Bollywood Nostalgia

Protima Bedi. Woman. Fearless.

 A portrait of Protima Bedi by NK Sareen

I shed my clothes, my inhibitions, my conditionings by outdated social
norms so that you too can discover yourselves’

Protima Bedi famously said these words after she streaked in daylight on Mumbai’s Juhu Beach. It was an event that changed the way India looked at women. As a fierce debate raged for years between the moral police and the ultra-feminists, Protima Bedi went on defying every societal norm that every Indian woman was conditioned to believe as ‘normal’.

But the streaking incident was not an isolated one. Protima, in fact, was one of the first women in India who was extremely comfortable in her body.

Last year, I got introduced to veteran Delhi-based photographer NK Sareen who said that he had some amazing pictures of Protima locked up in his closet that he shot way back in 1975. Now, in 1975 (I am sure a lot of you reading this article weren’t even born then), wearing a bikini was not only a taboo in India but something that was considered sinful and immoral.

As I glanced through the photographs Sareen mailed me, I realised that these photographs should be treasured for every Indian woman who would like to know what courage is.

Less than a year back, I wrote an article for Mumbai Mirror where I spoke about my discovery. Needless to say the article created quite a stir.

I then spoke to the photographer and asked him to narrate the photo-shoot in detail. I discovered that the story of the photo-shoot is no less captivating than the photographs.

In this post, I will present the story (in first person) behind the iconic photo-shoot and present a few shots that have never been seen before.

Hope you will like the story. My sincere gratitude to senior photojournalist NK Sareen for sharing the photographs and the story behind it, exclusively for this blog.

An unforgettable afternoon

Protima Bedi

1975, 21st July, Mumbai.

It was a typical greasy and humid Saturday afternoon. My flight was late and I knew that this was the weather that would not work to lift my gloomy mood. I checked into a hotel near Bandra and ordered scrambled eggs for breakfast — my comfort food when I am down. I had an appointment that day at 3 pm at Juhu.

Somewhere down the line, I felt that that day was not perfect. The sky was overcast since morning and without a glimmer of sunlight, I knew I wouldn’t be able to shoot good pictures. Since I didn’t have any resource of a studio in Mumbai, I knew the sun playing hide-and-seek behind the clouds, would be a nagging cause for worry.

I hoped there would be better light before I reached her apartment in Mumbai. Unfortunately, it was that kind of day when the Mumbai sky made an awful face at me.

The sky was still overcast when I reached Juhu. I promised to myself that I would not ruin my picture by aiming the flash-gun at her. I could perhaps expose my aperture a little longer which could then perhaps, save my day.

My camera was without a exposure meter and there was no way I could figure out if the light was optimum. I decided to rely on my experience.

But that wasn’t any solace.

I could almost imagine the look of utter disgust when I would place those pictures on my editor’s desk. I could almost see how she would narrow her eyes and look straight into my face with a nasty smirk written all over her face. It was the look that every bone in my body hated.

I decided not to think about the editor and specially imagine her sarcastic face.

“There must be a terrace in the building and we can always shoot there,” I told myself as I took the lift to her apartment. Creating imaginary and non-existent comfort situations in my mind was a technique I employed to calm myself before shoots.

I took the lift to the third floor and rang the doorbell.

Protima Bedi opened the door with a smile.

The photo-call

Protima bedi black and white

Looking at the camera I was cupping in my hands, she smiled. She stood on one side holding the door ajar with her left hand. She stuck her face stuck to the wooden frame and shifted her gaze.

“Come inside! I thought you will get caught up in the traffic but look, you are on time!” she said as she pointed towards a sofa on the living room. She gestured me to sit down.

By that time, my trained eyes were already fixed on her. I was also scanning the surroundings, trying to get any information that would help me. But there was nothing remarkable that caught my eye.

Protima was about five feet, six inches tall. And dark. She had unusually large eyes that spoke before she actually spoke. If you fix your eyes on her eyes, you will always invariably know what she is going to say even before she actually said it. I had hardly seen such expressive eyes in my life.

That day her eyes were speaking a language my mind did not understand.

Protima was wearing a loose, white, translucent cotton kurta that extended to her knees. As she walked around the house, I could see her kurta clearly giving out the luscious curves of her body. If the day had been sunny and she would have stood in the tiny, cramped balcony against the sunlight, I bet you would have seen how beautiful the curves of her body were and perhaps even more.

My mind was speaking to me about something else while I was watching her move around the house, saying something that I was not paying particular attention to.

