Hers wasn’t really a face that could launch a thousand ships, but she indeed had something in her that made her an instant star. Her very first film was opposite another rank newcomer, Joy Mukherjee, directed by debutant R.K. Nayarit, an erstwhile assistant to Raj Kapoor. And there began a short success story that only time or destiny could interfere with.
The young migrant Sindhi girl from Karachi (born 1941) essayed the role of a plain Jane who is converted into an enchantress who would win a beauty contest. Her name was Sadhana Shivdasani, and she was barely 19. Next came Bimal Roy’s Parakh in a deglamorised role. It was, indeed, unprecedented. The next one took the box office by storm: a haircut and a subdued performance opposite Rajendra “Jubilee” Kumar in Mere Mehboob. With this, courtesy designer Bhanu Athaiya, tight kurtis and churidars became a national obsession. When director Yash Chopra visited her to discuss Waqt, she walked in sporting a sleeveless, gold-embroidered kurti, churidar and mojris and a chic hairstyle. Sadhna later revealed in an interview that Chopra got up from the chair, and said: “Wow! What you are wearing is exactly what I want for my film. The style went on to become a craze.”
In Waqt the kurti had no side slits that accentuated the heroine’s walk. The dupattas clinged to the neckline, falling over just one shoulder, further exposing the slim sensuous figure.
The next jump came when Vijay Anand cast her opposite brother Dev in another landmark film Hum Dono.This film really set the trend “wispy fringe over her forehead” inspired from Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday. It came to be known as “Sadhana Cut”. Her stature rose so high, thanks also to what director Raj Khosla (who notoriously fell in love with all his heroines) did in a series of suspense-mystery films opposite Sunil Dutt and Manoj Kumar. In fact, after Mere Mehboob, Rawail wanted to cast her opposite thespian Dilip Kumar in Sangharsh. Producer Pachhi, brother of character-actor Om Prakash, wanted to cast her in Around the World with Raj Kapoor. Though they did do Dulha Dulhan, it was a flop — a flippant story produced and directed by Ravindra Dave in 1964.
Then fate cast its dark shadow as a thyroid problem damaged the right side of her face. She achieved, however, the enviable position of working with three generations of top stars. In a career span of a decade she worked in 30 films, 23 of which turned out to be box office blockbusters, a record unmatched by any other Bollywood leading lady till date.
Sadhana also created her own swansong when she produced and directed, in 1974, apart from doing the title role, Geeta Mera Naam opposite Sunil Dutt and Feroz Khan. At her peak she even did an Odia film, Stree and when she was just 15, she had played a second fiddle to Sheela Ramani in a Sindhi film, Abana. She was the highest paid heroine together with Vyjantimala during the 1960s. She walked out of two films for unspelt reason — Picnic with Guru Dutt and Sajan ki Galiyan because of liberties director Raj Khosla allegedly sought.
Despite being the most popular heroine of the 1960s and the early 1970s together with Asha Parekh, she did not earn any coveted honours for her performances. She got barely two Filmfare nominations and the consolation IIFA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
She lived the life of a recluse after the death of her husband, R.K. Nayyar in 1995. She sold her posh suburban bungalow and moved into an apartment in Santacruz (West) owned by Asha Bhosle. She, however, found time with a select band of old female stars: Nanda, Asha Parekh, Waheeda Rehman.