I was born as Para Haq, into a very illustrious family of Aligarh. My father was a minister with the government and we had a very disciplined yet liberal upbringing. I spent most of my growing up years in Bikaner and was educated at the Aligarh University. Since both my parents were highly educated people, they insisted on all their children being very accomplished academically. Do you know that my father and his family were the pioneers of cricket in India? Now you’ll ask me where does films fit into all this? Well it was purely pushing glamour from my side. You see, my brother happened to be married to Protima Das Gupta, a very famous actress of yesteryears. Whenever I visited them in Bombay, I was quite taken up with the glitzy world of my sister-in-law’s. I used to accompany her on many occasions to many filmi get togethers. At the cost of modesty, people would get quite impressed with my looks and offer me a lot of roles!
S.Mukherjee and Devika Rani, were among the people who offered me their films. When my father heard of it, he had no choice but to consent to my wishes reluctantly. But he only requested me one thing. That I’d never work in Lahore.
My first break turned out to be Chand, from Prabhat Studios in Poona. It was in the year 1944. Prem Adib was my hero, and Sitara Devi was the vamp in the film. It did extremely well and I started getting paid about Rs.1500 a month, which was a huge amount all those years ago! Soon after, my sister-in-law Protima and I made a film called Chamia based on the novel ‘Pygmalion’, which was again a huge success. I sort of arrived after this film. Though I signed a lot of films after Chamia, I didn’t quite establish myself as an actress. In fact, I never really did. Because I had a highly scandalous image, so people always gave me roles of glamour doll in most films! Not that I minded really. Because I always played myself on screen. I can’t even imagine me playing the Sati Savitri! That really would’ve been the biggest laugh! I was the only actress of those times, who never hid her drink in a Coke!
As for films, I did Mehendi with Nargis; Zanjeer and Sohni Mahiwal with Ishwarlal and Dikshit; Meherbani with Ajit; Suhaag Raat with Bharat Bhushan and Geeta Bali and Neelkamal with Raj Kapoor. Raj Kapoor and I shared a great rapport. He used to call me his ‘Bra’, short term for brother. And I used to call him ‘Big Bra’ in turn! Maybe because of my tomboyish image.
Recently, I met Krishna bhabhi at the airport for the first time after his death. And she told me that she remembered me fondly, her husband’s ‘Bra’, when she saw Neelkamal recently. Frankly speaking, I used to be quite blunt with him whilst he was alive. Recently I saw the cassette which Simi made on him and I was quite angry when he started spouting all these double standardized views on women, actresses, etc. I was so angry, that I started abusing him. Believe me, if he was alive, he’d have really got it from me!
Yes, Nargis was especially close to me. In fact, Geeta Bali, Shammi, Nimmi and all of us belonged to one group. We were all registered at the same studio and we used to have a lot of fun together. There was a genuine warmth between us. Nargis was a very warm human being. She was madly in love with Raj. In fact, she was willing to be his mistress for life. She was even seriously planning to build a bungalow near his house. But the relationship had deteriorated so much, that it was bound to break up whether Sunil Dutt had stepped into the picture or not. But that was the wisest decision she ever made in her life. Of all our contemporaries, Geeta Bali was the finest actress. Absolutely versatile.
I remember that I had refused to play Nigar Sultana’s role in Mughal-e-Azam, because it went against my image — rona-dhona. The prettiest of all, was undoubtedly Madhubala. Without make-up, she was a sight for sore eyes.
Affairs and me? Not really, because I had a lot of men friends with whom I was genuinely friendly. They were my drinking partners. K.N. Singh, Motilal, David, Shobhana Samarth and I, formed a clique. I was just like one of the boys. We were the people who introduced cricket to the film industry. I remember that David used to call me Don Bradwoman on the field! I was the most daring of the lot. On one occasion, because of a challenge, I approached the Prime Minister of Ceylon to have a drink with me on board a flight. His jaw dropped but he complied willingly. I also have something else to my credit. I am the only Indian actress who was selected by Life magazine to pose as a pin-up girl for them.
