How one of In­dia’s best-look­ing mod­els, un­der Ba­jwa, gave up a life of glam­our to re­turn to his vil­lage in Pun­jab and fight drugs

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - text by Kanika Gahlaut; pho­tos by Ravi Choud­hary


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 ODing 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”.

Amodel’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 ‘Jat­set­ters’ – 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-inthe-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 Gobind Singh, 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. B ajwa 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. brunch­let­ters@hin­dus­tan­times.com Fol­low @HTBrunch on Twit­ter


LOVE & WAR IN A LIFE GONE BY File pics of Ba­jwa wish­ing Ro­hit Bal at his birth­day party (left) and (right) al­legedly get­ting into a fight with an­other model at an after-party, over the de­signer’s at­ten­tion

RUN­WAY STAR TO RUN­AWAY RE­FORMER Pic­tures from In­der Ba­jwa’s Face­book time­line show him spend­ing time with his mother (above, left) and plant­ing trees with young­sters from his vil­lage Ba­jwa Kalan

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