Obituary: Persis Khambatta

Kuldip Singh
Thursday 20 August 1998 00:02

PERSIS KHAMBATTA, the former Miss India and international model, created cinematic history by appearing in 1979 as the first bald film heroine, in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, the hugely successful Hollywood science fiction film.

She was selected from among thousands of aspirants to play Lt Aliea, the alien navigator of the starship USS Enterprise. The bald pate of the 29-year-old, dark- haired, vivacious beauty from Bombay was flashed across posters world- wide, making her an instant celebrity.

Four years later she starred opposite Sylvester Stallone in Night Hawks and became the first Indian to present an award at the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles. Earlier, at the Miss World contest in Miami in the mid- 1960s, where local newspapers referred to her as the "prettiest Indian girl to be seen in the US in many years", Khambatta was offered a role in a Bond film. But she turned it down as she had promised her mother that she would return home immune to Western allurements.

Soon after, she won the best fledgling actress award for her role as a swinging Sixties Bombay woman in the avant-garde Indian film Bombay rat ki bahoon mein ("Bombay by Night", 1969) But, tiring of Bollywood's lack of professionalism, Khambatta left for London, where she became a well-known model.

She bagged her first international film role in 1975 in The Wilby Conspiracy, acting opposite Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier. In the same year, she also starred in Conduct Unbecoming, with Richard Attenborough, Michael York and Trevor Howard.

After acting in two little-known science fiction films - Warrior of the Lost World and Mega Force - in the late 1980s Khambatta returned to Bombay to work on Pride of India, a pictorial history featuring past Miss Indias since the Fifties.

Persis Khambatta was born into a middle-class Parsee home in Bombay in 1948; her tryst with fame began at the age of 14. A set of her pictures casually taken by a well-known Bombay photographer ended up as a successful campaign for a popular soap brand and eventually to Khambatta's becoming a model. She entered the Miss India contest in 1965 and won it.

She continued modelling before leaving for London and the United States for her career as international model and Hollywood star. In the United States, she used her film success to campaign hard for ethnic minority actors to play ethnic roles, which were being cornered by white men in dark make-up.

But, tiring of life in the West, she returned to Bombay in the early 1990s and, defying feminists who opposed beauty contests on the grounds that they merely flauted women as sex objects she laboriously produced Pride of India (1996), an anthology of former Miss Indias and other stunningly attractive Indian women who had participated in international beauty contests. Her book also featured Mother Teresa of Calcutta whose wrinkled face, Khambatta said, radiated beauty.

Though Khambatta complained bitterly about India, its filthiness, lack of civic sense and professionalism, she never severed her links with her beloved Bombay, always slipping back into the city and picking up the threads from her previous visit. A thorough professional and obsessively punctual, Khambatta was a private person. In her last television appearance, on a chat show five days ago, she claimed that she could have got innumerable film roles in Hollywood had she agreed to act in the nude. She also admitted to having a few affairs which, unfortunately, did not "work out" and translate into anything permanent.

Kuldip Singh

Persis Khambatta, actress and model: born Bombay October 1948; died Bombay 18 August 1998.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments