He was Raymond’s complete man from 2011-13. He modelled for prestigious designers from all over the world, the likes of Marc Robinson, Sabyasachi, RohitBal and Jean-Paul Gautier. Coming from modest roots and landing in Mumbai in 2005 with 15,000 rupees in his pocket, in no time he dominated the ramp with his chiselled face, lean frame and confident gait; took part in the Mr. World contest; and was the face of a number of top brands in India over several years.
Then, while still at the top of his game, he left it all behind to return to his village in Bajwa Kalan, near Jalandhar, Punjab. What makes a man ascend the ladder of a tough career and abandon the fruits of his success for an inner calling? The man in question is Inder Bajwa, one of India’s supermodels, and his story reads like a typical coming-of-age movie. It’s also the story of a fight against one of Punjab’s grave social problems: Drug abuse.
We sit in a small rickety tea shop in his village, surrounded by unassuming villagers. Inder is just like anyone else here, not your hunky supermodel of Mumbai fame. While we sip the strong tea served in cheap glasses, I can’t help but wonder how Inder takes it all in naturally, after his glamorous stint on photo shoots and runways around the world. But before that, I want to know how it all started.
“When I was thirteen, I went to a martial arts camp in our village. The master was a good fella and what he said stuck to me like a tattoo: ‘Heroes are not born every day, but very rare”
“I ended up joining his Karate classes and in 1999, I won a state championship in karate. Soon, I got hooked on Kabaddi. In Punjab, Kabaddi is like a religion, all the boys were playing Kabaddi. There was a sort of fraternity feeling in it and I left karate and joined the village Kabaddi team. I gained weight and began winning competitions.”
“Soon I realized that living in the village and playing Kabaddi was not actually my calling. I wanted to see the world, be famous and test my abilities.“
Inder talks nonchalantly about his past. There is no effort to sound special; after all, he has nothing to prove.
“Then I happened to watch a local modelling contest in Doordarshan and I saw that I could do much better than the winner of the show. When I looked at fashion magazines, I felt the same. They had only reached those heights sooner than me. Slowly, I quit Kabaddi and began to lose weight and build a lean frame.”
When I ask him if he did anything in particular to attain modelling proportions for his body, he answers wryly that he didn’t. “I still don’t know what modelling proportions are. Are there any?”
Once the mind was set, the path was opened. Inder calls himself lucky, since his journey to Mumbai happened because his cousin got two extra train tickets to Mumbai due to a booking error, and a place to stay as well, as a neighbouring woman who was married off to Mumbai wanted to travel safely with him to the city.
“I didn’t even know what a first class or general compartment was, and when I told my father that I was going to Mumbai, he just gave me a poker face. There was no reaction.”
“Were you a rebel?” I ask him.
“Quite, I used to stand up for guys when they got bullied by bigger guys and ended up fighting with a lot of them.”
Inder ended up in Kollivada in Mumbai, where a famous colony of Kolis, the fishermen of Mumbai, live. Lodging in a one-bedroom house with the family of the girl, he had to queue up every morning to use a public facility since there was no toilet in the house. After two weeks of cramped living with the family in the tiny place, luck came in the form of his brother’s friend from UK, who had a house in Mumbai.
He let Inder take the key of his vacant house and soon Inder was living in a two-bedroom pad in the luxurious suburb of Bandra. But amid the luxury he was still poor, as he only had 6,000 in his pocket by now.
“I started cooking. My prior experience with cooking was getting water from the fridge when I was thirsty. So the first Roti I made was harder than the tawa I made it in. I learnt how to cook the hard way, after two months of many failed attempts and eating bad food – I didn’t have the luxury of throwing it away.”
I wondered how he kept himself in shape while going through all this given that he was an aspirant for the world’s most vain career.
“I literally had no money for food. I would eat vadapav at one in the afternoon and survive on Parle G the rest of the time. I desperately needed money.”
