Begum Para passed away in her sleep on December 11 2008 at the age of 81. The lead actor- cum-vamp of the ’40s and ’50s was last seen in Saawariya (2007). Rajiv Vijayakar rewinds to the meetings with the actress who was bold, cheerful and ethereally beautiful.
She was known for her sass at her prime, like drinking alcohol in the open in an era when her contemporaries and juniors mixed colas to conceal their indulgence. She would have a blast with friends like Nargis, Nadira and Shyama. She was bold on screen and vamped her way to stardom with backless blouses and swimming costumes.
THE FINAL RENDEZVOUS
Before her cameo as Sonam Kapoor’s grandmother in the 2007 Saawariya, Begum Para had last done Kar Bhala in 1958 with husband Nasir Khan as co-star. When I spoke to her on the phone last year, that powerful voice and resonant laugh could have put her down at a sprightly 50-plus. A few weeks before that, I met the feisty Fraulein for the last time – at the music release function of that Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Though confined to a wheelchair, she had all the high spirits of a debutante siren.
But if she just vaguely recognized me at the overcrowded function, her memory about our meetings in her Versova house in the ‘90s reasserted itself when I called a few weeks later. A reverberating roar of laughter followed my query about why she took on that miniscule appearance in Saawariya. “A mutual friend approached me and said that Sanjay Leela Bhansali wished to work with me. I thought that he was joking and just said, ‘Don’t be silly!’ And two days later Sanjay himself called up!”
Begum Para simply added, “I have being following today’s films and have admired Sanjay’s work. I thought that it was a privilege to get to work in his film.”
THE SAAWARIYA SAGA
So how was the reunion with the camera? “My last film was 50 years earlier. So on the first day, I was a shade nervous.” She paused and stressed, “Not frightened, but nervous! But once the cameras rolled, the years vanished and it was the same Begum Para at work again!”
The positivity that was Begum Para’s hallmark came to the fore as she described the change in working style as an “improvement”. “I think that directors peeping into monitors rather than cameras like in our time wasn’t unnerving in the least. The monitor is a wonderful thing because mistakes of any kind can be immediately corrected! In our time we could not correct errors as easily and had to overlook them sometimes.”
But Begum Para also admitted that she “did not care to look into the monitor myself. I am used to the old ways, and maybe it was my psychological tribute to my era, but for me it was always an artiste first satisfying his director with the ‘take’ and taking a look at only the finished product on screen later!”
The return to the arc-lights was made memorable because of her filmmaker “was so lenient and accommodating. My co-stars were very nice people too.”
Begum Para was always blessed – with her progressive temperament nothing else could be expected – with a loving family and she was delighted that her children were very happy for her. “Oh, my children were thrilled with my comeback!” she said effusively.
She conceded that she does not like most of today’s movies. “They are just about song- and-dance,” she opined, but added a footnote: “However, there are lovely films too.”
A loud guffaw roared across the ‘phone line when I want to know the secret of how she looks and sounds 25 years younger than she is. “That’s a great compliment, thank you!” she said. I waited expectantly, and she went on, “Well, what can I say? I am happy all the time, I guess that’s the main reason. Of course I eat less now as I am no longer young, but I have no other restrictions. I need the walker or a wheelchair, but that’s only my actual age asserting itself! I keep myself busy and exercise just a bit for my limbs.”
She told me then that she would be game to do more films. Yes, Sanjay Leela Bhansali wanted the luxury of casting her yet again – in a better role – in his new film, Heera Mandi, but it was not to be. And the siren of yore steadfastly refused to be seen as a grandmother on a wheelchair when such a character was offered to her by Balaji Telefilms.
THE PEERLESS BEAUTY
This writer met her for two long sessions in three years in the ’90s, and charisma was always writ large on her persona. Those sharp, twinkling eyes gave a clear inkling of her peak-time image as well as the secret of her success even though she was a septuagenarian.The film industry has not forgetten how Begum Para was handpicked from among dozens of Indian beauties to be on the cover of the Asian Special Issue of the prestigious American magazine, Life. “I wore a long, flowing gown with an off-shoulder blouse for that photograph,” she had told me then with justifiable pride, adding the tangy aside that the sartorial daring of today’s girls has “crossed limits”! And Begum Para also received one more rare honour – she once replaced the then-famous Jane Russell as Korea’s Pin-Up Girl!
