Zeenat Aman was never really my No.1 favourite actress.
She was strikingly attractive but there were others I considered more classically beautiful. She could light up the screen but there were others more renowned for their acting chops.
She was undeniably a star but in a crowded galaxy.
I would never have predicted that I would become a real fan of Zeenat Aman when, at age 70-plus, she reincarnated as an Instagram star.
A few months ago, a friend asked me, “Do you follow Zeenat Aman on Instagram?”
I had shrugged. I follow almost no stars on social media. Their content is mostly PR drivel.
“You must follow her,” my friend insisted. “It’s really her. It’s her voice.”
It was a funny thing to say. Since neither of us really knew Zeenat Aman, we had no way of judging whether her Insta posts were really her voice. But when I checked out her account, it was instantly clear that this was refreshingly different from most celebrity accounts. She was not trying to give gyan (advice) or rub our noses in the fabulousness of her life.
She really was not trying to sell anything. She was not even selling Zeenat Aman.
In one of her very first posts, she wrote that she was often the only woman on the set during fashion shoots. It was no accident that her first Instagram pictures were taken by a young woman “in the comfort of my home. No lights, no makeup artist, no hairdresser, no stylist, no assistants. Just a lovely sunny afternoon together.”
“Just a lovely sunny afternoon together” is probably the best way to describe the feel of her Instagram account. She is putting the social back into social media.
Now she stands poised to become a gay icon. Towards the end of Pride Month, Zeenat Aman posted a message where she had teamed up with Google India for their #searchforchange campaign. Instead of speaking to the LGBTQ+ community (because “they know their own experiences best”), she said as an ally she would be better off talking to those struggling to accept queer people. She used Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem, Where the Mind Is Without Fear, to make her point.
“If you are someone who carries apprehensions about queerness, I urge you to not be a slave to the dead habit of hate or ignorance…. The shame lies not so much in being ignorant, but in choosing ignorance.”
It provoked a gush of compliments. But film writer Aseem Chhabra probably summed it up best when he said simply, “Gosh how much we need @thezeenataman for our times!”
We didn’t realise it but we do.
At one time, gay icons tended to be tragic figures—glamorous, beautiful, artistic but tortured. Judy Garland, the original gay icon, died of an overdose at 47. “She expressed heartbreak so eloquently,” Hollywood writer Bruce Vilanch told Yahoo Life, trying to explain her simpatico connection with gay fans. She was damaged and a survivor, beloved yet always searching for love—something that gay men could romanticise. In more closeted times, they could use the shimmering yet tragic arc of her story as a way to write themselves into popular culture.
Princess Diana was another gay icon—beautiful, sensitive and doomed, truly a candle in the wind. This was the popular notion of a gay life—the candle burning out long before the legend ever did. It’s no surprise that many gay Indians chose Meena Kumari as their gay icon. She fit the template on screen and off it.
But times have changed. And new times need new icons, maybe even with happier endings. Zeenat Aman has not had an easy life. There has been heartbreak and horrendous physical violence. But she is an icon for our times because she has survived it, come out on the other side and wears the weight of her past lightly. As her first post simply says, “Laughing at the places life takes me. Why hello there, Instagram.”
“A gay icon is someone who represents the determination to be who they are—and (is) unapologetic for it,” said Vilanch.
That’s Zeenat Aman circa 2023. In an article for Vogue India, Aman writes, “As a leading actor in the ’70s, I was always a subject of conversation, but almost never on my own terms.” Instagram has been so liberating for her, she has wisely turned down all interview requests. The media would have wanted to put her in a box of their choosing. She wanted to step out of the box, one Instagram caption at a time.
That’s where another aspect of being an icon comes in beyond the double whammy of glamour and heartbreak. Cultural critic Richard Dyer wrote in the book Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars And Society that some gay men identified with Judy Garland because of her rejection of the ordinariness that seemed to be her destiny as a child. The Wizard Of Oz exemplified that transformation fantasy—a tornado that plucks her Dorothy out of the cornfields and gingham checks of Kansas and deposits her in Oz, where she gathers a crew of misfit friends—a lion, a tin woodman and a scarecrow. Dorothy helped Judy Garland become an icon. Curiously, at one time homosexuals too were called Dorothy’s friends.
In that sense, it’s tempting to go through Zeenat Aman’s career and try to map her career to her new status as icon. Was her bindass persona on screen always the liberation we craved inside our buttoned-down lives? Many of her posts address the past, whether it’s about the criticism of over-sexualising Rupa in Satyam Shivam Sundaram or the backstory behind her breakthrough role in Hare Rama Hare Krishna. She was, after all, India’s first bona-fide “sex symbol”, with polka dots, bikinis and bindis or just wet in white.
Arman Khan, executive editor, Vogue India, writes in the magazine that sex symbol is a term that “usually reduces women to just their looks” but at a time when India was grappling with its own sense of itself as a nation, Aman “was unafraid to celebrate the human form in its many variations, despite receiving criticism for it”.
And now she is unafraid to celebrate her current avatar as well, grey hair and all. She writes that she was initially reluctant to stop dyeing her hair, especially in a world where as we age “men are bequeathed gravitas but women are best offered sympathy”. But she decided to own her age and her hair. Princess Di and Judy Garland never had to face old age, they remain eternally and somewhat tragically young in the minds of those who loved them. Zeenat Aman at 70-plus is utterly stylish and glamorous not despite her silver bob but in part because of it. There’s something very liberating about that. This is kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces together, but with a silver bob rather than powdered gold.
There’s a danger here, though, in the so-called second innings of Zeenat Aman. Icon-isation is also a Botox of sorts, a way to freeze someone in our own imagination. There will be pressure on her to become the spokesperson for our causes. Today it might be LGBTQ+ equality, tomorrow it will be the environment, the day after it will be Muslims in India. What she says will be analysed. More dangerously, what she chooses not to say will also be analysed. Unlike the long-gone Lady Diana and Meena Kumari, living icons can be held to task. And inevitably they will disappoint us. She will never be woke enough or patriotic enough or outspoken enough to suit all our tastes or causes. And bored and jaded, we will move on looking for new ways to entertain ourselves and new icons to build and destroy.
As an actor who has been through the churn of the Bollywood machine, Zeenat Aman surely understands the fickle nature of our love only too well. And I hope she wears this new halo with the same lightness of touch with which she surfaced on Instagram, that she does not try too hard to be The Zeenat Aman.
“I need neither sympathy nor defence. I am content in myself,” she wrote in the article for Vogue India.
I just hope and pray she stays that way—the Zeenat Aman she enjoys being, rather than the Zeenat Aman we might want her to be.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.