Luck came in the form of a shoot for a local shirt brand earning him 5000 rupees, which saw him through for some days. He called a photographer friend of his and asked him to make him a portfolio, promising to pay him the fee in 15 days.
“How could you be so sure?” I ask.
“I was confident I would be able to. How? I don’t know.”
With the folio in hand, Inder walked into the posh office of Lowe Lintas, the famous ad agency in Mumbai and asked to meet the person in charge.
“I didn’t speak much English then. So I kept answering YES or NO when she asked me different questions.”
He met Indira Jaisingh there and was offered his first job the same day to act in a Rexona commercial. However incredible it sounds, the rest is history.
“You walked into Lowe Lintas with an empty stomach and met the director and got a modelling job the same day? “ I ask in disbelief.
“Yes, what’s so special about that? It’s just a job.” He asks me
Inder’s confidence is almost akin to arrogance, but I can see this comes from his Jat roots where men have a don’t care attitude when it comes to life. His self-belief is infectious.
Wills Fashion week followed very soon and people like Arjun Khanna, VarunBehl, and AsishVidyarthi noticed him. Inder narrates the audition process for WFW:
“They were not very happy with me, since there were taller and more muscular guys. Arjun Khanna had seen me earlier so when other judges disapproved of me, he asked me to take off my shirt and I was immediately selected.”
Recommendations soon followed from the likes of Rahul Dev, Prasad Bidappa and other eminent men in the industry. Inder moved to Delhi to pursue more opportunities. Brands like Raymond’s and other endorsements followed. The man who didn’t have money for a daily meal found himself living in a modern and luxurious two-bedroom flat in Delhi. He found a great mentor in RohitBal, sparking rumours of an alleged relationship between the two, which Inder refutes with a smile.
“Those who know me know the truth, and that’s what matters at the end.”
Soon new habits followed – he started drinking, and revelled in every privilege the modelling world offers. There were followers everywhere, people who wanted to party with him, to be seen and clicked with him.
So how did all this change? Why, all of a sudden, did he decide to leave everything?
“It was not actually all of a sudden. I was gradually getting tired of everything. Strange people who you don’t know coming to take pictures with you, all the alcohol, the way the industry works, the shallowness around. The typical story.”
Then the famous fight happened.
In 2010, Inder and his friends were in the news for a drunken brawl in a Gurgaon pub. Inder tells his version of the story.
“Delhi fashion week finale was over and we went partying. This photographer came and began taking my pictures and I politely said no. He kept pushing again and spilt his drink on me. I let it go. But when he again did that, I lost my cool and the fight happened. After the party, I took an early morning flight to Mumbai but had to come back as there was a case filed against us. There was nobody to guarantee bail. No fans, no friends, except a guy I hardly knew, who was from a village near Gurgaon. That’s when I began to wonder what kind of people I was living amongst.”
“That got me thinking of my village and wondering how the rural and urban minds worked. Whereas there was goodness and normalcy in the people from villages, I could only see debauchery and greed in the cities. Then in 2013, my uncle’s son died and I felt terribly guilty.”
Inder’s cousin had died of drug abuse, one of the worst problems plaguing Punjab of recent times, as portrayed in the film Udta Punjab.
“I knew he took drugs, but I never cared. But his death came as a shock. I realized this could happen to you or your dear ones anytime. When I was in the village that time, I got to know a lot of those boys who took drugs and were addicted.
Back in Delhi, I was watching a friend’s couture show. I saw models walking on the ramp one after the other, and I began thinking- Is this what I am doing? Am I still just walking all my life, when I can do much better things? Is my life just to bare my body and walk on a ramp?
So the thought sunk in. I began to accept fewer and fewer contracts and finally when I went home for Diwali in 2014, my mother looked at me while I was packing and she just said- “Unpack, don’t go. Stay here.”
I guess she lent the final helping hand in my decision. Then it was flood gates open. I stayed back. I didn’t go back. “
How did others react to this?