THE CURTAIN RISES
Begum Para’s film career was restricted to 28 films in a span of a little over a decade. Recalled the Begum, “Madhubala, then called Mumtaz, and I were the first leading ladies of Raj Kapoor in Neel Kamal,” she recalls. “My other top co-stars included Sheikh Mukhtar,Karan Dewan and Prem Adib.The only big name I never worked with was Dilip Kumar, who was later to become my brother-in-law after I married his brother Nasirsaab. I was offered the role later played by Nigar in Mughal-E-Azam, but I wasn’t convinced about the character, and my career ended in 1958.”
The actress’ best-known films include Sohni Mahiwal, Mehndi and Ustad Pedro besides her debut film Chand, directed by then-frontline director D.D. Kashyap for top banner Prabhat Film Company in 1945. Describing her first-ever screen entry, she had said, “Kashyapji hit upon a terrific idea of introducing me on screen. He filmed an entire song on me without showing my face at all. He heightened the audience curiosity to fever-pitch and then panned the camera on my face only in the last few frames. It was a truly novel start to my career!”
Going down memory lane, she had told me, “The director used to be the absolute boss and we got great work done despite a fraction of the facilities of today. And because we learnt on the job and there were no training schools to learn acting, dancing, fighting, camera angles and diction,we would be clumsy and gawky in our first few films! For example,we had no dubbing then and soemtimes a certain facial expression would not match the lines or their mood!”
THE SIREN SIZZLES
And how did she acquire the Oomph Girl image? The lady laughed and said proudly, “That’s because I wore bold dresses. I had a very good figure and was the siren! In those days, the heroine and the vamp were clearly delineated. And though songs did not suit my persona, ultimately Amirbai Karnataki, Shamshad Begum, Zohrabai and finally Lata Mangeshkar all sang playback for me!”
She had added, “And let me tell you clearly that I loved wearing bold clothes and being admired for my figure! I enjoyed being a siren and there were certainly no social repercussions!”
In those days, she said, actresses from good families rarely came into cinema. But her father, the Chief Justice of Bikaner no less, never objected to her career option as “beneath his autocratic nature I think he was quite a broad-minded man!”
And she added, “I was a Hindi film buff with Motilal as my idol. My brother married Protima Dasgupta, an actress, and settled in what was then called Bombay. I came here during vacations, accompanied them for a shoot – and got my first offer!”
THE TOUGH ONE
After her marriage in the late ’50s, Begum Para voluntarily quit films, though her husband never insisted on it. “But I thought I was not doing justice to either and chose home over career. Nasirsaab and I had a lovely time together till we sank everything we had into a film that flopped. He died of a massive heart-attack in 1974 and my kids and I were left with nothing.We went to Pakistan, but the atmosphere there was so oppressively orthodox that I came back before I went mad!”
Back in town, Begum Para however declined all film offers. Life continued to be tough and her addiction to alcohol after her husband’s death even made her suffer a cerebral haemorrhage in 1987. “No one expected me to recover, not with my mental faculties intact, but my will-power took over and I did!” the lady declared.
And she survived – survived to watch her “gentle and caring” son Ayub Khan turn to her profession in the ‘90s, and her daughter-in-law Niharika become a successful fashion designer. Saawariya happened two decades after she fought back certain death, and later that year, Begum Para helped out Niharika in her assignment as costumes designer for Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand, a story revolving around an actress from Begum Para’s peak era. As Soha Ali Khan said, “Paraji not only gave Niharika tips but also lent her actual accessories from that era.”
Truly, an era is over – Rajiv Vijayakar
The article states that “Begum Para had last done Kar Bhala in 1958 with husband Nasir Khan as co-star”. That is not true. Kar Bhala was released in 1956, and Begum Para’s last major role was in Do Mastane (1958) opposite Nigar Sultana and Motilal.