The 1960s saw a string of actresses parade their talents on the silver screen of Hindi cinema — Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayanthimala Bali, Saira Banu, Sharmila Tagore, Asha Parekh, et al. But Sadhana Shivdasani, who passed away last Christmas, stood apart and reigned over Bollywood during an era when Hindi cinema was coming out of the stereotypes of the 1940s and 1950s.
Though not a powerful actress like Rehman and Tagore, she held her own with her fragile beauty, alluring charm, evocative eyes and infectious, almost seductive, smile. Shivdasani, who gave more than a dozen silver jubilee hits, was both a heartthrob and a style icon, commanding a dazzling following.
In fact, she was hailed as a cult figure after she famously introduced the fringe hairstyle, inspired from Audrey Hepburn, which came to be known as 'Sadhana Cut'. There was an aura about Shivdasani who gave the impression of being effortlessly brilliant on screen, whether playing a poor, middle-class young lady or a princess. She was capable of carrying a film.
Shivdasani, who played a college girl apposite Rajendra Kumar in the 1963 romantic musical Mere Mehboob (My Lover) which celebrated a golden jubilee in many cinema halls across India, gave some of her best performances in Raj Khosla's trilogy of heroine-oriented mystery thrillers — Woh Kaun Thi (Who She Was, 1964), Mera Saaya (My Shadow, 1966) and Anita (1967).
The first two, in which Shivdasani was cast in well-delineated double roles against Manoj Kumar and Sunil Dutt respectively, continue to mesmerise cinema buffs. Composer Madan Mohan's melodious music and Lata Mangeshkar's immortal numbers added to the beauty and roaring success, both commercial and critical, of both Woh Kaun Thi and Mera Saaya.
Before Mere Mehboob rocketed her into stardom, Shivdasani had given two major hits, Hum Dono (Both of Us, 1961) and Asli-Naqli (Real and Fake, 1962), opposite the then reigning deity of Hindi cinema, Dev Anand, and hinted at things to come. She was not only charming and charismatic but also equally gifted as an actress.
Close on the heels of Woh Kaun Thi came K. Shankar’s Rajkumar (Prince) in 1964 and Yash Chopra’s blockbuster Waqt (Time) and Ramanand Sagar’s romantic musical Arzoo (Wish) in 1966, which consolidated Shivdasani’s position as Hindi cinema’s leading lady. Many filmmakers believed, not without reasons, that Shivdasani had the Midas touch.
Sadhana Shivdasani was born on September 2, 1941, into a Sindhi family in Karachi in what was then the undivided India. She grew up in an atmosphere conducive to instill passion for acting in her. Her father, who was actor Hari Shivdasani’s brother, insisted on naming her after his favourite actress-dancer Sadhana Bose. In a way, she seemed destined to create ripples in Hindi cinema.
Her family fled to Mumbai in the aftermath of communal riots that broke out following India’s independence in 1947. She was such a precocious student that she was home-schooled by her mother until she was about 10. She later studied at Auxilium Convent and Jai Hind College to pursue an Arts degree. But she could not complete her studies, let alone obtaining the degree.
In 1955, a teen-aged Shivdasani was first seen on the screen, as a chorus girl in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420. Three years later she played second lead to heroine Sheila Ramani in India’s first ever Sindhi film, Abana. Impressed by her performance, noted filmmaker Sashadhar Mukherjee enrolled her in his acting school.
Shivdasani made her debut as lead heroine in Ram Krishna Nayyar’s 1960 romantic film Love in Simla, considered to be among the year’s 10 box office hits, opposite Joy Mukherjee. The audiences took her to heart and she became a darling of the youth overnight.
She and Nayyar fell in love during the making of Love in Simla. They wanted to marry, but her mother strongly disapproved of Nayyar, asking her to marry “someone like Rajendra Kumar”. However, helped by her father, the lovers finally married in 1966. Shivdasani was reported to have an all but happy married life. They had no children. Nayyar died in 1995.
Three months after the release of Love in Simla came Shivdasani’s second film, Bimal Roy’s Parakh (Test), in which she played a village postman’s beautiful but simple daughter. The legendary director cast her in his next venture, Prem Patra (Love Letter, 1962), as well. By the time Hum Dono was set for release, Shivdasani had already carved a niche for herself in Bollywood.
Shivdasani worked in about 40 films and at least 30 of them were highly successful. She would have worked in many more but for the lingering thyroid problem, which began to afflict her much-admired eyes around 1970.
Filmmakers started looking for fresher faces. H.S. Rawail had waited for nearly a year to sign Shivdasani for his blockbuster Mere Mehboob. Now he replaced her with Bali in Sunghursh, opposite Dilip Kumar. Similarly, director Bakshi Ram Prakash Chibber (Pacchi) picked Rajshree Shantaram to play Shivdasani’s role, opposite Raj Kapoor, in Around the World.
She worked in about ten films after 1970, but she looked only a shadow of her beautiful and brilliant self in most of them.
She was bestowed the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) in 2002.