Anybody who knew Protima also knew that strutting around in her living room butt naked was something that could be easily associated with her. She had a near-perfect body and always liked to flaunt it. This was the time when the whole world was celebrating that she would wear her skirts as loosely as her attitude.

Any man looking at her would find it extremely difficult to move his gaze away and Protima somewhat enjoyed all the attention.

My mind was back to work again. Except for the kohl in her eyes, I didn’t notice any make-up on her face. As my mind was trained, I started wondering what would make my frame. Virtually at that point of time, my mind didn’t have any idea and that meant a bad frame. Protima perhaps sensed what I was thinking. Her eyes, as usual, gave out the words before she actually spoke.

“Don’t worry, what we are going to do today will be totally different. I want to wear something good today and you click me the way you want to. Good deal?” She raised her voiced a little in mock-sarcasm. It was a typical you-don’t-know-what’s-coming-next kind of an expression.

I nodded my head, looking at my camera and telling myself that today would be the day when I would go to bed unhappy with my work.

The photographer inside me was telling me that I will have to increase both the aperture and shutter speed to the maximum possible. That was of little solace, since the camera was without any built-in exposure meter. That meant that I had to depend entirely on my experience, judgement and the faint light trickling in from Protima’s balcony.

Protima got up and walked away towards the bedroom.

Maybe because she was accomplished dancer, this lady never made any noise when she was walking around, even with her chappals on. Her shapely feet would touch the ground like a feather and the next moment it would spring up from the ground.

She had a nice and strange way of walking that would make her shapely butts quiver as they swayed from side to side. I took a fleeting glance at them as she disappeared into her bedroom.

The blue lungi

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Protima emerged from her bedroom wearing a white bikini top and a blue checked lungi. It was a combination that I had never seen in my life. She put her hand on her waist, looked at me straight in my eyes.

“Do you like this,” she said raising her left brow. She would usually raise her left brow when she was very serious about something. The look and the question was clear — ‘I am not looking for your approval but appreciation’.

I tried to hide the amazement that had gripped me. She was clearly in the mood.

Her shapely torso was almost teasing me and she was gently swaying her body while asking the question. I looked at her. Very closely.

I have heard about ‘being natural’ but today I was sure that this lady was taking it to a different level. Without further ado, I decided to start clicking.

But I gave her one last look that would clearly depict a question mark. I wanted her to do a little bit of makeup  on her face. I knew that look of mine will make her understand what I am trying to tell her. But her defiant eyes hammered home the fact that she was not willing to listen.

She then took the blue lungi off.

“You like it now?” she asked me as she stood in front of me wearing a dazzling white two-piece bikini. I swear I had never seen such a beautiful body before.

The faint afternoon sunlight that was seeping through the small window of her living room almost made her look like a dark fairy who was standing in front of me. In the nude.

Her gaze was fixed on my face. I knew that she was expecting a certain expression in eyes. The expression was simple: you just need to stare at her lovingly and open your eyelids a little more. That was it. She was used to that expression and was expecting it.

Don’t make that mistake, that appreciative look was not a seal of approval that she wanted from me as a photographer. That look would merely make me fall in line with all the other men. And I did fall in line.

Just aim and shoot

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She sat on a chair on her tiny balcony with her legs up on the armrest. She had a relaxed expression on her face as I clicked. The sky was still overcast and some light was sneaking into the room from her balcony. I still felt that it was not enough. Never mind, I felt that I was nitpicking about the light and decided to go on clicking. For a moment, it crossed my mind that that this was a ‘moment’ and I might not get such a moment again.

I could see her throwing an aimless gaze outside her balcony as I got my first frame. The sound of the shutter didn’t make her shift one bit. Her gaze was still fixed at something outside her balcony. It must have been the crows who were about to retire to their nest — another brutal reminder that the faint light won’t last long. I perhaps had an hour and a half at the best and I needed to make most of it.

I went on clicking and I must have exposed my reel for 15 times. I was getting good shots though I knew they wouldn’t brighten up the frame. But I knew that it would surely brighten up anybody’s mind who would be watching these pictures.

She sat on the chair, she looked at me, she stood up and she looked away. I never had to say thing as she had all those poses in her mind. I went on clicking like a man possessed and I didn’t have to tell her anything. She knew where to stand, she knew where to sit and she knew where to look.

Soon my entire oll was exposed. The film-count showed 34 and I could see the setting sun peeking behind the clouds. I paused to take the reel out of my camera.

It was over? Not quite!

It was evening and it must have been 6.30pm.

I had quietly walked out of her bedroom and was still recovering from a feeling that I won’t be able to describe in words. My head was still playing the images that I had got in my camera in a slide-show. I was allowing myself to pick up a few images. My best image slot was already taken. All I was doing was hand-picking my second and third best shot from the slide-show.

It wasn’t so hard.

I was looking out from the balcony when Protima’s voice knocked my mind again.

“You want some tea?” I heard her voice coming out from the kitchen. She had made tea and pouring it into two small white porcelain cups. Of course, the next question from her was whether I would like milk in the tea or not. Sugar and biscuits were served on the side.

As we sat down to chat over some trivial stuff, I could see that Protima had just slipped a long kurta over her nude body. The way she sat opposite me on the sofa and the way she was shaking her legs, exposed quite a bit of her thighs.

I was being very careful that she shouldn’t catch me looking at her legs. Not that she would mind, but still…

We spoke about mundane things — she spoke about her daughter while I spoke about my last assignment.

There was a joke that we shared frequently. It was about my chappals getting lost and she offering her stilettos as replacement. Not that it was much of a joke but somehow she loved to say it again and again and would smile each time. She again laughed out loud after the joke while I just managed a wry smile.

Then came the statement of the evening.

“Come do the dishes with me. I don’t have a maid now and you all do our own dishes. I hope you don’t mind that,” she said looking at me, the subtle command in her tone intact.

Like a true man that I would pretend to be all the time, I immediately got up and took my cup and plated in my hand and walked towards the kitchen sink.

The cold water trickled down my palm as I gently rubbed the tea-grime off the saucer with my fingers. I suddenly felt that the image of a nude Protima is refusing to leave my head…

The images that I clicked were to remain there for a long, long time to come.

Here is a slideshow of those images.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

First photograph: A portrait of Protima Bedi by NK Sareen. If you want to buy this portrait, click here
 All photographs are copyrighted to NK Sareen. To know more about him, click  HERE
 To contact NK Sareen on his facebook page, click HERE
 Send him a mail at sareennk@gmail.com
 Shortlink of the post -> http://wp.me/p3x1zT-IF
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12 replies »

  1. I STRONGLY disagree. I would have let this post pass had you not written “As I glanced through the photographs Sareen mailed me, I realised that these photographs should be treasured for every Indian woman who would like to know what courage is.” Sorry but i don’t think regard her as being courageous just because she readily stripped and posed for you. I rather look at Phoolan Devi and Sunitha Krishnan for lessons on courage.
    Good writing, but no – i don’t need her to undress herself so that i can find myself.

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    • I can understand that you find Phoolan Devi and Sunitha Krishnan courageous and my guess is that that is so because your own values of courage align with theirs. That does not mean Ms. Bedi wasn’t courageous in her own way. Not everyone’s fears are the same. I don’t know what Ms. Bedi’s fears were, but I do know that as a woman in India, I do not feel safe, even in the year 2013, if in most Indian cities I try to wear the same kind of summer clothing that I do without a second thought when I’m in multiple cities in Canada, US, Costa Rica or Brazil. My fears stem from past experiences ranging from people – strangers and friends – at best admonishing me, at worst abusing me verbally to assaulting me physically, for doing so. While the freedom to wear what feels comfortable to oneself may not be something every woman in India has high on her priority list, some of us consider it a basic right. And to defy the rigid social norms that we’ve had in our country to try to claim that right, in my opinion, takes courage.

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      • right! but why is it always about undressing or about wearing what u want or to be free lady under 100 men….how is it empowering to sleep around and undress?

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      • though i agree it is a personal choice but trust me the whole world started to think women empowerment is about wearing skirts and being under all the men they like….blame it on you !!!

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  2. Protima lived life on her terms, enjoyed startling others. I think her son’s death affected her deeply and this in turn forced her to change the course of her life later on.

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  3. As always a nicely written article. But I am afraid I cannot agree with the inference that running naked on the beach or getting her photograph semi nude makes Protima a courageous woman, much less a role model. She is only one of the more famous ‘flower children’; whose lives were destroyed by Chander Mohan Jain a.k.a. Osho Rajneesh’s skewed philosophy and the so called Women’s Liberation movement for which fashionable women like Protima fell Lock, stock, and barrel.

    P.S. I have sent you a message on Facebook but it has gone to ‘others’ and not ‘inbox’. Please read and respond.

