Prema Narayan, Kanakavalli’s October Vignette, is a former Miss India and Bollywood actress who was far ahead of her time. Inspired by an aunt she adored whose life as an actress gave her early exposure to the world of film, Prema went from a teacher trainee to Miss India, a model and finally, a well-known face in Bollywood. In this candid conversation with Aneesha Bangera for The Kanakavalli Journal, Prema opens up about the glamorous and the not so glamorous moments from her life as a beauty pageant contestant as well as her foray into cinema. At a time when women in the Indian film industry had few options beyond the stereotypical, Prema took on every new role as a challenge, making bold choices in the characters she played. Having started training as a dancer at the age of seven and made her debut on stage at Miss World as a teenager, Prema discovered her confidence early on; and has been open to new experiences ever since. Reflecting on the changing landscape of Bollywood, she delights in seeing the many opportunities for women, and says she would consider making a comeback on the silver screen if she found the right role. Taking the time to browse through the Kanakavalli repertoire, Prema curates a selection of saris reflecting her love for the drape that she has worn ever since she was a young woman. Excerpts from the conversation below…
In the Spotlight
The early years
I was born in Calcutta, but moved to Bombay at the age of five or six. My entire family had followed my maternal aunt, Anita Guha, to the city of dreams where she was pursuing a career in acting. My grandmother, who I adored, brought me up, and as a child I was constantly in awe of my actress aunt.
As a child, I was passionate about dance. I remember walking all the way to Khar from Bandra to attend the Gopikrishna School of Dance, when I was just seven or eight years old. I rarely missed a class. I trained in Kathak and Bharatanatyam, and would go on to try different and more contemporary forms of dance as well. My love for dance remained a constant right through my life and my career, and is something that always brought me great joy.
Above: Prema as a child with her aunt, the actress Anita Guha, her idol and inspiration.
I was very inspired by my aunt Anita, and I followed her everywhere she went. In those days, mythological films were very popular—old style movies shot in black and white featuring gods and goddesses. When my aunt starred in the title role of the film Jai Santhoshi Ma, she shot to fame, and her fans began to treat her as though she really were a goddess. I was exposed to the world of Indian cinema at a very early age—following my aunt to sets and studios, learning about how movies were made and how the industry functioned. This early exposure made a deep impression on me which would define the course of my life.
While I had already discovered the magic of the film world, I grew more studious as I grew older. I was sent to a convent school in Borivali—which in those days was like a jungle—run by the nuns of Ajmer who were very strict. I think the discipline and rigour of the school gave me a lot of character, helping me discover who I was. I grew interested in teaching and after school, I started attending a teacher training course in Juhu.
From teacher trainee to Miss India
Around the time that I was studying to become a teacher, I had several friends who were taking modelling jobs. I was curious about the field and wanted to try my hand at it. I knew that my aunt had participated in a beauty contest back in the 50s, which helped launch her film career, and I decided to apply for the Miss India pageant. My application was accepted, to my surprise, and little did I know that the experience would be truly life-changing.
Femina and The Times of India had only recently become the title sponsors of the Miss India event, and while they had transformed the pageant, it was all still very new back in 1971. I was only 18 years old—naïve and not very well ‘polished’. The most famous Miss India winners then were Zeenat Aman and Reita Faria, and all us contestants looked up to them. Over the course of the contest, I discovered a confidence that I never knew I had, and that was a wonderful experience. It was also great fun!
A popular Bombay model at the time trained us in walking the ramp and speaking, but we were still quite unprepared. The pageant had several rounds, from one in which we were asked questions, to the much talked-about swimsuit round! We were all very shy back then and not used to being seen in our swimming costumes. Fortunately for us, the swimsuit round didn’t happen on stage and instead took place in a small hall with the judges, so we weren’t in the spotlight.
Above (left to right): Prema, along with other contestants, met the Australian Prime Minister at the Queen of the Pacific pageant where she represented India in 1973; At the Femina Miss India contest in 1971, which Prema went on to win.
