Going beyond her dream-girl persona to reveal the woman behind the glamour in this authorised biography of actor Hema Malini, Ram Kamal Mukherjee has achieved what his title says. But since the biography is an authorised one, how did he write a balanced story about a life that is as controversial as it is gilded, without offending the subject of his book?
To his credit, Mukherjee does not skirt the numerous controversies that the actor has courted. He presents them as they happened and lets the actor give her point of view as well, which she does in a frank, forthright, and sometimes naive manner.
But more than the controversies, it is the de-glamorised aspects of her life that hold the reader's attention. For instance, looking at her highly successful career of over five decades, who would say that Hema Malini was reluctant to face the camera when producer C V Sridhar offered to launch her as a heroine? "I was very shy and petrified of exploring new avenues," she reveals.
Her father, VSR Chakravarti, was also dead against her stepping into the world of films, proud as he was of her reputation as a classical dancer. However, her mother, Jaya Chakravarti, was keen to see her teenage daughter expand her horizon. A cold war ensued between her parents, with her father even going on a hunger strike; but her strong-willed mother eventually had her way. "Now when I look back on those incidents, they seem like a nightmare," recalls the actor.
As destiny would have it, that first film did not happen. After a much-publicised launch and a few days of filming, Sridhar abruptly dropped Hema from the project. The young girl's first reaction was one of immense relief. But then the humiliated look on her mother's face made her determined to be an actor!
The reluctant actor went on to reign over the silver screen for more than 50 years, first as a leading lady who was on par with her heroes, then as a senior actor holding her own against newcomers. From Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Raj Kumar to Jeetendra, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Sanjeev Kumar, Vinod Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and even Rishi Kapoor, Hema acted with a whole gamut of actors. Seeing her unbridled performances in films like Seeta Aur Geeta and Sholay, no one would imagine she was once shy or reluctant to don the greasepaint.
But other more-exciting things also happened on her sets. During the shooting of Seeta Aur Geeta, both her heroes fell helplessly in love with her. Bachelor Sanjeev Kumar is said to have first expressed his feelings. But Hema turned him down. "Don't ask me about these things now," Hema says firmly when asked about this phase. "I am a mother of two daughters, and a grandmother; it is embarrassing."
By the time Sholay was made, Dharmendra was sure of his feelings and decided to play Veeru instead of Gabbar to prevent Sanjeev Kumar from playing Veeru, the romantic lead opposite Hema. The entire crew knew he was besotted, and they played along. From light boys who were bribed to mess up the lighting so that romantic scenes would have many retakes, to director Ramesh Sippy, in whom he confided, everyone was witness to their blossoming affair.
Talking about her feelings for the married actor, Hema confesses, "I liked him - I couldn't deny that he was attractive and strongâ€¦ I tried turning away from him. But I couldn't."
She was at the peak of her career when, in the face of severe opposition, the conservatively brought up Hema married Dharmendra. But the marriage didn't put a break to her career. She continued doing leads in films, even playing a rifle-toting dacoit. She signed many a film indiscriminately because she suddenly discovered she had huge tax arrears to clear. Despite her father's advice, her mother had neglected this aspect of Hema's profession. "They would often have arguments about it," relates the dutiful daughter who balanced her personal life with her professional to clear her dues, taking 10 long years to do this.
When she finally decided to stop facing the camera to spend more time with her daughters, the actor went through the dilemma most career women go through when family triumphs over profession. "I didn't like it initially," she states with typical candour. "After Esha was born, I would accompany Dharam-ji on his shoots. I would see Rekha, Jaya Prada, Sridevi, Anita Raajâ€¦ playing the female lead. It used to hurt me because, till a few months ago, I enjoyed that position opposite Dharam-ji."
But Hema bounced back when her daughters were older. From acting in, producing and directing films to dancing ballets, singing, politics... Hema made up for lost time with gusto.
Nominated to the Rajya Sabha, she diligently learned the ropes of governance and faced the rigours of election to win from Mathura, a constituency she is personally attached to, being an ardent devotee of Krishna.
Building bridges and schools, providing electricity and water supply, Mukherjee is witness to her being a hands-on politician.
It has been a full life, with the actor playing all her roles with aplomb - daughter, actor, wife, mother, grandmother, politician. It has not always been easy, but she has taken the highs and lows in her stride, maintaining an amazingly serene exterior. "Many things happen around me, but I don't let myself getaffected. Maybe my guru guides meâ€¦" is her explanation.
While Mukherjee has narrated this amazing woman's amazing story in an engrossing manner, photographer Vickky Idnaani has captured her inner glow in a cover picture that says it all.
Radiant, confident, and 70 years young!