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How Mala Sinha's choice of roles is an example for modern actresses

An actress who rose past the glamour and charm surrounding her peers, Mala Sinha built a career on intelligent roles. On her 80th birthday, we look at the stellar career of a brilliant actress. 

Shriram Iyengar

It is tough for a Hindi film heroine to find space on her own. In an industry that often views women as eye candy or the romantic angle, Mala Sinha held her own against leading men like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Sunil Dutt.

Born to Albert Sinha, a Nepalese Christian, she was named Alda Sinha. The name earned her the ridicule of friends and schoolmates. In an interview, she recollected, "My parents christened me Alda Sinha. Everybody in school called me Dalda Sinha. How I hated my name! Dad and Mum never called me Alda though. To them, I was always their little 'Baby'. Soon, the entire school was calling me 'Baby Sinha' too." It was as 'Baby' Sinha that she made her entry in cinema.

It was with the Bengali film Roshanara (1952) that she made her first appearance as a leading lady on screen. It was not to be her big breakthrough, however. It was while Sinha was shooting for a Bengali film in Bombay that Geeta Bali spotted her. The poise and charming beauty of Sinha led Bali to reccomend her to director Kidar Sharma, who later cast her as the lead in Rangeen Raatein (1957).

By then, however, Sinha had already signed a number of films that were to show signs of her intelligence. In 1954, she played Ophelia in the Hindi adaptation of Hamlet by Kishore Sahu. She followed it up by playing the effervescent Marzia in Sohrab Modi's Nausherwan-e-Adil (1957), which had another mercurial actor in Raaj Kumar. 

A dedicated actress, she often attributed her success to her conviction. In an oft-repeated quote, she would say, "I was not as good-looking as Madhubala, all I had going for me was talent." Talent and conviction in her choices defined Mala Sinha. With time, she fine-tuned her skills to provide a balance of intelligence and sensuality.

In Pyaasa (1957), she found one of the highlights of her career. In a culture that often expects its heroines to be above blame, Sinha chose to take on the role of an ambitious, selfish woman who ditches her poet-lover for a more practical choice. Though it was her contemporary Waheeda Rehman who walked away with the acclaim, Sinha's choice was reflective of her intelligence.

With Guru Dutt in Pyaasa (1957)

Incidentally, Sinha often played the 'fallen woman' to great acclaim. Films like Dharmputra (1961), Gumrah (1963), Anpadh (1962), and Pyaasa (1957) were examples. The only anomaly was the Raj Kapoor starrer Phir Subha Hogi (1958), where she played the pure woman who saves Kapoor's condemned soul. But then Raj Kapoor was her favourite star and so she was unlikely to refuse any opportunity to work with him.

In Dhool Ka Phool (1959), Sinha played an unwed mother. The film was her first big hit and won her the Filmfare award for Best Actress. Her portrayal of the courageous woman who stands up for her husband, played by Guru Dutt, in Bahurani (1963) was another example. Her roles on screen depicted the power of an actress who was an equal to her heroes, and not just another heroine. In this, she merits comparison with the brilliant tragedienne, Meena Kumari, her contemporary. 

It is no wonder that this daring actress caught the eye of the showman, Raj Kapoor. Between 1957 and 1960, Sinha signed three films with Kapoor – Parvarish (1958), Phir Subha Hogi (1958), and Main Nashe Mein Hoon (1959). At the same time, her stock rose with her casting alongside Dev Anand in films like Love Marriage (1958) and Maya (1961). If Sinha had accepted the role in Ram Aur Shyam (1967), she would have had roles opposite every one of the trinity of Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand-Dilip Kumar. But she refused the role as 'too silly'. Mumtaz later took up the role of the village belle in the film. 

It is not that Sinha never played a village belle. She did it to great praise in Himalay Ki Godmein (1965). The film won her the Bengal Film Journalist Association's award for Best Actress. Sinha could refuse Dilip Kumar because she possessed the ability to carry films on her own. An actress with a firm belief in the story, she often picked films alongside newcomers like Dharmendra in Anpadh, Manoj Kumar in Hariyali Aur Raasta (1962), or alongside a fading star like Biswajeet in Do Kaliyan (1968).

With Manoj Kumar in Hariyali Aur Rasta (1958)

The arrival of a new generation of actresses like Jaya Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Mumtaz in the 1970s led to a decline in the choices offered to Sinha. However, she never grudged them their fame. As she said in an interview, "There was no rivalry between us. We always praised each other’s work. Actresses in my time encouraged one another." 

Having married the Nepali actor CP Lohani in 1968, Mala Sinha continued to do films. In a later interview, she said, "Of course my husband had laid down a pre-condition that I quit films after marriage. I had even agreed. But good offers continued to pour in, even after the wedding. I became lalchi [avaricious] and continued to accept the offers. Initially, my husband was a bit upset. Fortunately he wasn't a nag. So he let me pursue my career."

Sinha's career continued to be built around character roles. She won great acclaim for playing a grey-haired woman opposite Sanjeev Kumar in Zindagi (1976). It was the last major role she would play. Since 1992, she has stayed away from the public eye. 

In a recent interaction with the media, Sinha pointed to Vidya Balan as an example of her own style in films. Vidya's ability to carry off film roles even when cast opposite big stars is incredible. If Sinha sees a bit of herself in Vidya, it is no surprise. After all, this is an actress who stood opposite Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman and made a mark.

Also Read: Mala Sinha's finest roles