When I was crowned Femina Miss India World 1971, I thought I was going to fall through the floor. Here I was, a teacher in training, winning the country’s biggest beauty pageant! It was completely unexpected and I was shocked. My parents and relatives were even more surprised, and most of them didn’t know what to say to me. It was all still very unfamiliar to them and it took some time to get used to the idea of having a Miss India winner in the family.
I went on to participate in the Miss World contest, which took place in London in 1971. I was travelling alone for the first time, and I remember sitting alone at Frankfurt airport on my layover and feeling absolutely terrified. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience although I think I could have been better prepared. We stayed in a luxurious hotel and were very well looked after for the ten days of our trip. We even travelled everywhere in a Rolls Royce. It felt really glamorous and exciting.
As part of the pageant, we attended several charity and other events. I remember wearing heels and feeling very unstable in them, but gradually adapting to the discomfort. The judges must have wanted to see contestants in different outfits—gowns and dresses and traditional costumes—but I was too young to understand this and I wore a sari to every single event. I remember that I stood out so much in my sari amid the many gowns that the other contestants called me a Christmas Tree! I learnt many lessons, and how to dress appropriately for different occasions was one of them.
Soon after London, I had the chance to represent India at the Queen of the Pacific pageant in Australia, a really beautiful experience. There was a huge parade in the streets as part of the contests, and it was amazing to watch the traditional aboriginal dances being performed. We also had a chance to meet the Prime Minister, which was a truly memorable moment.
I was lucky that my family had been very supportive through this journey, even though they often didn’t really know what was going on! For me, personally, the experience gave my confidence a boost. It encouraged me to try different things, and that’s how the movies happened.
On the silver screen
When I returned to Bombay and my education course I started teaching in a Kindergarten school. That’s when I first started getting offers for modelling assignments. After a few of those, the movie offers started coming in and I decided to seriously pursue an acting career. I was really lucky to have had exposure to the film industry thanks to my aunt, so when I started out I didn’t feel like the typical fresh and naïve young actress. I knew how the industry functioned and I also happened to know a lot of people on the inside. I knew what to expect, which helped me stay grounded. I realised that it was possible to come across the wrong kind of people in the business, and that it was important to be careful.
I got a wonderful break into cinema with Mahesh Bhatt’s film Manzilein Aur Bhi Hain, with Kabir Bedi and Gulshan Arora. After that, there was no looking back. I got several film offers—most as supporting characters with song and dance scenes. I did a few Bengali films, and I even did a few songs in South Indian movies.
Above: The film posters for (clockwise from top left) 'Amanush', for which Prema was nominated for a Filmfare Award; 'Barsaat Ki Ek Raat' in which she starred alongside Amitabh Bachchan; 'Manzilein Aur Bhi Hain', the film in which Prema made her Bollywood debut.
I played a diverse range of characters over the course of my acting career, from a bandit in Phoolan Devi to a bubbly, fun-loving girl in Ponga Pandit. Some may call my choices bold, but for me it was about challenging myself and trying new things. I was always open to different kinds of roles, and I was never concerned with being the heroine—who was usually a fairly helpless and weepy character! Before signing a film, I would go over a script in detail and have discussions with the director to understand the character and how she needed to be portrayed. Before shooting began, I would visualise my entire role in the film and what I would do in every scene, a technique that helped me a great deal. Every role I played challenged me in a different way—I saw it as me competing against myself. Looking back now, I sometimes wonder how I managed this range of characters, and I feel fortunate for the opportunities I got.
As I grew more experienced, I also grew more patient, learning to choose films and roles with more thought and care. I think I managed to figure out my way in the industry and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. My early training in classical dance proved to be indispensable—not only did it make me a better dancer, it also gave me a strong posture, and the confidence to carry myself with grace. Directors would often cast me in song-and-dance sequences thanks to my background, and I also made a few guest appearances.
Above (left to right): Prema with Uttam Kumar at the awards function for the film 'Amanush'; Posing with the great Vyjayanthimala.
One of the highlights of my life in film was acting alongside the great Amitabh Bachchan in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat. I played the role of a village girl, and I did a song with Amitabh, a moment I will never forget.
My 1975 film Amanush won me a nomination for a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress, another career highlight. This film had given me the opportunity to work with Uttam Kumar who was such a wonderful person. He was quiet, unlike many of the more dominating personalities of the time, and yet he helped me so much on set and I learnt so much from him. The role I had in Amanush is one I enjoyed the most. I played a naïve village girl who then becomes a fighter, supporting the heroine on her journey. The character had a lot of depth and I could explore her different sides.
Many of the roles I played were light-hearted, supporting characters. I had the chance to explore the comical side of a character, and I got to dance, which was interesting and enjoyable. One of the sequences I’ll never forget is from Umrao Jaan in which Rekha and I performed a dance together.
Above: A series of stills from the 1981 film 'Umrao Jaan' directed by Muzaffar Ali in which Prema starred alongside Rekha.
While shooting for films over the years I had a chance to travel around India, most often to Lucknow, Calcutta or Pune. However, I also got the chance to travel abroad as a dancer on musical tours with playback singers like Usha Uthup, Manna Dey and Mahendra Kapoor. I had done the song Rambha Ho Ho Ho in the film Armaan which grew very popular, and I remember performing the song in Africa, America and around the world. These were fantastic experiences, and I got to visit foreign lands. Young women then were not as independent and empowered as they now are, and I remember often feeling quite scared. But I believe that travel really opens your eyes and your mind to the world, and I have enjoyed travelling ever since. My husband and I never miss an opportunity to take a holiday, and have visited Italy, Spain and Portugal, among many other countries.
Above: Prema and Kalpana Iyer performed the hugely popular song 'Rambha Ho Ho Ho' in the film 'Armaan'.
I still love watching films. I have noticed that Bollywood has taken a different direction, making very different films from the ones we were used to. There are so many more suspense films, thrillers and mysteries being made, which is quite a change from the usual romance and mythological films from before. Many of these are very well made—with well-rounded characters and excellent storytelling.
I also find that there are far more strong women characters in Indian films today. I think that directors and filmmakers are trying to portray women more realistically and in more powerful ways, which is really good. As a result, women have a lot more roles to choose from beyond the stereotypical. I think this is beautiful, and with the amazing directors working in the field today, there are wonderful opportunities for women in films.
Working in the film industry is a twenty-four-hour job. I was always on the move, either rehearsing or dubbing or shooting. Once I got married, it became difficult to continue my acting career. I grew busy looking after my two sons, now young men, and my husband and I would travel as often as we could, leaving little time for work.
Above (clockwise from top left): Prema and her husband in beautiful Lisbon, Portugal; Enjoying the views in Santorini, Greece; At Monument Valley in Arizona, USA; With her husband in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York, USA.
Sometimes I wonder about getting back into acting. At the moment, I feel quite cut off from the industry, but if I get a good offer—a role that is crafted for an older woman—I might think about it!
On Beauty and Tradition
Beauty to me lies in the eye of the beholder. I might find something beautiful that someone else might not, and that in itself is beautiful.
I think tradition gives you a strong base; a foundation upon which to build your life. It helps direct you in the choices you make, and I think this makes you stronger. I’m a traditional person and I think everybody should have some form of tradition in their lives.
On the Sari
When I was taking part in beauty contests, I wore a sari for every single occasion. Thus, I learnt to drape it myself very early on. I always thought that the most beautiful saris were the rich and heavy benarasi and kanjivaram weaves. I love to wear saris and always wear them for the three days of Durga Pooja, as well as for other festivals and celebrations.
I had a kanjivaram that was gifted to me by my aunt many moons ago, in a beautiful peacock blue. It is now quite worn with age and I cannot wear it, but I still don’t want to give it away. It is woven with memories and is one of the most beautiful things I own.
I visited the Kanakavalli exhibition with my sisters-in-law, and I chose this beautiful kanjivaram in a shade of pale pink with gold zari. The colour is so regal yet subtle, and I absolutely love it.
Prema is wearing a Kanakavalli kanjivaram in rosewater pink shot with beige, featuring silver temple motifs on the borders and a seeprekku pattern on the pallu.
- Prema Nararayan, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.
View Prema's accompanying guest curation here.