‘They made a villain out of him. But I know he will emerge a hero’: Zarina Wahab

Posted on: June 16, 2013

The twinkle in her soft brown eyes – which cameramen for long years have lovingly focused on – is gone. Her smile is there, though, and seeks to hide the trouble that’s beset her.

These seven days have been hard on actress Zarina Wahab. She has been juggling between the courts and locations. Dressed in a white salwar kameez, she has been shooting in Goregaon’s Film City when we meet in between shots. And though she looks elegant, she also looks bone tired.

“I have to play the role of a woman who is just walking out of a mental asylum. I have to look depressed for the role. But the irony is that I don’t have to put on an act,” Wahab, 53, says.

Her son — 21-year-old Suraj Pancholi – was arrested by the Mumbai police on Monday on charges of abetting Bollywood actor Jiah Khan’s suicide on June 5.  His bail plea will be heard on June 21. Since he has been arrested, Wahab has met him only once. “It was the day he was produced in court. He waved out to me,” she says. Her daughter Sana, she adds, has been visiting him.

Khan’s tragic suicide has triggered a war of words. Her mother Rabiya Khan has alleged that Suraj, who is said to have been in a relationship with Jiah, abused her and pushed her to take her life. Rabiya has alleged that Suraj used to get drunk and beat Jiah and had also tried to rape her. The police have claimed that Suraj has confessed to beating her once in Goa eight months ago, following which Khan had tried to slit her wrists.

Wahab will have none of this. “My son is the most well mannered child. I have never seen him abusing anyone,” says Wahab who stresses that her son is a teetotaler.  “Suraj loved her at one point of time. Why would he rape her?”

A doting mother, she stresses that her son is calm and shy. He starts his day at seven, goes to the gym and then to his dancing classes. He had been gearing up for his debut role in a Bollywood film – he was to have been launched with Suniel Shetty’s daughter Aathiya in a remake of Subhash Ghai’s 1983 blockbuster Hero.

“Even before he could start his career, they made a villain out of him. But I know he will emerge a hero,” she says.

Wahab adds that she had not met Jiah Khan, but got to know about their relationship from reports in the media last year. “They met on Facebook. When I asked him about her, he said she was a nice girl, but never talked about her. His focus was on preparing himself as an actor,” she says.

But that came to a sudden halt last week when Rabiya made public a five-page letter allegedly written by Jiah. The letter referred to her traumatic relationship with Suraj. The police are believed to have recovered five love letters from Suraj’s house. According to Wahab, Jiah had no complaints about Suraj in any of those letters.

“I am confident that my son has done nothing that would have provoked Jiah to commit suicide. All I know is that they loved each other a lot at one point of time. But then affairs do go wrong. Haven’t we all gone through phases in our life when we have realised that we were dating the wrong person,” she asks.

Wahab knows about tumultuous relationships. Her own relationship was once the delight of tabloids. Like Jiah, who was older than Suraj — Wahab was 27 and actor Aditya Pancholi 23 when they met on the sets of a video film Kalank Ka Tika. They have been married for 27 years, and Pancholi, who now runs a restaurant, Cafe Lambretta in Goa,  has often been in the news – and mostly for the wrong reasons. He has also been linked with Bollywood actresses.

“I never questioned Nirmal  (Pancholi’s actual name) about his affairs. In fact, he often asked me: why don’t you even spy on me,” Wahab laughs. “I don’t care what he does outside the home. For me, what matters is how he behaves with me at home. And I know my husband cares for me.”

What about the physical abuse that the media whispered about?

“Has anyone seen him beat me,” she asks, her soft nasal voice going a notch higher.

“I earn enough to look after myself. If Nirmal was abusive to me, I would have left him long back. But  yes, Nirmal loses his temper very easily. He shouts for five minutes and then he apologises.”

Aware of his temper — Pancholi got into a fight with members of the media on the day of Jiah’s funeral — she has requested him to stay out of Suraj’s case for the time being.  “I asked him not to be around Suraj now as his aggressive image would do more damage to the case,” says Wahab, who is fondly called “Z” by her friends.

Suraj, who is now in judicial custody, will be home soon, she believes. She doesn’t want to speculate on the case anymore – and is ready to put an end to the interview. But when I mention her days in Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, she smiles.

Her father, she says, was a deputy superintendent in the central excise department, and her mother was a homemaker. Wahab went to the Schade Girls High School – and always dreamt of becoming an actress.

“I used to put a lot of powder on my face and stand in front of the mirror for hours. I wanted to act since my childhood,” she says.

Wahab joined the Film and Television Institute of India after school and was signed up by actor-director-producer Dev Anand for his film Ishq Ishq Ishq. “I went to Dev Saab with my photographs but he refused to see them. He said that he’d seen me in person, and was confident that I would be photogenic. I really didn’t have to struggle at all to make inroads into Bollywood.”

While she was shooting for Ishq Ishq Ishq in 1976, she was offered the role of a village girl opposite Amol Palekar in Rajshri Productions’ Chitchor. A year later, she was in Gulzar’s Gharonda, playing the role of a woman who marries an old man for his wealth so that she can live happily with her penniless lover after his death. Wahab, who was the star of the alternative but mainstream cinema, also went on to act in a great many out-and-out commercial films – including Sawan Ko Aane Do, Ek Aur Ek Gyarah, Chor Police and Dahleez.  She acted in over 50 Hindi films and 22 Malyalam films.

Wahab had a girl next door image. Her dusky complexion and long shiny hair made her look different from the other heroines of her times. Wahab looks much fairer now and she does not like it anymore. “When I was young, I was to bleach my skin every 15 days so that I become fair. Now that I am fair, I think my original complexion was much better,” she laughs.

She also acted in Malyalam films. “I did that to earn quick money, They never shoot for more than 15-20 days, so the producers clear their bills after the shoot is over, unlike Mumbai where bills remain pending for years till the movie is released,” she says. Her first Malyalam film was Madanoslavam with Kamal Haasan in 1978. She’s still involved in Malyalam cinema. A recent film — Adaminte Makan Abu — won four national awards and was India’s official entry to the best foreign language film category in the 2011 Oscar awards.

Wahab continued with her career till 1995, when she took time off to raise her children. She donned the greasepaint again in 2000 with the television series Agni. She has acted in quite a few films in recent times – inlcuding My Name is Khan, Vishwaroopam, Agneepath and Himmatwala. She has just finished shooting for I, Me Aur Main, where she plays John Abraham’s mother. Right now, she is busy shooting for the television series Madhubala, Ek Ishq, Ek Junoon.

“I love acting, so I am happy that I am still getting roles,” she says. Is she being forced to act because she has to run the house?  “I act because that’s the only thing I can do. I enjoy every bit of it,” she replies.”

Apart from acting, she loves Telugu films – especially the funny ones. “Every month, I go to Hyderabad to relax and watch these mindless comedies. That’s the best way to unwind,” she smiles, and then adds, “We will visit Hyderabad once Suraj is out.”

She hopes to entertain her son in style. A good cook, she plans to cook some Hyderabadi biryani for him. “Every time I cook it, I have to try hard to convince him that I have gone easy on the ghee. He is extremely health conscious.”

She will feed Suraj, and hope that the death of a troubled girl in Mumbai will soon be behind them. Wahab says she tried to meet Jiah’s mother last week to console her but Rabiya walked out of the room. Two mothers, with two different stories – but clearly both are hurting.

(A version of the story has been published in The Telegraph on June 16, 2013)


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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
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