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Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Persis Khambatta : The bold model-actor

Raised by a single mother in Mumbai, Persis Khambhatta went on to become Miss India and make strides in Hollywood.

Article by Pia Krishnankutty | The Print

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Best known for going bald for her role in the highly successful sci-fi film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Persis Khambatta was a Mumbai-born model-turned-actor. She made waves in Hollywood and starred alongside prominent actors like Michael Caine, Michael Shatner and Sylvester Stallone.

On entering Hollywood, she once said, “Most of the actors I’ve worked with have been very helpful to me. I think it’s because I come from a foreign country and they’re very protective of me.”

Early modelling fame

Born into a middle-class Parsi family on 2 October 1948, Khambatta was raised by her mother after her father left them when she was two. “It was very hard. Our people [Parsis] stress family. I developed a sense of humor and something of a toughness of skin, but I suffered from being different,” she had said.

Scouted by a well-known Mumbai photographer at the age of 13, she landed a Rexona soap advertisement. At 17, she was named Miss India 1965 and then contested for Miss Universe title.

Khambatta gradually ventured into Bollywood, starring as a cabaret singer in K.A. Abbas’s Bambai Raat Ki Bahon Mein (1968), which won the National Award for cinematography. However, Khambatta felt increasingly frustrated with the industry’s lack of professionalism and left for London.

Stardom after Star Trek

Khambatta played small roles in two 1975 films — Ralph Nelson’s The Wilby Conspiracy and Michael Anderson’s Conduct Unbecoming before “a dollar ninety-nine investment” skyrocketed her career. In an interview, she revealed that wearing a bald cap that cost $1.99, during her audition with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, helped secure her the role of Lieutenant Ilia. She is particularly well known for having shaved her head for the film.

She played the character of Lieutenant Ilia, a Deltan navigator of the USS Enterprise, who released sexual pheromones irresistible to humans.

A year later, she co-starred in the cop thriller Night Hawks (1981) with superstar Sylvester Stallone. Around that time, she also married actor and stuntman Cliff Taylor weeks after they met, because she felt that “they were lovers in a past life”. They divorced two months later.

In 1980, she was the first Indian to present at the Oscars in Los Angeles. In a talk show five days before her death, she had revealed that she could have got numerous film roles had she agreed to act in the nude.

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Pride of India

In 1997, Khambatta published an anthology called Pride of India, honouring former winners of the Miss India pageant and other icons of beauty. The title of the book, according to Khambhatta, was inspired by former prime minister Indira Gandhi calling her the “pride of India”.

The book was “a 90s rewind of the beauty business” and also featured Mother Teresa whose wrinkled face radiated beauty, said Khambatta.

“The earlier Indian queens were really beautiful but they lost out in the world contests because they had fuller hips. The starved, slim look is being cultivated only now,” she added.

However, the book was unsuccessful and received scathing reviews.

“At its worst, it is an expensive repetition. Most of all, Persis, we must thank you for reminding us all about yourself,” wrote one critic.

In 1980, Khambatta was severely injured in a car crash in Germany, which left a large scar on her head. Almost a decade later, the chain-smoker returned to Mumbai and underwent coronary bypass surgery, but eventually, died of a massive heart attack in 1998. She was just 49.