November 29, 1997
V Gangadhar meets Begum Para, the original pin-up girl.
Somewhere in 1953, Fort Cochin in Kerala was hit by a bomb. I was then in school there and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Begum Para. Click for bigger pic!
The bomb was called Begum Para. And it came packaged in a Hindi film, Ustad Pedro, produced and directed by the then well-known actor, Sheikh Mukhtar. Mukhtar was tall, well-built and ruggedly handsome. But he had very stiff competition in Begum Para, unanimously acknowledged to be Bollywood's sex bomb.
The film magazines called her the oomph girl, the girl with 'it'. Whatever she had, Para set my blood flowing. She had sultry, come-hither looks, an eye-popping figure, one she was not afraid to show off. She wore trousers, tight dresses and danced enticingly to the tunes of western music.
Ustad Pedro was a fun film. It was packed with action, romance, stunts and, of course, that wonderful, curvaceous woman. As Sheikh Mukhtar carried off the prized heroine at the end of the film, all the boys watching the film sighed enviously.
Hindi screen had its quota of women with smouldering good looks, who dressed seductively and who were ready to respond positively to a pass from the admiring male. But such women were normally cast as vamps because most heroines had to look virginal and god-fearing and play second fiddle to the heroes.
Not Begum Para. Her sexuality on the screen was electric. Film magazines of those days wrote endlessly about the frank utterances and open lifestyles of Begim Para and her sister-in-law, Protima Dasgupta. She was not a hypocrite, she always called a spade a spade.
I learnt this when I dropped in at her small flat in suburban Versova. The cool breeze from the sea was welcome, but not the stench of drying fish. The drawing room was full of photographs. Of Para's late husband Nasir Khan, her two sons and daughter. There are books everywhere. Enid Blyton for the grand-daughter along with classics -- theIliad, the Odyssey, the works of D H Lawrence as well as pulp fiction by Ludlum and Collins.
The passage of time had taken its toll. Begum Para had bloated up, the hair has greyed and she moved around with difficulty. There was little sign of who she once was. But once she began to speak, the old magic reappeared like abracadbra.
She had endured a lot in recent years. Nasir Khan died in 1974. He was just 49 and she had to bring up three children on her own. For years there was a long misunderstanding with her brother-in-law Dilip Kumar (she refused to talk about it) and the family bungalow on upmarket Carter Road had to be sold. One son, Ayub, works in films (he was most recently seen in Mrityudand), another son and her daughter are in advertising. Life had not been easy for the family, but then Begum Para, by all accounts, had always been a fighter.
The early days, though, were peaceful and happy. The family came from Jalandhar but moved to Bikaner, where her father Mian-Ehsan-Ul-Haque became the chief justice. The family was large, 10 in all, but they had lots of fun and the indulgent parents often joined in.
Trouble with brother-in-law: Dilip Kumar. Click for bigger pic!
Para went to school and then college at Aligarh. Hostel life was quite pleasant. While sticking to tradition, her family was quite broad-minded. "We never wore purdah or anything like that," she explains.
"We were allowed to watch films and I enjoyed the experience." One of her earliest heroes, was the debonair Motilal. "I wrote fan letters to him, and he always replied. Later, when I joined films, we became good friends."
Still in her early teens, Begum Para came to Bombay to spend her holidays with sister-in-law Protima Dasgupta who was already acting in films like Court Dancer. Her home was frequented by film people. Perky, pretty Para invited instant attention and producers promptly offered her roles. Dasgupta persuaded her to accept some of the offers.
"My family was not very happy," recalls Para. "But finally, Protima and I convinced them." Born plain Para, she added a Begum to her name.
Thus it was that a nervous, excited, young girl of 17 faced the camera for the first time in her life on the sets of Chand. Her co-star was Prem Adib, a famous hero in those days. The film was shot at Prabhat Studio in Pune and was a family social.
"Oh, I had no acting experience at all," she laughs. "But director B D Kashyap was very understanding and patient, and made me feel at ease."
Did you have any love scenes, I asked. "Oh, very innocent ones," she smiled. "The lead pair looked at each other, sang songs and perhaps held hands. Films in those days were so different. But everyone on the sets, including Prem Adib, were very co-operative."
Chand was fairly successful. Para did not look back and settled down to a film career in Bombay, sharing a flat with her sister-in-law at Worli Sea Face. From 1945, for over 10 years, she made several movies -- Sohini Mahiwal, Mehendi, Shama, Pedro, Dada, Dara, the last three with the swashbuckling Sheikh Mukhtar. The films did well at the box office.
"I played emotional roles and also essayed roles of fashionable women," she remembers. The "it" image was a big thing in those days. Para often wore pants and jeans, dressed provocatively and championed an unconventional lifestyle. Naturally, she was regularly featured in film magazines.
"I had a good figure, and I knew I had one," she laughed. "And if the magazines wanted to feature me in provocative poses, I did not mind".
Begum Para now (center)
While her career was going strong, she met Nasir Khan (Dilip Kumar's brother) on the sets of Lootera. Nasir had made a name for himself with some good films with Nutan. "We liked each other, but it was not love at first sight."
They began meeting more often and got married in 1958. Did their families support the marriage, I asked.
"Oh, we were old enough to do what we wanted." she replied diplomatically.
Nasir Khan did not want her to act and she quit the screen. "I was quite happy to stay at home and look after the family," she says. Nasir Khan had a heart condition which he chose to neglect, and a heart attack claimed him in 1974.
It was a shattering blow and she had to face the crisis alone. For about 18 months, she went to Karachi and lived with her sister, who had settled down in Pakistan. "But India was my home and I was back to bring up my children," she explained.
It was then she missed her work in films. As long as Nasir Khan was alive, life had been smooth. But now many adjustments had to be made. But she managed to bring up her children and settle them in life.
Looking back on her career in films, she says she had not taken it very seriously. "It was fun and interesting while it lasted."
She cherished her friendships formed during those days. Nargis and Geeta Bali were close friends. So were, Motilal, Nimmi, Nirupa Roy, Nadira, Shyama and Manorama.
A couple of days before our meeting. Nirupa, Nimmi and Shyama had dropped in for a chat. "We meet quite often," laughed Begum Para. "We talk, gossip, laugh... They are wonderful people". While I was chatting with her, the telephone rang. It was another friend, kathak queen Sitara Devi. They agreed to meet later that evening.
She thinks highly of Motilal, Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Naseeruddin Shah. Among today's heroines, she says Kajol is the best. "Oh, that girl lights up the screen with her presence," she exclaims.
It was time to leave. We had chatted for nearly two hours. But I was certain about one thing. In my book of interesting people she goes down as Genuine Stuff!