“Their reactions were pretty normal. My dad was proud of me being a model and he was okay with me staying back, too. The villagers have pretty much been nice. I am not a celebrity here, even though I did do a couple of Punjabi movies a while back. Friends back in Mumbai and Delhi got used to my absence pretty soon, I guess.“
I am curious to know what steps Inder has taken to address the drug issues, the prime reason which prompted him to come back. Is he going to fight against it? What about the powerful drug mafia? Isn’t he scared of them? What about the political connections of these people?
“Why should it be a fight always?
See, every young guy has an ambition and immense energy in him. I see these teenagers, they work out in the gym, don’t earn anything for their family and they have a lot of free time on their hands. In every village, there are at least three or four dealers who sell stuff under different names like Snacks, Chitta, Ganja etc. Medical infusions, cocaine and opium – everything is available. The police do nothing. “
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t want to get into the fight. What I want to do is tackle the problem at the root. I am catching the young boys in the village and giving them diversion in terms of Kabaddi. Kabaddi is not just a sport for us, it’s a gathering, a meeting, an arena to get away from all the frustrations. Around thirty of our boys have joined the Agada where I used to play Kabaddi. We are practising every day, taking part in local competitions. I am hopeful. We also keep a close watch on the dealers and monitor the boys. People are aware of the problem now and at least in my village, I can see a big change.”
Inder has great plans for his village Kabaddi team. Being a Kabaddi champion himself, he feels the team is in good hands and everyone is dedicatedly working towards their goal.
This sounds interesting: Fighting a social issue by means of a game. A scene straight out of Lagaan, albeit a real one. However unreal it sounds, by looking at different groups of boys at play in different sections of the ground, I feel he might be on a right track. Boys hang around him as we leave the tea shop and walk around the Agada and the ground.
Life in the village is peaceful, Inder says. His mother cooks meals he gorges on; his dad keeps pushing him to marry, to which he simply says – “Haanji, haanji.” The boys adore him and he is at peace.
“When I lie down on the cot in my front yard under the open sky, looking up at those stars at night, I feel it’s ten times better than the best nightclubs in Mumbai and Delhi, and all that glitz and glamour.”
Gone is the lean frame and smooth skin which adorned so many magazine pages. Instead, the man with me is a huge, burly and rustic villager, with no hint of Modeldom.
“I am a spiritual person – I believe in destiny, and it makes me feel this is not the end,” he replies to my question of whether he sees himself living in the village for the rest of his life.
“I think this is a phase in my life. I needed to do this. I might set out once again in some time, maybe on a different path. There will definitely be an Inder 2.0. But for now, these boys need me.”
The spirit of adventure runs in the family. His grandfather was the epitome of life’s spirit for him. He remembers his grandfather, at 85 years old, still adamant about lighting his own Diwali diya, the oil spilling all over the place due to his poor eyesight. His younger brother went to the UK illegally, crossing the border through Russia and though detained in a camp for months, was eventually released and ended by marrying a British girl and settling in England for good.
“So, what about love?”- I ask, “Have you ever been in love for real?”
“Yes, but it didn’t work out.” A certain sadness engulfs him.
“Any regrets?” I ask as a random rounding up question.
“Yes, I do have one.” Inder says.
“I should never have said ‘I will let you know in one week.’ ”
“What happened?” I ask.
“This was my ex-girlfriend. We had a break up and she was living in my apartment. At the door, she turned and asked me if I wanted to reconsider our relationship. I said I would call her back in one week. In just three days I realized that I really loved her and wanted to share my life with her. When I called her she said she had taken Brahmacharya and was living in an Ashram. I was too late. I wish I hadn’t waited.” He looks away.
I feel sad about Inder. He is the kind of person who lives by his word and absorbs everything life throws at him. A boy in a man’s body.
I text him on the way back to the station – Would you marry her if she came back after renouncing her celibacy?
“Yes,” comes the reply.
I hope she reads this story. I pray Inder’s story has a happy ending. Amen!