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Remembering Persis Khambatta, the first female Indian star to shine bright in Hollywood

A look back at a beautiful star who faded too soon

Our Correspondent

Long before Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Tabu and Mallika Sherawat bagged roles in Hollywood, it was Bombay-born and bred Persis Khambatta who emerged as the first face of Indian beauty in the giant US-based film industry. And no, we aren't talking about blink-and-miss desi cameos in huge multilingual projects.

With a couple of British films already behind her, Khambatta created cinematic history in 1979 when she sported a bold, bald pate as the memorable Lt Ilia in the hugely successful film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was a huge jump for a girl who, a mere decade before, had been hailed by the American media as “the prettiest Indian girl to be seen in the US in many years" during her stint at the Miss World contest in Miami.

“1979 was a long time ago, and a woman with no hair was still quite a shocker... Indeed, Khambatta's real-life head-shave was enough of a news item that it was filmed for promotional purposes,” US-based writer-critic Jordan Hoffman wrote on the Star Trek official website in 2013 on the 65th birth anniversary of Khambatta. She was born on 2 October 1948. The movie's global advertising campaign actually flashed Khambatta's shaven head everywhere, turning her into an instant celebrity.

Hoffman noted that the former Miss India (1965), who made her international debut with the British film The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), “rode quite a wave as she entered Hollywood”. An obituary in the UK newspaper Independent even said that Khambatta was offered a role in a Bond film right after her Miss World stint, but she had turned it down as “she had promised her mother that she would return home immune to Western allurements”.

Her role as the Deltan alien in Star Trek remains the highlight of her short-lived career — Hollywood and locally — despite a meaty role opposite superstar Sylvester Stallone in the gritty cop thriller Night Hawks (1981). In 1980, she hit another benchmark, becoming the first Indian to present an award at the Oscars in Los Angeles.

But Khambatta stopped landing top gigs, and her science fiction films of the 1980s such as Warrior of the Lost World and Mega Force, sank without a trace. This led to her return to Bombay in the early 1990s, where she executed a major project as fund-raiser for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity: an anthology of former Miss Indias (Khambatta herself was only the second to win the title) and other beauty contest participants, titled Pride of India. “The title was given to me by Indira Gandhi; I saved it in my mind and wanted to share this with other women in India,” Khambatta later told Shekhar Suman for the show Movers & Shakers.

For someone who kicked off her movie career as a swinging Sixties Bombay woman in Khwaja Ahmed Abbas's Bambai Raat Ki Bahon Mein (1968), it was a return to her roots, only she never took off again. In the same interview, Khambatta said that Bollywood never accepted her as an actress and offered her only negative characters owing to her “bold” image. In another interview, Khambatta claimed that, had she agreed to pose in the nude, she would have fared better in Hollywood too.

Khambatta died at the age of 49 after suffering a heart attack on 18 August 1998. A former colleague, Ranjit Rodricks, blamed this on her constant smoking. Writing in 2011, Rodricks said, “In the Sixties, Persis went off to London with barely 10 pounds in her pocket, to become a model. On reaching Heathrow, she spent 5 pounds on cigarettes and the person who was supposed to pick her up, could not make it due to heavy snow. So, trailing her big bags behind her, she trudged to slushy and snowy London streets to find the person’s house. She wasn’t even wearing footwear fit for snowy weather! Thus, were her humble beginnings in the West. [sic]”

Had she lived, Khambatta would have turned 69 this year. She will always be remembered though, as a model and actress far ahead of her time, and as someone who paved the way for other Indian faces in Hollywood.