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  4. I read her book Timepass and realized that she had self esteem issues. A deep rooted insecurity about her looks. Her way of dealing with it was to seek adulation from good looking men. Sexuality, seduction were her weapons and she was an ace in that. look at the array of men in her life…Kabir, Jasraj, Vasant Sathe and some foreign bureaucrats.
    Bottom line is that though wearing one’s sexuality was part of flower- power era, but it was not practiced out in open in India. She did it without any inhibitions. That definitely was something however her real reasons could be entirely different than women liberation.

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    • I could not agree with you more. Even I read the book and felt the same. For example, when kabor cheated on her, he didn’t go around telling the world because he was secure about himself and already knew he was attractive. But with protima, she needed to display that to prove that kind of validation. I don’t believe honesty was the reason. Because if she would be really that kind of person who just can’t lie then she won’t be that same girl who faked her periods and lied so many times to her parents, friends and even Kabir. She knew where to speak what for what effect. Her honesty towards her affair were just for show off and vakidation or maybe superiority in actual inferiority complex. Also if other woman were even half as open as she was, then the ratio of man would go 10 to 100 and again push her to inferiority complex. Si she shoukd thank other satti savitris for giving her that doubt of superiority complex on which she lived.

      She also used to lie a lot to herself and was a bit delusional. Like when she slept with that married guy dinky, she knew her intentions from beginning, she wasn’t naive yet she acted later on as if she was used when she willingly got into it for validation, sex and good food. And she repated that quite a many times knowing fully well what she was doing just for the pure fun of it.

      And she thought kabir was delusional about her love affair as actresses just wanted to use him and get more publicity. She was delusional as she didn’t realize Kabir used her too gor all the contacts and married her and stayed with her just for the love of kids pooja. As he was going to be away for his career and he wanted a woman who could accept the theory she wpuld always come third after work and friends( No confident liberal self assured woman woukd accept that) , she kept her house nice, loved her kids which step mom could had messed up and which other woman would accept that. She was Kabir’s best catch only like that even if she would have liked to believe otherwise. Kabir wasn’t even attracted to her physically and he had to work that attraction towards her just for the sake of the contacts he could have from the rich woman. Which is why he was often cheating on her with her friends Gayatri, Geeta and others and this was happening simultaneously when Pooja was about to born and they were about to get married. Which makes it obvious , he was with her only for contacts. Those others girls didn’t even have to work hard just like Protima had to to reach physical level. But she kept lieng to herself and interpreted his body gestures for the kind which suited her. When other actress threw herselves at Kavir, she called them cheap but thought of her to be se*y or liberated when it came to her alliances with married man. She even believed most of them were wikling to leave their wives and kids for her when they were just taking advatange of those few se*ually active woman which were very rare those days.
      Feel bad for Sidhartha. He was kind soul who wanted real love from relationships unlike validation like her mom. Wrong mom for her. Though ofcourse she loved him but sadly people with different mindsets

      At the end of it, I still beljeve she was one really hot lady and not many people have such hot seductive figure as perfect as hers. She must be very classy too. Those pathetic aunties should be blamed who planted the seeds of inferiority complex in her. Most of these aunties are bot good looking themselves yet they take out their frustration on younger kids. Protima could have a man who genuinely loved her like that German or Fernch boyfriend who found her beautiful and all. But she chose Kabir who was extremely handsome and gave boost to her ego. And Kabir chose her because bo other woman woukd have given her that kind of freedom which Protima did out of inferiority complex. ( Blame those ugly aunties. Because it was unnecessary in Protima) I think the molestation episode affected her too. The girl was being hypocrite so many tines and needed guidance. Her selfish inferior attitude harmed two people parveen and her own son. I wish she had better guidance during her twenties or stopped herself when she was in her thirties and started to get better understanding of things. At one point she had this attitude I want all the man as if I am the only it woman which was pathetic and unnecesary.

      Yeah ofcourse at certain places, I might be wrong for I don’t know what was actually in Kabor’s head or hesrt. The book has been edited by her daughter. But protima did need guidance.

      And I urge everyone to look at my comment as an opinion only. Other than that the stupid aunties need to be slammed. Weirdly it is always the uglier aunties passing on their sich theories to young vulnerable girls. Shame on them.

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  5. Woman’s liberation is a term always misunderstood in India. …be in a man’s shoe for a day and think like him. Does he care what people say what he wears….do u stare at a man who rubs his groin…pee in the open…then if we are conditioned to ignore men right from childhood. ..why not MEN….They should never stare at a woman doing things she feels like. …no comments…no questions asked…thats liberation. Nothing to do with sex….booze….cigarettes. ….moral policing. ..These are all personal choices….cant be forced.

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