In the India of the past, the differences between an actress and a bold actress were quite well-defined, almost unambiguous. The entertainment business wasn’t showered with the most bountiful of respect, leading associated people — particularly women — to become extremely conscious about their image in the public imagination. Women’s roles in society were susceptible to impulsive criticism if perceived as defiant/non-normative. Historically speaking, in filmic history in India, there haven’t been many actresses who have attempted to blur the boundaries between boldness, gender roles, and social discipline, at least within the public domain. Exceptions like Fearless Nadia, Nalini Jaywant, Musarrat Jehan come to my mind when I think of occupants of these valleyed gaps. And this is where you could also find the enigma, Begum Para (Zubeda Ul Haq). Born into an upper-class family, her childhood was characterised by both conservative and liberal values which extended forth in her university education, and culminated via her entrance into the world of cinema. Her step into the Bombay film industry was influenced by her sister-in-law, who was herself an acclaimed actress from Bengali cinema, and facilitated by Baburao Painter from Prabhat Pictures, who cast her in her debut role in Chand (1944) opposite Prem Adib and Sitara Devi. This was the turning point for Para, as she wasn’t only swamped with film offers but it also foregrounded her image as both glamorous and brazen. This is something which you and I may find quite intriguing or inspiring — considering our different social contexts — but it wasn’t in the best of Para’s interests and cinematic outreach. She was quickly typecast into restricted roles.
Though mostly playing central roles, Para couldn’t quite capitalise on her talents to reach the ranks of other contemporaries like Suraiya, Nargis, or Geeta Bali. Nevertheless, her legacy became an inspiring trail for future actresses who not only dismantled the shafts of right and wrong, blurring the thousand shades of womanhood, but also shaped the Bombay film industry in unprecedented, irrevocable ways. Begum Para was one of those rare actresses who indulged in the public consumption of alcohol — and as ridiculous as it sounds in the present times, we need to acknowledge that patriarchy had imposed several limitations on the social demeanour of women. Ergo, the thought of social defiance by women was looked at with scorn and spite, with the potential of maligning one’s social image . . . and one’s national image if one’s a popular icon. According to India Times, Para had allegedly mentioned that ‘she despises cigarettes, but loves whisky’, and hated the idea of mixing whisky with Coca-Cola (a clever machination actresses of the time deployed to hide their drinking habits and rather to uphold their image as teetotallers). Her statement was highly scandalised, and while I am not sure if that vitiated her stardom or position within the industry, it certainly influenced pre-modern and contemporary journalism about her as a bindaas actress: one who could be both continuously iconised and modelled after. Many current film stars share that resemblance.
Begum Para retired in 1957 with the release of Aadmi.