In the authorised biography Hema Malini Beyond the Dream Girl, the 1970s and ’80s star looks back on her career highs and lows, her relationship with co-star Dharmendra, and her love for classical dance. Hema Malini was to have made her debut in a Tamil film directed by CV Sridhar, but was dropped at the last minute, only to be signed on for Sapno K Saudagar, starring Raj Kapoor, in 1968. This was the first movie to refer to Hema Malini as ‘Dream Girl’ – an appellation that stuck and went on to define her life in front of and away from the camera.

After the initial setback, the C.V. Sridhar episode left both Jaya and Hema more resolute in their decision to make Hema an actress. The focus was now back on dance recitals, but they also quietly bided their time, waiting for the next good film offer to come their way.

One of those impressed by this young, beautiful dancer was B. Ananthaswami, a Tamil producer who was making a Hindi film with none other than Raj Kapoor. The schedule was ready, but they were waiting for a fresh new face to cast opposite the showman. If Hema was in need of a godfather, here he was, with an offer of a lifetime. ‘Ananthaswami had made it very clear to us right from the start that all the decisions for the film would be taken by Raj Kapoor. The film was being produced by a south Indian producer who had blocked bulk dates for Raj saab, right after Sangam. They were now very keen on casting a fresh south Indian face who could also dance well and match up to the status of Vyjayanthimala,’ Hema recollects.

When Ananthaswami offered to cast Hema as the lead, the sixteen-year-old promptly sat up and said, ‘Yes, I am ready.’ Jaya was still recovering from the rejection by C.V. Sridhar in Madras and was sceptical.

The news of Hema this time going as far as signing a film as the female lead left her father fuming. He stopped eating at home and his arguments with Jaya only worsened. ‘My brothers and I were not included in the details, for we were trained not to ask questions,’ Hema remembers. ‘In short, we continued to feel frightened and uneasy. On the fourth day, finally, my father gave up. He agreed to eat his meal and for the time being at least there was a truce! I still don’t know how they resolved the problem but I was given the green signal. One thing I was certain about was that my father wasn’t against my classical dances at sabhas and festival functions … but my acting in films somehow made him uncomfortable. I think he was very conscious of what his office colleagues would say.’

Accent training

To make her debut in cinema opposite Raj Kapoor – it was as if the cosmos was making an announcement. Many said Hema’s role had first been offered to Vyjayanthimala who hadn’t shown much interest. But it is also a fact that the thespian himself was keen on starring opposite a debutante. Either way, for Hema Malini, this was the greatest start she could have imagined. For the second time in her life, her grooming for films was under way. From costume trials to diction classes, nothing was spared. In fact, when the director Mahesh Kaul realized how strong Hema’s Tamil accent was, he had to hire a professional to help modify it. Lakshmi Sharma, the announcer and newsreader from All India Radio, Bombay, was a well-known name, popular for her chaste Hindi and perfect diction. She trained Hema in language and dialogue delivery.

For the first eight months in Bombay, while Sapno Ka Saudagar was being shot, Jaya and Hema stayed at B. Ananthaswami’s house. Almost a mentor to the young actor, he made them feel at home and only after the release of the film, once other film offers started pouring in, did they move out and take up a place on rent. ‘For a very short period, I stayed in Shanmukhananda Guest House at Matunga with Amma. It was a small room and I used to feel claustrophobic after shooting in a studio the whole day. When Appa came to know that we didn’t have a place to stay, he decided to rent an apartment in Khar,’ says Hema.

Dreaming up the Dream Girl

Apart from being her mentor, it was Ananthaswami who was responsible for the famous tag line that went on to classify Hema Malini as the embodiment of all things sublime and ethereal … a celestial beauty, an embodiment of divinity and grace.

When the producer was designing the posters for the film, Ananthaswami added the words ‘Raj Kapoor’s Dream Girl’ just below Hema’s face. Months before the release, the bigger cities had life-size cutouts of the debutante, a never-before-seen experience.

‘It was Mr Ananthaswami who came up with this idea,’ Hema recollects. ‘We thought that it was a publicity stunt and people would forget about it after the film released. A few of the posters were really funny. They had things like “forty-four-year-old Raj Kapoor in love with sixteen-year-old Hema Malini” written on them! I was enjoying the entire publicity gimmick. After Sapno Ka Saudagar released, the press and people started calling me “Dream Girl”. I could see how the name had caught on. People often asked me if I made an effort to live up to the name. I didn’t! The tag came as a surprise to me. I guess my face and my personality went well with the general image of an Indian woman. Anybody could relate to my face – it’s a typical Indian face. Yes, the only thing I did do was never accept roles that would embarrass or hurt my family or my fans in any way. So, the name stuck on. Distributors and producers continued using it. But nowadays I feel embarrassed when people call me “Dream Girl”. I am hardly a girl anymore!’

Sapno Ka Saudagar is the story of a kidnapped princess who grows up as a gypsy girl. In the film, the character, played by Hema, falls in love with Raj Kapoor – a messiah of love, out to cleanse the world. While the songs were a hit, the film received a tepid response. Hema’s skills as an actor were nothing to write home about, but she wasn’t completely dismissed either. Her screen presence and dancing skills were enough to make audiences and producers go weak in the knees. She already had them enthralled.

Excerpted with permission from Hema Malini Beyond the Dream Girl, Ram Kamal Mukherjee, HarperCollins India.