A photo of Gul Panag, in a barely-there satin sheet, invaded cyber space as soon as her name hit the headlines as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate from Chandigarh. Morphed snapshots of Gul revealing more than she had actually bared followed. But the dimpled beauty remained unfazed, knowing well that she is no mere eye candy.
The Mumbai-based “beauty with brains” loves to describe herself as a “responsible activist and powerful opinion-maker”. Gul is better known for her well-argued articulation of women’s issues on social media than her modelling and film assignments. She has been trying hard to fit into the AAP mould by portraying herself as a ‘simple’ person through her mannerism and sartorial sense.
Gul’s journey from ‘aam’ to ‘khaas’ and ‘aam’ again started when she was 20. Her father Lt Gen HS Panag (retd) initially wanted her to make it big in sports as an athlete or a tennis player. Gul, in fact, participated in half-marathons.
The credit for the success of this middle-class girl in the glamour world also goes to her father. Watching the 1998 Miss India pageant, he came out with a strategy to make her contest. She was formally trained in etiquette and fitness before taking the plunge.
Gul says the goodies bag offered to all Miss India contestants attracted her to the show. “Me and my brother had a simple childhood and we were looking for a car of our own,” recalls Gul. “The poster offering a car as the top prize, besides the goodies, did the trick.”
She participated in the Miss India contest in 1999, but only after borrowing a skirt from a cousin. She was crowned Miss Beautiful Smile. She soon took up modelling and entered Bollywood. Her movies, mostly of the offbeat kind, include ‘Dhoop’, ‘Dor’, ‘Manorama Six Feet Under’ and ‘Turning 30!!!’.
But her success was not the beginning of her academic career’s end. She completed Bachelors of Arts from Punjabi University, Patiala, after winning the pageant. Recently, she did Masters in Political Science from Panjab University, Chandigarh.
Much before Gul came into being, there was Gulnar, born in Chandigarh in 1979. At the age of three, she showed how good she was at expressing her opinion. She was around four when her parents parted ways. Her father got her custody within six months of the divorce. He re-married when Gul was eight. Her stepmother, Annie Panag, also played a key role in grooming her for the pageant.
By the time she stepped into kindergarten, her name was changed from Gulnar to Gulkirat. She studied at Sector 31, Kendriya Vidyalaya, in Chandigarh, but her army officer father’s constant posting saw her move from one place to another. She changed around 10 schools.
Gul got a feel of the rustic life when she stayed at her grandparent’s farm house at Mohadiya village in Fatehgarh Sahib. Her father was at that time transferred to Russia. She also dabbled into farming and studied at Bassi Pathana town. She stayed at Leh (Jammu and Kashmir) for a year, but was groomed largely during boarding at Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty. Academics also took her to Zambia in Africa.
Her father says, “Her phenomenal debating skills have always been acknowledged. She won two gold medals at the annual inter-university debate.”
Panag married her long-time boyfriend, commercial pilot Rishi Attari, on March 13, 2011, at a gurdwara in Chandigarh. Rishi hails from the family of renowned warrior Sham Singh Attariwala, a trusted aide of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
FROM ACTOR TO ACTIVIST
Gul has been in the news for her zest to take up social causes. She has been fighting for women’s rights, against female foeticide and has raised environmental concerns. She has also brought to the fore issues affecting the armed forces. Gul manages Col Shamsher Singh Foundation, an NGO that works for gender equality, education and disaster management. Her clean image and passion for social work helped her get the AAP ticket.
Gul believes that change cannot be brought about by just carrying out discussions in drawing rooms, but by stepping out into the ‘war zone’. Just like an ‘aam aadmi’, she moves out with minimal make-up these days and does not throw the usual starry tantrums. She interacts not only with urban voters but also with slum dwellers.