the film as compared to Waheeda Rehman’s standard good-hearted hooker and ranks as one of her best ever performances.
Mala’s arrival as a top star was confirmed as she was paired with Raj Kapoor in three films – Parvarish (1958), Phir Subha Hogi (1958), an adaptation of Crime and Punishment, and Main Nashe Mein Hoon (1959). Of these, special mention must be made of Phir Subha Hogi, an emotional plea for social justice in ‘Nehruite’ India and a fine example of political comment combined with humanitarian compassion. In an interview, she recalled how excited she was on being cast opposite Kapoor in Parvarish. At the time, not knowing Hindi, she would write her dialogue in the Bengali script and learn it by heart. When she froze for her first shot with Kapoor, he put her at ease by talking to her in Bengali! She was also paired with Dev Anand during this period in the romantic drama, Love Marriage (1959), and the socially relevant Maya (1961).
Outside of Hindi filmdom, Mala, meanwhile, kept one foot in the Bengali film industry as well. She did big films opposite Uttam Kumar – Prithibi Amara Chhaye (1957), known for the evergreen Geeta Dutt song Nishi Raat Banka Chand, Bondhu (1958), Shaharer Itikatha (1960) and Sathihara (1961), besides Lookochuri (1958), a laugh riot opposite Kishore Kumar. It is one of the most popular Bengali films ever and regarded as arguably the greatest comedy in the history of Bengali mainstream cinema. It is said that whenever in the 1980s and early 1990s the film was telecast on TV, the Kolkata streets were empty!
Mala became an A-grade star with Yash Chopra’s directorial debut, Dhool Ka Phool (1959) playing an unwed mother who gets pregnant by Rajendra Kumar and abandons her child. It also set her on the path to playing central, suffering women roles and got her a nomination for the Filmfare Award for Best Actress, her first of four. The other films for which she received Best Actress nominations from Filmfare were Bahurani (1963), Jahan Ara (1964) and Himalay Ki God Mein (1965). But by now, one was noticing a tendency in her to ‘act’ and make her performances obvious, leading to some extremely melodramatic and OTT acting from her. In fact, even during the filming of Pyaasa, the make-up person, Baburao, recalled Guru Dutt constantly telling her to tone down her performance and to feel the emotions of her character from within!
Still, she did come up with credible performances in Yash Chopra’s Dharamputra (1961), again playing an unwed mother, a Muslim, whose child is brought up by a Hindu family only to go grow up into a Hindu right-wing fanatic against the backdrop of the Partition, Anpadh (1962), BR Chopra’s Gumrah (1963), arguably her career’s most reined-in and career-best performance, Bahurani and the historical drama Jahan Ara, a costly misfire at the box office, in spite of some great work by her and a hauntingly brilliant musical score by Madan Mohan. Gumrah, in particular, was a daring and unconventional film for its times as the married heroine is unable to come to terms with her past when her lover shows up in her life again and she begins to see him again without her husband’s knowledge. It is to Mala’s credit that she made the role, originally written for Meena Kumari, her own. In fact, it was Meena Kumari, who also recommended Mala for Jahan Ara. for the film, Mala underwent gruelling Urdu classes for the role and familiarised herself with ‘royal culture’ so that she was convincing in the role of emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter.
For all her fine work in the above films, if she were not controlled properly by her directors, the results could be quite disastrous. She was plain irritating as the chirpy hill maiden in Himalay Ki God Mein and way over the top in parts of Guru Dutt’s last offering, Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966). The film, which saw Dutt’s death during its filming, sees newspaper owner (Sinha) and her younger sister (Tanuja) both find themselves falling for the paper’s idealistic news editor (Dharmendra). As she goes insane and simultaneously has a heart attack in the film’s climax, Mala has enough elements to play with to go totally haywire thus resulting in some of the worst overacting ever seen in Indian cinema. This is in contrast to the scenes shot in the newspaper office that were said to be supervised by Dutt when he was alive, where she is suitably understated. As also in the sad song filmed on her, Woh Hanske Mile Hum Se, where she brings out the emotions of her broken heart rather effectively when she finds out her love for Dharmendra, who replaced Dutt as the leading man in the film, is one-sided.
Mala’s partnership with the BR camp ended after 3 films when she refused to do the multi-starrer Waqt (1965) as she was uncomfortable with wearing a swimming costume on screen. The role was subsequently done by Sadhana. She did, however, turn ‘glamorous’ with a vengeance scoring heavily in films like Humsaya (1968), Do Kaliyan (1968) and Aankhen (1968), even if she continued with a total lack of understatement in her performances. She also made a successful team with actor Biswajeet, the two of them doing a spate of films together – Aasra (1966), Night in London (1967), Paisa Ya Pyar (1969), Pyar Ka Sapna (1969), and Phir Kab Milogi (1974) among others. By now, there were also reports to suggest that she had become a diva, prone to starry airs and tantums, in other words truly a ‘star!’
Still, though well into her 30s, a dreaded age period for Hindi film heroines of yesteryear, she continued with leading roles into the 1970s pairing with the newer lot of heroes – Premendra (Holi Aaee Re (1970), Sanjeev Kumar (Kangan (1971)), Rajesh Khanna (Maryada (1971)) and Amitabh Bachchan (Sanjog (1971)) – all younger to her but by now her career as a leading lady was in its last stages. Meanwhile, she had also done a Nepali film, Maitighar (1966), opposite Nepali actor CP Lohani, whom she later married. With Maitighar, Sinha, having Nepali blood within her, returned to her roots, her presence as a top star making it one of the most well-known and successful Nepali films of all time. The film, directed by BS Thapa, had a musical score by Jaidev with songs sung among others by Lata Mangeshkar, Geeta Dutt, Manna Dey, Usha Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle apart from Lohani himself and local nightingale Aruna Lama.
Mala then made the switch to elderly and mother roles from the mid 1970s onwards. However all the roles she essayed in this period were largely undemanding ones that she did efficiently enough with her most memorable film in this period being Ravi Zindagi (1976) co-starring Sanjeev Kumar. The two play a couple who are dependent on their children following his retirement and who live separately with different sons who mistreat them. She continued to be seen on the screen on and off with her last appearances being in Rakesh Roshan’s Khel (1992) and Pran Mehra’s Zid (1994).
Today, Mala, a re-discovered Christian, lives contentedly in retirement. Her daughter, Pratibha, did try an acting career in Bollywood in the 1990s but couldn’t make much headway at all.
Other well-known films of Mala Sinha include Detective (1958), Chandan (1958), Ujala (1959), Patang (1960), Gyarah Hazar Ladkiyan (1962), Dil Tera Deewana (1962), Apne Hue Paraye (1964), Mere Huzoor (1968), Geet (1970) and Lalkar (1972).