Mumtaz: The ‘B-Grade Actress’ Who Became A Superstar
A modern example of India’s shared heritage with Iran, her career was itself nothing short of a film story.
Enamored of the silver screen when young, she began with child roles. But on coming of age, found no major actor ready to share screen space with her apart from a real — and real-life — strongman, until the foremost thespian of the time gave her a rare chance.
After Dilip Kumar agreed to Mumtaz as one of the romantic partners for one of the twins in “Ram Aur Shyam”, there was no looking back for her. Male actors, who had once spurned her as a ‘B-grade’ actress were now more than ready to accept her. She was so much sought after that a superstar of the time, with whom she had a string of successes, reportedly went into a sulk if she acted with other heroes.
But Mumtaz, who, with her large expressive eyes that could reflect everything from saucy innocence to sparkling sensuality to hurt anguish, a voluptuous yet lithe figure, emoting capacity, dancing skills, and a readiness to experiment, did not presume much on her fortune.
After barely a decade as one of Bollywood’s most popular actresses and a sex symbol of the age, she married a rich NRI businessman and soon bid adieu to the film world at the peak of her career.
Her marital life was not always smooth, and she battled long with cancer but finally was able to celebrate her 75th birthday.
Born in the then Bombay on July 31, 1947, Mumtaz Askari’s father was an Indian and her mother Iranian. She gained her first glimpse of the celluloid world when she accompanied her sibling, who had got into acting, to a set, and soon became a child artiste herself when she was 11.
As she grew older and sought starring roles, she only got bit roles in films like O.P. Ralhan’s “Gehra Daag”, and Sunil Dutt’s star “Mujhe Jeene Do” (both 1963). One bigger role was as the second heroine in the Persian epic “Rustam Sohrab” (1963), where she plays Sohrab’s (Prem Nath) love interest.
It was only Dara Singh, seeking to step into the celluloid world himself, who accepted her as a co-star in a string of action thrillers, such as “Veer Bhimsen”, “Samson”, “Hercules”, “Baaghi” (all 1964), “Tarzan Comes to Delhi”, “Tarzan and King Kong”, “Son of Hatimtai”, “Sikandar-e-Azam”, “Rustom-e-Hind”, “Raaka”, “Jadui Angoothi” (all 1965), “Daku Mangal Singh” (1966), and so on. Mumtaz and Dara Singh would turn into relatives when her sister married his younger brother Randhawa.
While she was making a decent amount of money, Mumtaz could have been trapped in this rut. It was a small role of a village belle, opposite comedian Mehmood, playing a wannabe director, in the laugh riot “Pyar Kiye Jaa” (1966) that proved to be a watershed.
According to accounts, Mehmood was impressed with her acting and recommended her to Dilip Kumar as casting for “Ram Aur Shyam” was underway. Dilip Kumar, the helpful man he was, assented and she was chosen to play the boisterous Shyam’s friend Shanta, who falls in love with the cowed-down Ram when fate leads to the twins’ exchanging places.
All avenues opened to her following the success of “Ram Aur Shyam”. a strong showing in the romantic potboiler “Patthar Ke Sanam” (1967), whereas the second lead heroine, her elfin charm stood up to Waheeda Rehman’s grace in a song like “Tauba yeh matwaali chaal”, and then in Shammi Kapoor’s “Brahmachari” (1968), in which Mumtaz played a vamp out to dupe a promiscuous villain.
“Do Raaste” (1969), and then “Khilona” (1970), in which Mumtaz bravely took up the role of a prostitute — which was turned down by many others and went on to get her first and only Filmfare Award — further cemented her position. She even held her own against Zeenat Aman as the hero’s love interest in “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” (1971)
Mumtaz struck up good chemistry with Rajesh Khanna — and all their 10-odd films, from “Do Raaste” (1969) to “Prem Kahanai” (1975), including notables like “Aap Ki Kasam”, “Roti”, and “Apna Desh”, was known for their peppy songs.
She did films with Feroz Khan, Jeetendra, Dharmendra, and Shashi Kapoor, some of whom had spurned her earlier as a “mere stunt actress”, before calling it a day at the height of her fame.
She did attempt one comeback in 1990, but it wasn’t successful, and she did not repeat the venture again.
What marked Mumtaz’s brief, but stellar film foray were her kinetic performances in songs of her films and that is how she will be remembered for long. Let us look at a few of them.
She left an impact in songs where she was serenaded or remembered — “Phir tumhari yaad aayi hai sanam” (“Rustam Sohrab”), “Tauba yeh matwali chaal” (“Patthar Ke Sanam”) and “Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai” (“Loafer”). But she also created a sensation with her energetic jiving in “O meri maina, tu maan le mera kehna” (“Pyaar Kiye Jaa”).
In “Brahmachari”, she proved a sari is no bar to shaking a leg with full-on energy as she matched Shammi Kapoor in “Aaj kal tere mere pyaar ke charche”, and then went on to show she could exhibit grace too with “Bindiya chamkegi” (“Do Raaste”).
But some of her most memorable songs were from her hits with Rajesh Khanna — the gay abandon of “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar” (“Aap Ki Kasam”, 1974), the intrinsic playfulness of “Gore rang pe na ghuman kar”, and the gentle silliness of “Chal dariya mein kud jaaye” (“Prem Kahani”, 1975).
And finally, the brazen effrontery of “Le jayenge, le jayenge dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge” (“Chor Machaye Shor”, 1974), where she is an effective foil to the irrepressible Shashi Kapoor.