By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Mumbai
(BBC) “I have seen so many naked men,” a young prostitute tells a hesitant client in a 1970 Bollywood film called Chetna, “that I hate clothed men now.”
Rehana Sultan, a 20-year-old debutante fresh out of film school, is playing the role of the prostitute. She’s sprawled on a bed in a blood-red chiffon sari after fixing herself a whiskey, and is trying to coax her unwilling customer to join her in bed.
“I like what I do. Come to me, and I am sure you will like it too,” she says, her eyes fluttering.
Sultan stands up on the bed, and drops her clothes. (The hairdresser on the set has given her a long wig, so the thick, fake tresses cover her upper body.) Then the camera frames her legs in an inverted V, with the man, faintly out of focus, staring at her from the end of the room.
The image becomes India’s most talked about cinema scene and poster of the year.
It was the early 1970s, and time moved slowly in India. Not long ago, censors had banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover to stop “prurient minds which take delight and pleasures from erotic writings”. Bolly-wood was better known for its mawkish song-and-dance fare. Heroines, as filmmaker Shyam Benegal said, were “required to be pure and virginal”.
Chetna, an uneven and gutsy film on the rehabilitation of a prostitute, was a rash outlier. The film, directed by BR Ishara, a chain-smoking maverick, appeared to shock India.
One critic wrote that Sultan “gives a shockingly bold portrait (sic) of the undercover, high-priced whore”. She was called a “trailblazer who ushered in a sexual revolution with her boldly-defiant portrayal of the assertive woman”.
Sultan, chimed another critic, “shatters every canon of the industry by accepting the role of a call-girl and mouthing bold dialogue”. Most appeared to have forgotten the film. They revelled in calling the debutante, the daughter of an electrical goods contractor and a homemaker mother from the sleepy northern city of Allahabad, a “new, bold sex phenomenon”. They believed audiences were flocking to the film to “see more of her legs”.
At the end of the year, another film starring Sultan hit the screens.
Dastak (Knock), directed by respected Urdu writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, was about the travails of a struggling newly-wed couple who unwittingly rented an apartment, previously occupied by a dancing girl, in a red light district in Mumbai.
Sultan played a lonely and tormented woman, trapped in her apartment, while her husband, played by the versatile star Sanjeev Kumar, is away at work. They both suffer knocks on their door from unruly clients of the previous tenant.
Again, the posters showed a scene in the film where Sultan lies on the floor, ostensibly naked. The papers called it a “second-long nude flash” even though she merely bared her shoulder for the scene. The fact is Dastak was not a salacious film.
It is a story, writes Avijit Ghosh in a book on Bollywood classics, of the “dilemmas and choices that often confronted millions of lower middle class Indians in the 1970s”.
In the beginning, Sultan became the toast of tinsel town. Some critics called her the “original superstar of new wave cinema for her two unconventional films”. Her work was appreciated by the iconic Indian director Satyajit Ray. Most importantly, Sultan even picked up the prestigious national award for the best actress for her debut outing. (Dastak was shot before Chetna, but released a few months later.)
But, again, the chatter about her work veered to her “hot scenes” in the dark, unsettling film which was shot in bleak black-and-white.
Well-known critic Firoze Rangoonwala wrote that the “suggestive scenes meant that Indian cinema had reached adulthood at last.” What was conveniently forgotten was that Sultan picked up the prestigious national film award for her debut film. She even made the cover of India’s most popular film magazine.
Sultan soon found herself inundated with what Bollywood loved to call “daring and bold roles”. Producers offered her scripts full of “rain and bathing scenes”, a ruse to show skin. She literally ran away from a film because the producer gave her a “shocking” script. “The lines that I had to speak were not bold, but filthy. It made me sick,” she told a film magazine.
Sultan rejected most of the scripts. She continued to work fitfully in largely unremarkable roles for over a decade, never reprising her early success. There were few interesting roles. After her marriage to Ishara in 1984, she slowly faded out.
“I was typecast for sure. The audiences thought I equalled sexuality which I found risible. Producers came to me with rain scenes, bath tub scenes. I would scoff and tell them, how many Indian homes had bath tubs, why are we being so unrealistic? So I refused a lot of roles,” Sultan told me, when I met her recently in her modest apartment in an upscale Mumbai neighbourhood.
Now 67, she is touchy about being described as a “discard”. “I made mistakes too, I chose the wrong films. People didn’t discard me, I am still welcomed,” she says.
“They ogled at her and dumped her,” says filmmaker Sudhir Mishra, who cast Sultan in a small cameo in a film five years ago. “She was a pioneer in many ways, one of our earliest and rare professionally trained actresses. She was way ahead of her time. The tragedy is that she’s now completely forgotten. It tells us something about India, about how we typecast people and obliterate history.”
At 18, Sultan had applied on a whim for the two-year acting course at India’s Film and Television Institute of India, whose alumni include some of the country’s most stellar film talent. Two weeks and a screen test later, she was in.
She waded through books by method acting guru Konstantin Stanislavski, watched hundreds of films, became a fan of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren and counted Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow among her favourite films. She also acted in dozens of campus films, shot by students.
“She was a very fine, natural actress. She was not coy, and didn’t fit the popular female stereotype of the demure, the seductress,’ says film critic Rauf Ahmed. A journalist who met her wrote that she is a “mature person, who doesn’t giggle like the other overgrown kids in filmdom”.
Sultan’s two-film curse is the stuff of an actor’s worst fear: typecasting. But it also underlines the difficulties actresses have always faced in the largely male-dominated and what many say is misogynist world of Bollywood. Arthouse directors fared little better: when Sultan went to a leading auteur to ask for a role in his film, he told her: “You are a good actress, but you are a commercial cinema heroine”.
“The heroes always had the opportunity to right their wrongs and redeem themselves in our movies,” says Benegal, “Heroines had no second chances, and can get typecast very quickly”.
A critic presciently wrote in the 1970s that the Chetna image has “near-fatally run” over Sultan’s indisputable talent.
“To her audiences – mostly males – Rehana is a three-letter word: sex. She is nothing if she is clothed. Which explains very simply why every film after Dastak and Chetna was greeted with polite and respectful yawns.”
Bollywood has grown up a little over decades, and a bunch of young filmmakers, including a few women, are bravely trying to smash the jaded blockbuster formula. Feisty young actresses like Kangana Ranaut are speaking their minds and taking on the “establishment”.
Far away from the klieg lights, Sultan yearns to return to the studios and says she is open to offers.
“I miss everything about acting. I miss the camera, the atmosphere. I wonder why I stopped acting. I am open to acting again. But will anybody take me now?”