We make our way across Punjab the day the court gives the go-ahead to Udta Punjab, the film that was in the news due to controversial cuts recommended by the Censor Board.
The media is OD-ing on the news, but the towns we pass – Patiala, Ludhiana, Jalandhar – display no signs of being talking points. Our destination is Bajwa Kalan, a village in Jalandhar district. We are here to meet its most famous resident perhaps – Inder Bajwa.
The name may not ring an instant bell, but in the fashion world, Bajwa’s was a success story that is not yet forgotten. He was one among the many models from small towns who took advantage of the boom in fashion in the late ’90s-early 2000s. Having left Bajwa Kalan at the age of 21 in 2005, he found patronage among Delhi’s top designers, moved to Bombay, participated in the Mr World contest, walked the ramp, bagged a number of print commercials and spent a decade in the fast-paced world of high style.
His last big assignment was as the face of the ‘Raymond: the Complete Man’ campaign from 2011 to 2013, certainly a prestigious ad to bag and testimony to his dominance over his peers in his profession. He was also able to make the next logical step into movies: bagging a starring role in a Punjabi film which released this May, Saadey CM Saab, a comedy thriller which, in his words, did “okay” at the box office.
But then, inexplicably for many, at the age of 31, in 2014, Inder made the journey back to Bajwa Kalan. To stay.
The turning point was when his cousin, a 17-year-old boy, the son of his maternal aunt, died due to drug abuse.The extent of the drug menace in Punjab is today a political and social news point. The statistics are depressing: almost every household reports losing at least a male member to drugs. In such a situation, while raising social awareness draws attention to the problem, solving it remains the hurdle. As Bajwa says: “The politicians will talk about it and get votes, films will show it and make money, but no one is doing anything about it.”
Punjab has a tradition of selfless community service, evident in its langar culture. Before its drug menace became news frenzy, Bajwa had already heard the alarm bells. Working in Mumbai, he continued to keep an eye on his village kabaddi team, the one in which he had also played. It was a strong team, always number one in the inter-village competitions. But over the last decade, Bajwa watched from afar as his kabaddi team dismantled, as drugs claimed and consumed the youth. Then his cousin died. And Bajwa says he “couldn’t feel Bombay anymore. I couldn’t watch from far, doing nothing.”
The village kids, he felt, did not have the role models that he and his own contemporaries had while growing up. In many families, young people had moved abroad to countries such as the UK (where Bajwa’s own older brother moved when he was barely out of his teens). In villages, where means of recreation are few, easily available drugs become a temptation for teenagers.
So Bajwa returned home. Top of his mind was a new kabaddi team. “In the evenings, when there is no work, that is when people do drugs,” he says. So for him there is one goal: to create a centre point of recreation for the village youth and involve them in a healthy, positive activity.
Punjab’s kabaddi tradition involves about 15 clubs formed out of players from village teams. In their circle-style tradition of the game, the clubs can earn up to `1 crore, with awards of a tractor, car or motorcycle for the best player. Bajwa’s contribution to this was to restore his village’s kabaddi ground, which had fallen into disuse, to its former glory. After this, he turned trainer. He already has five or six young men eager to play, and he is confident, he says, that a full team will materialise soon. Now Bajwa is betting on his well-connected friends in Mumbai and Delhi to help him set up a well-equipped gym in the neighbourhood.
What he’s doing is a far cry from Bajwa’s big-city life in which he hobnobbed with the rich and famous and hitched a free ride across the world on the back of high fashion. When he first moved to Mumbai, Bajwa says, he couldn’t even write his name in English. “But I steeped myself in the culture of the city.”
A modelling contest aired on Doordarshan was the trigger for his move to Mumbai. “I thought to myself: if I just lose 25 kg, I can be better than all these people,” he recalls. Though he was shaping up as a promising kabaddi player, once the thought of modelling entered his head, “I could not hold it back”. So he lost the weight and then got himself a professional portfolio. He landed a couple of local music videos but thought he was better than that. So on the advice of his photographer, he considered moving to Delhi or Mumbai.
Mumbai was eventually selected because he had a place to stay to start with – the home of a family whose new daughter-in-law was from Bajwa’s village. “I was lucky,” he says simply. And then, Mumbai took hold of the village boy from Punjab. “I didn’t listen to Punjabi music, I didn’t speak Punjabi, I didn’t meet Punjabis,” he says.
He made good friends: his mentor Rohit Bal, designers Sabyasachi Mukherji and Varun Bahl, model Sheetal Malhar and writer Nikhil Khanna. He has respect for the craft and intellect of high fashion. He remembers an angarakha he wore for a Sabyasachi show which he liked so much that he chose to wear it to the after-party. “I still have it in a cupboard somewhere.”
Yet, he remained rooted. He never liked eating out, preferred to cook at home and invited friends over to eat as well. He was aware of drug abuse in certain fashion circles, but “was scandalised”.
A model’s shelf life is limited. While a few, like Milind Soman, remain top-recall in middle age, others move to films or TV serials, or connected professions like event management or photography. But of all his peers who migrated to the city, Bajwa doesn’t know anyone else who has moved back to their home village.
There were a number of young men like him. Called the ‘Jat-setters’ – Haryanvis and Punjabis who moved from villages in north India to Mumbai and Delhi where they stormed the fashion runways with their chiselled looks and akhara-defined bodies – they took to the fashion spotlight like fish to water, despite the stark differences in lifestyles, language and cultures, because of a certain self-confidence.
“Punjabis have no hunger, there is a certain pride. It’s not only that they look good but also that they feel good,” says Bajwa. “They feel they are somebody, and that translates into a certain attitude on the runway and in modelling that works very well.”
Designer Suneet Varma says the Jat-setters have lots going for them. “They are honest, earnest boys looking to make something of their lives,” he says. “They give it their best shot. They stay clean, look hot, go to the gym, do their PR, arrive on time.”
But looks and confidence are not enough, adds Varma. “There has to be a refinement to a model to reach the top,” he says. “A smoothness that city boys possess. That Bajwa made it as far as he did is proof of a burning ambition and dedication that even an Arjun Rampal or a Milind Soman may not have had. It comes from being a son of the soil.”
Bajwa’s father is a former truck driver and his mother is a home-maker. They lived out of two rooms, but ever since their children started earning, his father has not had to work, says Bajwa with satisfaction. His parents have been able to build a modest double-storey house, and also buy a bit of land.
Bajwa seems laidback as he helps his mother in the kitchen and potters about his vegetable garden. But a fashion watcher remembers him as “good looking, ambitious and ruthless in his climb to the top.” While he had the looks, he was not very tall, short of the standard 5 feet 11 inches required for runways, and he is said to have climbed up the ladder by “manipulating the system with shrewd strategy and ambition.”
Early reports show him mentioned in the Page Three Press as Rohit Bal’s “muse.” There is also a report of a fight between him and another model close to Bal, a brawl big enough to result in a trip to the hospital for those involved. Ask him about the alleged affair with Bal, and Bajwa says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Instead, he mentions a girlfriend during his last year in Bombay, a fellow model and “a wonderful human being” but says that didn’t work out.
Back on home ground, Bajwa says he’s brought back one thing with him – the ability to ignore what he doesn’t like. “In the village if you don’t like something someone said or did, you get provoked, tempers fly,” he says. That apart, he seems to have shifted back into slow gear. He laughs as he remembers his first few months adjusting to city life. “At 9pm I announced I was going home,” he recalls of a gathering of friends. “What for?” they asked. “To sleep,” he replied. He was laughed out of the room. “The night has only begun,” they told him.
What followed was a decade of long nights and odd hours, and in the early days, a substantial amount of alcohol consumption. One night, he remembers, he killed two-and-a-half bottles of whiskey with a friend after starting out with champagne and wine, despite an important shoot the next morning.
By the time Bajwa decided to move back, the world of fashion had lost some of its allure. “There was a measure of discontentment that came out, especially when he got drunk,” says Varma. “Then he would get rustic, speak in Punjabi and question the point of the high life everyone was enamoured by.”
Now he doesn’t drink. He is up by 4.30; on some days he practices with his own team-in-the-making, on others, he plays on the kabaddi courts of a village nearby with their players. In the afternoon, he does chores for his mother. And in the evening, there are another few hours of hectic physical training at the grounds.
Bajwa reads Punjabi literature – his favourite is Waris Shah’s Heer, and listens to Satinder Sartaaj’s music. He tries his hand at poetry, as the mood takes him. He is inspired by Guru Nanak Dev, for being “a poet and social worker.” He is falling back into the Punjabi culture and thinks that his fluency in English now (which sounds decent enough to us) might not be what it had become in the city.
Bajwa is only in his early thirties and says he doesn’t know what the future holds. “I can only do one thing at one time and give it my best,” he says. For now, he is here, and the kabaddi team, the kabaddi ground and the needs of his players-in-the-making are of primary importance, along with his ageing parents.
But if his conquest of the world of fashion is any indication, there is hope for the children of Bajwa Kalan.
Kanika Gahlaut is a journalist and author of Among The Chatterati (Penguin India). She has contributed to anthologies, most recently, House Spirit: Drinking in India (Speaking Tiger).
From HT Brunch, July 10, 2016
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