Happy Birthday Hema!!!! Such a happy day. A happy day for a happy person.
Happy Birthday Hema! 72 years old today, grandmother of three (or four?), respected member of the upper house, and it’s hard to remember what a wild journey got us here.
Hemaji was born in Madras/Chennai in a Tamil family. She went to high school, studied classical dance, a nice middle-class existence. As a teenager, she started having bit parts in Tamil films. Not unusual for someone in her position, local to the film industry city, with dance training, common enough for a friend of the family to ask her to do some bit parts for a lark. It all changed when she was 19 and Raj Kapoor offered her a role in his next film. Raj was always on the look out for a new actress, a new face to promote and get folks excited. Hema had a different look to her, and dance talents, a good choice.
Her first movie flopped, but she herself was a hit, named “Dream Girl”. She went on to be cast in film after film after film, playing everything from a single mother widow in Andaz, to a part of a smuggling gang in Johnny Mere Naam. She was just so darn charming onscreen that the audience could forgive her anything. Pretty soon films were being written for her, for this unconventional cheerful fearless smiling lady.
The thing is (and I feel bad saying this on her birthday), but Hemaji is not an actress with a very wide range. No matter what role she is playing, she always feels like Hemaji. But there is a flipside to that, in a world of saintly sickeningly sweet heroines, Hema would never fit. No matter how you wrote the character, her essentially spunkiness shown through. And the audience responded to that, responded to an actress who felt different from all other heroines, but at the same time the same film to film. Pretty soon she was one of the rare Hindi film actresses to actually get top billing, to be the big draw for her films.
Hemaji couldn’t fit into a box onscreen, and she definitely couldn’t fit into a box off screen. She started acting in Hindi films at 20, normally that would mean she was married and retired by 25. Or, alternatively, that she would be an aggressively “bad girl” like Rekha who presented herself as beyond marriage. But Hema found her own way. She didn’t marry until 32, but somehow she never felt like a “bad girl” either. Not even when (it was widely rumored) every single man in the film industry was after her. Of course, they were after her for marriage, because she was respectable. Supposedly during the filming of Sholay, Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar almost came to blows over her, and when she had made her choice clear (Dharmendra), Sanjeev started drinking himself to death.
Thank goodness Hemaji chose Dharmendra, who knows what would have happened if she had stayed unattached to innocently capture the hearts of all who met her! But by the end of the filming of Sholay, it was clear that Hema and Dharmendra were together forever. This should have been shocking, seeing as Dharmendra was a married man, but somehow Hema made it feel acceptable.
For 5 years, Hema and Dharmendra were a couple and the whole world knew it, and didn’t care. Or rather, liked it! They were wonderful onscreen together, Dharmendra’s super masculine presence wound around her little perky finger. It just felt right for them to be together, despite the age difference, Dharmendra’s marriage, and Hema getting older and older and still unmarried. Really, the biggest objection people felt was that Dharmendra was still in love with a dead woman, Meena Kumari who he had loved as a young actor and cared for until her death. Hema and Meena had a lot in common, similar charisma onscreen and fearless way of living. Perhaps Hema reminded Dharmendra of Meena?
And then, after 5 years of not being married, suddenly it was the marriage itself that shocked everyone! It’s accepted that Hema and Dharmendra are married, but the legalities of it are a bit confused. Some rumors say that Dharmendra converted to Islam on paper in order to take advantage of the Muslim marriage laws that allow for multiple wives. Sometimes, I wonder if they just went through the religious ceremony and never filed legally. There is a long tradition of plural marriages through out Indian culture, perhaps they just went with the cultural tradition and didn’t worry about the legality of it. However it happened, they announced they were married and it was a bit shocking, but no one questioned the bare fact of the matter.
The officially married, and Hema had two daughters, Esha and Ahana. And she kept working. So, a working mother married to an already married man, she should be shocking and horrible and “bad”. Or, alternatively, she should balance her “bad” behavior with saintly perfect onscreen behavior. But Hema didn’t bother with any of that. She was still just Hema, doing her spunky fun roles onscreen, appearing in public with her husband on occasion, raising her daughters.
Hema didn’t really slow down until 90s when she began to work more with her dance troupe, doing shows and classes, as her age made it harder and harder for her to get heroine parts. She kept working off and on through the 90s, until the 2000s when she entered politics. She was elected first in 2003 and has remained in office with a couple two year gaps since then. She also helped launch her daughter Esha in film, then got both daughters married after Esha’s career ended, and now is a doting grandmother.
She’s Hema, is what I am saying. Not a good girl or a bad girl, a glamorous grandmother and a dedicated public servant. You can’t make her fit into anything, and she doesn’t seem to want to fit into anything. She is always simply fearlessly herself.