Begum Para seen as Sonam Kapoor's spirited grandmother in Sanjay Bhansali's Saawariya did films like Shama, Mehdi, Pedro and Dada in the 1940s. She then took the longest break ever after marrying the legendary Dilip Kumar's lesser-known brother Nasir Khan.
"That was in 1958," Begum Para, now a full 80, laughs throatily. "Now I'm back in 2007 in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya. This has got to be the longest lay-off in the history of show business…You know, in our film industry there's this old habit of typecasting actors. I was typecast as the so-called liberated woman. The roles were not interesting enough for me. They stamped me as the smoking libertine who ends up insulting her father," she laughs. "I didn't much enjoy that image. I was doing roles like Saira Banu in Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Paschim. I just lost interest. Then I got married to Nasir Khan (Dilip Kumar's brother)." Saawariya is her comeback after 50 years! "The privilege and pleasure of working with Sanjay Bhansali egged me on to take this on. He never ties me down with his ideas. I'm allowed to say my dialogues the way I want. He gave me so much space! It was a real pleasure. Saawariya was an astonishing experience."
Hadn't her acting skills got rusted? "I don’t think they ever get rusted. I just needed to practice my acting again…It was very sweet of Sanjay to have even think of me. Initially, I was nervous for a couple of days. But once I settled down before the camera I had a whale of a time. Bahut mazaa aaya. It's like coming home. I'm open to more offers provided they make me comfortable."
She warms up on the topic of Salman Khan who co-stars with her in Saawariya. I’ve known him since childhood. I'm very friendly with his father Salim Saab. I was apprehensive about how today's generation behaves. When I expressed my misgivings to Sanjay Bhansali he assured me. 'Just come and see how we work.' And he was right. They all gave me so much love and respect. They were so sweet. Of course, technically cinema has advanced. But people are still the same. Jab insaan door rehta hai to pataa nahin kya-kya sochta hai. But after my return before the camera I felt I had never gone away."
She goes back in time to her prime. "It was a great era. Not like today when roles have become so ambivalent. There were definitely defined roles these days…There was the hero, heroine, vamp, father, mother, villain…very nice and uncomplicated. Yes, I was bold . Humlog ke zamaane mein, people used to be in awe of stars. Today of course, the active media has brought stars inside homes."
She has kept in touch with a number of people in the industry. "Nirupa Roy, Nadira, Nimmi, Shyama, Smriti Mishra…we used to meet once a month. Sadly, Nirupa and Nadira are gone. They were such fine human beings. I miss them both. Nadira was so warm and exuberant, Nirupa was sweetness personified. I’ve kept in touch with Nirupa's family."
Begum Para's son Ayub Khan is seen in cinema and on television. "I feel he hasn't got his dues. If you meet him you'll realize he isn't a filmy boy. When I urge him to meet producers he says, 'Whatever has to come my way will come way. By my going here and there I won’t achieve anything.' He's such a nice and gentle boy, comfortable with what he has."
About her mythic war with her brother-in-law Dilip Kumar, Begum Para laughs, "That's gone and done with. Now we're cordial and we do meet occasionally. Yes, we did have our differences. I suppose I was too independent-minded for him. If he was THE Dilip Kumar I was THE Begum Para….He was very close to my husband Nasir Khan. " She giggles over an anecdote about her husband and Meena Kumari while they were playing the lead in Kamal Amrohi's Daera. "Meena Kumari was in the foreground and he was in the background, so far away that he stood on his head and nobody noticed."