I met my husband Nasser, on the sets of a film that we were to do together. He was Dilip Kumar’s younger brother. Shammi who played cupid between us. At that time, he was already married. Though I tried hard to resist him, I just couldn’t. Honestly speaking, his marriage was already on the rocks when we met. His wife was an over-suspicious woman, and they were only sticking together because of their daughter. When Nasser asked me to marry him, though we were both Muslims, I refused to settle for being a second wife. Soon after they got divorced, we married. Ours was a hush-hush affair and only close friends attended it. One of the pacts between us was that I take over the care of his daughter, which I did right up to her marriage.
No, my famous ‘jhet’ Yusuf (Dilip Kumar), did not come to the wedding. I’ve never really got along with him. After a certain incident that took place between us many years ago, we couldn’t stand the sight of each other. Even now, you must see us filmis, how hypocritical we can be. When we meet each other, we always greet each other with bear hugs, as though we are long lost friends! So superficial really. Yusuf has changed drastically after his marriage. He has chosen to cut himself off from all his family, his own brothers and sisters. No, I’ve absolutely no problems with all my sisters-in-law, they’re all very nice women. The only problem has been Yusuf. His wife Saira? She and I can stand even less of each other, than Yusuf and I. The less said the better.
Our marriage had its ups and downs. Nasser was very possessive about me. I sometimes joke that if given a chance, I’d rather be his mistress than his wife. A mistress is pampered more and is allowed more freedom than the wife. We have three beautiful children between us. Nasser had this physical condition, where he began to lose all his hair and eyebrows prematurely. He really lost out on his career because of that. During the making of Ganga Jamuna, he wore a wig and got away with it. So he concentrated all his efforts on making films.
In 1974, we put every ounce of our finance into a film called Zid. It starred Sanjay Khan and Saira Banu. The film was almost complete and Nasser took his unit out of town for the last schedule in April. On May 2, I got a call from him, saying that he was finished with shooting and was coming home the next day. The next day, early in the morning, Nargis paid me a strange call early in the morning. After a while, she gently broke the news that my husband was dead. He had died early that day, of a massive cardiac arrest.
For a long time after that, I lived in a world of my own. Reality wouldn’t register on me. I started drinking heavily. We had invested every paise in Zid and when he died, we were financially finished. I had three mouths to feed and no one to turn to. But in the alcoholic state that I was in, nothing mattered, except sitting in my room and drinking throughout the day and night. You see, I had become so dependent on my husband, that my world just crumbled without him. A ray of sunshine came, when my sister came down and took me to Pakistan to my parents. We were there for two years during which time they were really a balm to me. I got the strength and moral support from my family, and developed enough confidence to come to Bombay and start all over again. I made a decision, that I’d never ask anyone for a helping hand. I’ve rented out a portion of the house and that’s how I’ve been surviving all these years.
During this bleak phase of my life, my family was my strength. My niece Rukhsana, was especially close to me those days. She’s a genuine human being and means the world to me. I have been fond of her since she was born. When my sister was visiting me in Bombay with Rukhsana who was barely one, I was so excited that I filled the house with toys and things for the child. I remember an occasion where I gave the child pneumonia, because I had bathed her in a tub with all kinds of bathing salts!
Dingy (Amrita) was a fat, pampered little brat. She was always defying her mother in everything. I remember that during the Emergency, we were staying with Rukhsana in Delhi. And in spite of strict warnings not to step out of the house, Dingu sneaked off with my son to the movies. I remember the absolute thunderstorm when Rukhsana discovered the fact in the evening!
Dingu is also just like her mom. Very frank, outspoken and warm-hearted. But unlike her mother, she is foul-mouthed. In fact, we both are. She’s a chip off the old block. You must see us together. We could put the sailors to shame! Well as for her love life, I’ve never interfered at all. But I am glad all the same, that Vinod Khanna is out of her life. Because it had upset her mother no end.
Today, I am a firm believer in God and miracles. God has saved me twice. From the manic depressive phase after I became a widow, and when I had a near-fatal brain hemorrhage about three years ago. I am confident that nothing can faze me anymore, because life has already dealt its severest blows to me. I’ve emerged only stronger… (Begum Para interviewed by Moni Mathai Singh in 1990).