Speech, diction and etiquette have been her calling card for over four decades. Right now, she's busy with corporate workshops and a clientele that includes sportsmen, politicians, models and actors. Before she takes off to Europe and the US for a holiday, I catch up with the 64-year-old Sabira Merchant at the Yatch club, to ask:
How important is to be politically correct is one's phonetics.. etiquette?
I would say speech is the core of one's personality. No matter how good-looking a person is, it is the ability to communicate and present himself or herself that is vital.
How do you teach correctness to beauty pageant participants?
Well, I do come across various kinds of accents.. some girls come with an inherent regional accent while others with a strange American one. I advise them to drop all of that and talk in accentless English, which is the correct way of speaking. Reading improves one's vocabulary but listening to good speakers helps one speak better. I ask the girls to watch the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery channels to hear the commentaries.
In all these years of training, which contestants have taken you by surprise?
(Thinks hard) All of them. It is surprising that they have so much hunger to learn and have such amazing confidence. You know when there are 30 girls sitting in a room, you can sense a star. Hemant (Trivedi) and I always discuss who will qualify for the final five. Today, I can just randomly pick out names like Priyanka Chopra, Celina Jaitly, Yukta Mookhey and Lara Dutta and say, "Okay, they had the potential." And see where they are today. What is the most commonly mispronounced word? The biting of Vs and the rounding of Ws are where words get confusing for many. A word like ‘short' is always said as ‘shot'. Similarly one should never say, "A hot cup of tea.." It should be "A cup of hot tea."
Indians are often jeered at for their English speaking skills.
That's because most schools give an emphasis on written English rather than the spoken one. Why mock an Indian regional accent when an Italian can get away with an Italiano accent?
At parties, do you come across people who want a quick diction lesson from you?
(Laughs) Yes, that does happen at times. I don't mind correcting someone but only if I'm asked to. There is nothing like an instant diction lesson. That needs practice and time. In fact, I get television reporters message at the eleventh hour to help them with proper pronunciation.
You did the television show, What's The Good Word, in the 1970s. What do you think of the medium today?
Some of the shows today are really good. But I'm more tuned into news channels. I like We the People on NDTV. I also enjoy watching Koffee with Karan and the Oprah Winfrey Show. One must learn to make the interviewee comfortable, something that Karan, Oprah and Barkha Dutt do really well.
You've made a sort of a comeback on stage with Macbeth.
I hadn't taken a break from theatre. That was just a breather between two plays. My play, Rummy Game ran for four years. It was about two old Parsis. I travelled across the U K and the U S with it. Unfortunately, my partner Hosi Vasunia, passed away. Then came Macbeth with elaborate sets and a huge cast. That took a while to put together. Not much is heard about your husband Chhotu Merchant. (Smiles) Chhotu and I have completed 47 years of togetherness. He prefers to stay out of the limelight. I am more visible because of my work.
What do you think about men who try to be overchivalrous and women over- polite?
Anything that comes with sincerity is accepted.. so one mustn't try so hard.