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Article Hindi

Who was... Begum Para?

She was the original 'It' girl. Dressed in jeans, with a whip in hand, Begum Para had the world dancing to her tune even when she wasn't in front of the camera.

Shriram Iyengar

It is the 1970s. A group of socialites gathered at a high-profile party in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, are in for a surprise.

A haughty general, walking up to a beautiful lady nursing her whisky, remarks, “We are going to invade your country.”

Nonchalantly, but with vim enough to stub out the general's cigarette, the lady retorts, “Not bloody likely.”

That was Begum Para, a firebrand in an era when few women could dare to be so without being dubbed a 'vamp'.

Born in 1926, Begum Para made her debut in the multi-starrer Chand (1944) opposite one of the most handsome leading men of India, Motilal.

Indian cinema has always been blessed with beautiful women who could send the blood rushing. But few possessed the style, the derring-do or the charm of Begum Para.

Fiercely independent, she carved an image of her own with her riding crops, Westernized clothing, and seductive shimmying to music.

Her presence on the screen was electric. In an age when such women would be stereotyped as vamps, Begum Para would walk down the red carpet as the leading lady. Films like Ustad Pedro (1951) made her one of the earliest pin-up girls of Hindi cinema.

Independence was a character trait of Begum Para. Suave, stylish and fond of her whisky, she broke convention by openly drinking at film parties. She emerged as a trendsetter by posing for magazines in her stylish jeans.

A garrulous conversationalist, Begum Para enjoyed partying with Nargis, Nadira and Geeta Bali, and remained close friends with them till the end. She married Nasir Khan, brother of Dilip Kumar and her co-star in many films, and later moved to Pakistan. That brought to an end a meteoric career in the golden age of Hindi cinema.

After completing the film Kar Bhala (1956), Begum Para departed across the border. It was only after her husband's death in 1974 that she decided to return to the country of her birth.

Hindi cinema was to see one last performance by the vivacious lady in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya (2007). Age had dimmed none of the mischievous twinkle that had made her the poster girl of thousands a generation ago. She had simply morphed into a mischievous grandma, formidable as ever.

But time cannot be denied for too long. Begum Para passed away on 9 December 2008. Her son, Ayub Khan, is an actor who continues to work in the industry his mother once made her own. But will there be another spunky, talented star like her? In her own words, it is "not bloody likely".