Mumtaz realised an impossible dream. In an industry notorious for its non-egalitarianism, she was that rare actress who rose from non-featured roles to become the most saleable actress of the early 70s, through sheer charm, sunny good humour, and feisty sexuality.
Though Mumtaz, with her youth and jaunty insouciance, very obviously fit into the image of the conventional Hindi film heroine, it took producers a long time to recognise it. Little Mumtaz and her sister, Mallika, had started going to the studios, as soon as they entered their teens, doing whatever roles came their way. Their origins were strictly middle-class but their mother Naaz, and their aunt, Neelofer, had been celebrated beauties in their times. Mumtaz inherited their allure and soon outpaced Mallika as she started winning attention for small roles in major films like Sehra (1963) and Mere Sanam (1965).
Times were hard, she had to counter several ‘put up or shut up’ responses but this born coquette added splashy dimensions of zany fun to even small roles like the semi-autobiographical desperately-seeking-success starlet of Pyaar kiye jaa (1966). A lucky windfall was Dara Singh wave of the mid-60s. Caught up in its sweep, Mumtaz did 16 stunt films with Singh that were sterile artistically but satisfying financially.
No single godfather can claim credit for lifting this self-made maiden out of this rut. When Dilip Kumar agreed to have her as one of his heroines in Ram aur Shyam (1967), her stock went soaring. When V. Shantaram replaced daughter Rajshree with Mumtaz in Boond jo ban gayi Moti (1968), she fainted with joy. But all that star appeal that had been dormant for years finally ignited like a firecracker when in 1969 Mumtaz met her ‘match’ in Rajesh Khanna. Do Raaste, Sachcha Jhootha, Apna Desh and Dushman made them the premiere box-office duet to die for.
Mumtaz became the toast of the early 70s. She magnanimously forgave those who had snubbed her in the past. Shashi Kapoor had once rejected films opposite her, yet she cheerily did Chor Machaye Shor when he was going through a low phase. Mumtaz strongly espoused the cause of the other artistes. Her protégéé, Shatrughan Sinha, swears eternal gratitude to Mumtaz.
Onscreen, she was a mantrap, yet every gesture was calculated for cuteness. A stray Khilona (1970) won her praise for her acting but Mumtaz never disavowed the oft-repeated analysis that her appeal lay in her flagrant sexiness. She continued to flaunt her physicality in Apradh and Loafer. Unfortunately, her attempts at respectability, Aap ki Kasam and Prem Kahani, did not quite come off, and the film industry once again under-utilised an actress whose forte was not melodrama but a joie de vivre that gave her a direct link to the audience.
The maverick was on the crest of fresh wave of success in 1974 (Roti, Chor Machaye Shor) when she decided to give it all up for marriage to London-based Gujrati Millionaire, Mayur Madhwani. Sixteen years and two daughters later, rumbles of trouble invaded her marital paradise. "I have 10 houses but no home", she lamented. Mumtaz took an ill-advised plunge back into films with Aandhiyaan (1990). But the audience turned away disappointed. This was not the vibrating reincarnation of the Mumu they expected. This was not the full-of-beans jeune fille they had loved. The button nose was still there but that trademark sparkle in the eyes was conspicuous by its absence.
• Dinesh Raheja & Jitendra Kothari (1996) in The 100 Luminaries of Hindi Cinema