Friday, January 24, 2020

The last glamour girl of Asia

Begum Para, who passed away in her sleep in Mumbai in December of this year, was born on Christmas day 82 years ago, in Jehlum. Her father, Mian Ehsanul-Haq, was a judge who at some point in his life went into the judicial service of the princely state of Bikaner, now northern Rajasthan, where he became chief justice of its highest court.

Although Begum Para never came to live in Pakistan, except after 1974 for some time when she lost her husband, the handsome actor Nasir Khan, Dilip Kumar’s younger brother, much of her family moved to Pakistan after 1947. Her father was a fine cricketer of his time, a talent he bequeathed on his son. MU Haq, who was seen as a dead certainty for the 1954 cricket tour of England but, because of an unfortunate misunderstanding with Skipper Abdul Hafiz Kardar, was left out, an omission that broke his heart.

Years later, MU Haq built himself a magnificent house in Karachi that he named “Midwicket.” He died earlier this year, mourned by all those who knew him and knew of his lifelong devotion to cricket and the great service he rendered to the promotion of the game, particularly in Karachi. The bitterness of the 1950s with Kardar must have gone mellow over time because in 1976 when I applied for a membership with the MCC, handing over my completed application to Skipper when he came on one of his visits to London, my proposer (I learnt only recently from MCC) was Asif Ali and my seconder MU Haq, both of course MCC members in good standing. MCC’s total number, I should add, is not allowed to exceed 15,000. Current membership waiting period: 30 years.

But to return to Begum Para, the land-owning family of her father came from Jullandhar, the city that has given birth to an amazing range of talented people. KL Saigol came from Jullandhar, as did Dr Jehangir Khan, the only cricketer to have felled a sparrow at Lord’s with one of his sizzlers. That shaheed-e-cricket bird is now immortalised behind a frame in the Long Room at Lord’s, along with the man who sent it to cricket heaven. Jullandhar also produced the stylish hockey player and even more stylish journalist, HK Burki. There is something to certain cities when it comes to the production of remarkable men. Take Amritsar, for example, when one thinks of literature. Consider the names and marvel: Saadat Hasan Manto, Bari Alig, A Hamid, Saifuddin Saif, Zaheer Kaashmiri, Ahmed Mushtaq, Shad Amritsari and Javed Shaheen, to name a few. And although he was not a poet, there has never been a political wit like Sardar Muhammad Sadiq, who also came from Amritsar.

In those days, Muslim girls from “respectable” families were not supposed to become actresses. That was a profession said to be the preserve of girls from the “bazaar.” But this incandescent beauty, Begum Para, was a rebel and once she got it into her head to join the movies, she was not to be stopped. As it was, she was already in Bombay, having gone there to visit her brother Madsrurul Haq and his actress wife, the dusky Bengal-born beauty, Protima Dasgupta.

Bombay of those days was the magic city that all romantically-inclined youngsters from Indian towns, small and big, dreamt of running off to. I remember old Mir Muhammad Ali, owner of Shabeena Hotel, the only den of minor sin in Sialkot, saying, “I love the Quaid-e-Azam but what sort of country has he given us! There is nowhere for young boys to run to now.” When news that Judge Ehsanul-Haq’s daughter was in Bombay to become an actress, some saw it as a huge scandal and felt that it had brought embarrassment to the family. However, when the family realised that young Para was not to be dissuaded, it fell in line and did not stand in her way.

Begum Para managed to make it, given her smashing looks and her determination to become a star. She was not what may be called a “great” actress but she was a trooper. Her first movie, according to my film encyclopaedist friend Muhammad Rafiq in England, was the 1944 Prabhat production, Chaand, with Prem Adib playing her lead. This was followed by Chhamia a year later and then in quick succession: Shalimar and Sohni Mahniwal (1946), Duniya Ek Sarai,Lutera, Mehndi, Neel Kamal and Zanjeer (1947), Jharna, Shaahnaaz and Kidar Sharma’sSohag Raat (1948), Dada (1949), Meharbaani (1950), Ustad Pedro (1951), Laila MajnuNaya Ghar (1953), Aadmi (1957) and Do Mastaane (1958). The three movies, Dada, Dara and Ustad Pedro starred Sheikh Mukhtar, the Anthony Quinn of Indian cinema, who played a Bombay street lord, with the T-shirt-wearing, ebullient Begum Para as his sidekick. These three movies were great hits.

As happens in the hard-hearted world called the movies, Begum Para’s star was setting as new and different kinds of actresses, with more dramatic talent than looks, had emerged. Begum Para retired gracefully and never looked back. Everyone had forgotten who she was when, in 2007, she agreed to make her last movie, Sanwarya. She was very ill by then and would come to the set in a wheelchair but stay all day without showing any complaint. She would regale the cast with stories that dated back half a century, long, long before any of her listeners was born.

The family linkages of Begum Para are fascinating. He elder brother, Masrurul Haq, had gone off to Bombay in the late 1930s to become an actor. There he had met and fell in love with the comely Bengali actress Protima Dasgupta, who was born in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, in 1922. Begum Para’s older sister Zarina’s daughter Rukhsana Sultana is the mother of the Indian actress and show business personality Amrita Singh.

Rukhsana Sultana married Shavinder Singh, the younger brother of the novelist Khushwant Singh, and the son of Sir Sobha Singh of Lahore. Begum Para’s son Ayub Khan is an actor and so is his wife Niharika, who played a faded movie star, with advice from her mother-in-law, in Khoya Khoya Chand. She said, “I couldn’t give Niharika my own examples as I was not like the ‘good’ actresses. I always played negative, bold characters – would wear backless blouses, in those times it was quite bold.” In an interview last year after the release of her last film, which did not do well, Begum Para said, “I’m 80 now.

It was a great experience working after so long. Although I must admit, I felt a bit anxious about facing the camera after so many years.” In another interview, she said, “I have millions of memories from those days. I didn’t smoke as I never liked it. But I did drink even when it was considered taboo. I used to hold a glass of whisky openly, unlike other actresses who mixed whisky in colas and pretended that they were teetotalers.” Talking about her contemporaries, she said, “I miss my friends Nargis, Geeta Bali, Nadira, Shyama, Motilal, Sitara Devi and Nilofer. We used to often meet and paint the town red. I’m also getting old now so the telephone is the only way to communicate.”

No one will disagree that here was a woman who lived life on her own terms and brought sunshine into the lives of millions of her fans, including those American GIs in Korea who would stick her picture on the cover of Life in their bunkers

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