Hema Malini has never been a darling of the feminists and it’s unlikely she will ever be. The reason, you could argue, is India’s perception of her as a staid, conventional woman. But Gulzar makes a strong contrarian argument in the foreword of Hema Malini’s authorised biography published in 2007.

The media, the poet-filmmaker writes, “projects her as a traditional woman but her choices in life prove that she is more liberal than most of the slogan-shouting feminists we know about.”

Coming from the wise Gulzar, who following in the traditions of Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee tried to apply the parallel cinema sensibility on the commercially popular face of Hema Malini in films like Khushboo, Kinara and Meera, it compels you to think about Hema’s life and career from a fresh perspective.While Gulzar is, of course, referring to her courageous personal life let’s look at how the Dream Girl has also been breaking new grounds on screen. Like most Tamil girls of her generation, Hema learnt to dance from a tender age and took an instant liking to it. In fact, in Bhawana Somaaya’s authorised biography, the author admits that when Hema – who has led, more or less, a private life and keeps the press at bay with her cold and indifferent attitude – first approached her to write a book on her, it was to chronicle her “sojourn as a dancer.

Somaaya suggests that dance became the most important identity of the actress’ life. Instead of following in her father’s secure domain of government service and middle-class academic fulfilment, Hema opted for the life that her artistically-minded mother would have chosen, if she had the privilege of choice.

The great dancer and fellow Tamilian, Vyjayanthimala, may have been an influence on the young Hema. According to Somaaya’s biography of the star, Hema Malini and family visited Vyjayanthimala’s concerts and discussed her performances later at home.

In a twist of fate, Hema’s Bollywood career mirrors Vyjayanthimala’s. She started acting at a young age and in no time, was dancing her way into Bollywood. She made her debut in the late 1960s. Those were the heydeys of Sadhana, Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman, Mumtaz, Saira Banu and Vyjayanthimala.

Hema broke the mould of a Hindi film heroine and made acting look like fun, even though she operated within the conventions of Hindi cinema. She brought a new energy into acting, the way Shammi Kapoor did.

Blessed with a vast range, she excelled in dramatic scenes and was as much at home in comedies. It seems dancing and the emotions involved in the art form informed her acting, which was more instinctive than method-driven. It was rare for Hindi film heroines of the time to be given comic parts – those were reserved for full-time comedians.

But Hema changed that, with brilliant comic portrayals in Sholay and Seeta Aur Geeta, paving the way for someone like Sridevi. Music has been a vital part of Hema’s life as a child and the fact that she’s seen as a highly successful actress who has maximum hit songs to her credit must have come as a beautiful validation of childhood motifs. Hema also dabbled in the non-mainstream cinema, with offbeat films by Gulzar and K.Balachander and in adaptations of works by literary figures like Rajinder Singh Bedi.

She made for a very successful team with Dharmendra and did dozens of films with Rajesh Khanna, Sanjeev Kumar and Jeetendra. Both Sanjeev and Jeetendra were vying for her attention at one point in time only to be rebuffed by her. Already, she was seriously in love with Garam Dharam. Much to the rude shock of her mother, she opted for an uncommon marriage with a much-married Dharmendra.

She’s also one of the few actresses to get into politics and survive its murky, Machiavellian twists and turns. There are some who think her political stint and contribution to public life pales in comparison to her film career. But the jury’s still out on that.

There’s no doubt that Hema’s classic beauty has often come in the way of her real achievements. Her flawless good-looks once inspired the irrepressible Lalu Prasad Yadav to declare (in what was clearly a sexist line), “I’ll make the roads of Bihar as smooth as her cheeks.” But don’t make the mistake of thinking that she has survived so long on her beauty alone. She’s a strong and independent woman who embraced some stereotypes and broke some but always stood by her choices.

Feminists may not think of her as one of her own kind because she was never the bra-burning type. But if you don’t call Hema Malini a feminist I don’t know anyone else who can qualify for being called one.

PS: (Incidentally, she never shed clothes on screen, even in sexually-charged, seductive scenes. But then, are you a feminist only if you dare to bare?).