From theatre to coaching beauty queens, the journey of Sabira Merchant, in her own words

In the run up to International Women’s Day, ‘women empowerment’ is somewhat reduced to being a mere buzzword, yet Sabira Merchant’s extraordinary life exemplifies this term. And her recently released memoir ‘A Full Life’, written in collaboration with Mitali Parekh and published by Jaico Publishing House, is the most apt celebration of it.

At the age of 21, Sabira was in her prime – married by her own admission to the love of her life Chotu Merchant, and mother to three bonny babies. Yet, this elegant homemaker from suburban Mumbai felt something was missing. A year spent in Switzerland’s finest finishing school and the joy of performing on stage as a young schoolgirl, stayed with her even as she navigated her new life as wife and mother. She expressed a wish to act on stage, and her supportive husband encouraged her to explore the option.

“The truth is, I have been gifted a wonderful, fulfilling life. And I hope people enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoy living it,” says Sabira about her passion project as she chats with YS Weekender.

A young Sabira Merchant

A life well-lived

Since her foray into theatre in the 1960s, Sabira became a trendsetter who was looked up to in Mumbai’s performing arts scene. Her rise to fame is quite an incredible one. Charming, confident and intelligent, she is equal parts thespian, celebrated quiz queen, and grooming and etiquette expert.

For a girl who was married in her teens in the 1950s, Sabira’s accomplishments are indeed inspiring. She stood apart in an age where most women were unable to balance their personal lives and careers.

She began by working on the costumes for Pearl Padamsee’s play ‘Hamlet’, and debuted on stage in Pratap Sharma’s ‘The Word’ as a schoolgirl – even though she was 21 and a mother of three at the time. The play was directed by Alyque Padamsee. One of her best-known roles was as Blanche Dubois in the iconic play by Tennessee Williams, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. It garnered many accolades and Sabira won the All India Critics Association Award for Best Actress in 1981 for her performance.

Acting led to a stint with the All India Radio where she was part of a live programme called ‘An Evening at All India Radio’. “I was on air seven to ten nights in a row and I took it on because it fit in with my lifestyle. I was able to tuck the children into bed and work while they were sleeping,” she shares.

Soon, she was part of a quiz show on Doordarshan – ‘What’s the Good Word’ – the format of which Sabira herself fleshed out. This guess-the-word game was aired only twice every month, yet was a phenomenal success in the making of Sabira’s larger-than-life persona. She quips,

“There was no Google then and you had to tap your own mind for ideas and scour foreign magazines for new words or colloquialisms. I would research how terms evolved and find a context to present them to the contestants.”

The other side of Sabira

Among her other achievements, Sabira is also credited with bringing disco to Mumbai by launching her nightclub Studio 29 which she ran for many years. “This club ushered in a new era in Mumbai’s nightlife, causing a frenzy among partygoers in the 80s. I remember visiting the nightclub every evening to ensure everything was going well, in addition to fulfilling my other professional roles and responsibilities,” she shares with candour.

The 90s brought in a new dimension to Sabira’s professional status. Her elegance and diction made her an apt choice as an etiquette and diction trainer. Hence, just after Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen won their respective crowns in 1994, Pradeep Guha of The Times Group approached Sabira to help groom the Femina Miss India contestants for the global platform. In this capacity, she has coached beauty queens such as Priyanka Chopra, Lara Dutta, Yukta Mookhey and Diana Hayden before they went on to win their crowns.

Additionally, she has worked with India’s top corporates to train their workforce in social behaviour, corporate finesse and etiquette. She admits that acting is her true passion and she uses elements of this passion in her etiquette training courses, which gives her immense satisfaction.

Though she dons many hats, at her core she describes herself as a family woman. Sabira has always been close to her three children and many grandchildren. She fondly chronicles anecdotes of her relationships with various family members, some of whom even lived across the border as her biological parents chose to move there after the partition of the country, while she was brought up in Mumbai by her adoptive parents.

The book

“The idea for this autobiography germinated in 2016 when one of the professionals who helps me organise my Corporate Finesse workshops suggested a self-help handbook for those seeking to polish their diction and etiquette. As I pondered on this, I realised that the lessons I have been passing on were what I had the privilege to be exposed to all through my life… The kind folk at Jaico Publishing House agreed that a self-help booklet would be dry and may not capture the richness of this life I have led,” explains Sabira in the prologue to her book, A Full Life.

The book has been written in collaboration with Mitali Parekh, a writer, editor and columnist based in Mumbai. She writes on popular culture, food, fashion, animal rights and welfare, gender issues, lifestyle and travel. Her articles and columns have appeared in newspapers and magazines such as Mumbai Mirror, Elle, Femina, Harper’s Bazaar, The Caravan, The Guardian, Mid-Day, The Hindu Business Line, Mint and many others.

Together, Sabira and Mitali lay bare this eventful journey, shining light on Sabira’s triumphs, setbacks, joys, fears and hopes. Through this candid look, they also give readers a rare glimpse into Mumbai’s past, and how it has changed over the decades.

Actress, entrepreneur and former Miss India Lara Dutta, has written the preface to the book, where she declares there is no one in this country quite like Sabira Merchant, calling her irreplaceable.

Alyque Padamsee, the doyen of Indian theatre, who has penned the foreword says,

“Sabira is a true drama queen… She is no doubt my favourite actor, not just actress. She has this ability to become the role, not just play it. And she likes a challenge… To put it simply, she has all the makings of a theatre great – discipline, vulnerability and excellent speech.”

Though referring specifically to her stage presence, with these lines Alyque also defines Sabira’s life in a nutshell – a life which has been a full one, indeed.






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