Hema Malini: As a dancer, I can be on stage for a lifetime

This year, Hema Malini completes 42 years in Hindi films. To the timeless actor, dance is puja, passion...her real-life persona. In this exclusive interview, she discusses the significance of dance in her life

Hema malini
Image courtesy: Kent Mineral RO

This year, Hema Malini completes 42 years in Hindi films. From the gawky girl introduced as Raj Kapoor’s heroine in Sapnon Ka Saudagar [1968], the dream girl has come a long way. Not only is she Hindi cinema’s longest reigning box-office queen, but she also continues to combine her acting career with her classical dancing.

She is among the few actresses who didn’t fade away after marriage and motherhood. In 1983, when she was pregnant for the first time, she happened to read Irving Wallace’s The Second Lady and decided to launch herself as a producer with Sharara, a desi adaptation of the novel. The film starred Hema in a double role with Raaj Kumar playing her husband.

Soon, Hema forayed into television with Nupoor, a tele-serial based on the life of a dancer, produced, written and directed by her. Next, she was ready to debut as a director with Dil Aashna Hai.

In 2000, she made a comeback with co-star Amitabh Bachchan in Baghban and continues to successfully combine different performing mediums.

Dance remains Hema’s first love and she has managed to lure the audience with varied ballets like Durga, Meera, Ramayana, Savitri and Radha Krishna.

In this exclusive interview, conducted at her bungalow in Juhu, Hema discusses the significance of dance in her life.

I believe dance has enriched me.It makes me stand apart. As a leading lady, I can rule the roost for a decade, and if I’m fortunate, a little longer. But as a dancer, I can be on stage for a lifetime. In show business, there comes a phase when you have to cross over from being the heroine to character roles, but not in dance.

As a dancer, you can perform the same role and abhinay at 17 and also at 70, provided you are in good health and your limbs and muscles move. Unlike in films where you have to retire some day, dance is a timeless bond. When you are older and find it difficult to move as nimbly, you can launch an academy and teach dance… there are so many options. I want to do that but I’m in no hurry, for, I believe that things happen when they have to and when they do, it is the right time.

And I was named Hema Malini.

I sometimes feel that it is my mother’s bhakti and tapasya that has brought me so far. Few people know this, but she was an accomplished painter and a singer. In her pregnancy itself, she had decided that if she had a daughter, she would groom her into an artiste.

I was named Hema Malini because she liked the sound of it and felt it was an appropriate name for a classical dancer. In those days my parents had a family friend, Vijay Raghavan, an ICS officer whose daughter, a very beautiful and talented Bharatanatyam dancer, was called Hema Malini. My mother was so impressed with her, that she named me after her.

Artiste in the making

I started learning dance when I was only five years old. When they first tied the bells around my tiny ankles and demonstrated the adavus and the mudras, it hurt terribly but I wasn’t allowed to take them off. “You will get used to them,” my mother said firmly and I did. Within a week, I was wearing the heavy anklets and bending and twirling, without complaints.

I began giving public performances at prestigious gatherings at a tender age. Since we were based in Delhi, opportunities to perform before ministers came often. I remember recitals clearly.

Before going on stage, my mother’s standard line to me used to be, “Concentrate, don’t get nervous, and don’t make mistakes.” She’d make me bow before the idol of Lord Nataraja and say my prayers. Something always stirred in the pit of my stomach just before the curtains went up. Then slowly, as the music started, it would all begin to feel familiar again.

Once, I was dancing at a sabha where veteran actress Vyjayanthimala was present. She looked very beautiful and graceful. After the show, she shook hands with me and was very encouraging. That was a special moment for me, more so, for my mother. Mother had a knack of making me perfect my dance. Whenever I was up to mischief, whenever I disobeyed her or made her angry, dance was imposed on me as a punishment. I was pushed into my room and ordered to practice Allarippu, Jatiswaram and Shabdam until she asked me to stop. This happened periodically. As a result, I could perform all the dances flawlessly even with my eyes shut.

As I grew older, I insisted on doing my rehearsals in my room. It was a device to cheat mother—once the door was locked, I’d stand before the mirror and loudly sing the song without actually doing the steps. Still young, the enormity of my art hadn’t dawned on me… the realisation came much later. As I said, there is a time and place for everything in life.

blankStage v/s screen

I have accomplished all I have as a dancer because I began young and pursued it against all odds. Initially, there was resentment from the film fraternity. The producers said performing on stage will decline my stardom but my mother was adamant. She said I was first a dancer and cannot give up dance for the sake of films. They relented grudgingly. It was not easy balancing time and dates for films and shows but we managed somehow. On stage my stardom was both, an advantage and also a disadvantage. I invariably got a full house but the film-going audience expected popular dance from me for which I was not willing to perform. It was a tough call. Ultimately, my father resolved the conflict.

“You will have to find a way in between the two art forms,” he advised. “That’s the only way we can retain audience from both the worlds.” It made sense to me and, together, we worked out a new profile for me. It was my father’s idea that I perform ballets inspired from mythology—he set meetings with writers and music composers to script Ramayana, Durga, Meera and several others. Meera was my father’s favourite ballet, while my favourite was Durga; it’s still my favourite. Ever since I began performing Durga, I’ve started fasting on Fridays. Not because that is the day of the Goddess but because I want to. Durga is traditionally associated with the colour red, but I deliberately wear blue and the audience has accepted this.

It is all about faith and when you are convinced, the audience submits to it as well.

Dancing is fulfilling

The best part about dance is that it helps you as a yoga exercise. It calms your nerves and improves your blood circulation. But dance is part of show business too and the more successful we become, the more the audience expects from us. In our pursuit to not let them down, we aspire for excellence. In films, they judge you from film to film. On stage, they watch you every minute. The fulfilment I feel after a three-hour show on stage is something a film can never match. In films you work in fragmented frames, you switch on and off from your character. On stage you transform into the character. That’s why it’s important to portray inspiring characters.

My father wanted me to play courageous leaders and that is also the reason perhaps why gurus ask you to pray and turn vegetarian because spirituality plays an important role in artistic expression.

This was first published in the September 2010 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Bhawana Somaaya
Bhawana Somaaya has been writing about Hindi cinema for over 35 years. She is a film critic, columnist and author of 12 books which includes biographies of Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. Her books are a point of reference for students studying cinema at Whistling Woods and Manipal University. She has served on Advisory Panel of Censor Board of Film Certificate in India, is Chair Person of TIFF (Tigerland India Film Festival), Madhya Pradesh and on Governing Council FTII, Pune. Somaaya is currently the Entertainment Editor at 927BigFM Radio channel.



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