• Film

Persis Khambatta Remembered

Persis Khambatta, a smart and beautiful Indian actress and model, became instantly famous in December 1979 when she appeared on movie screens as Lieutenant Ilia, the Deltan navigator of the Starship USS Enterprise, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture directed by Robert Wise. The film was based on the television series (1966-1969) created by Gene Roddenberry, starring William Shatner as Captain James Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy as Vulcan science officer Spock. 


Khambatta was invited to the 1980 Golden Globes on January 26 to present the Best Foreign Film award to the French movie La Cage aux Folles, and on April 14, 1980, she presented the Best Documentary award at the Academy Awards with William Shatner. She attended the Golden Globes on January 31, 1981, as the guest of Italian composer Giorgio Moroder, who was nominated for Best Score and Best Original Song (“Call Me”) for American Gigolo.

The journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press interviewed Khambatta in May 1981 about her role in Nighthawks starring Sylvester Stallone and asked questions about her background and aspirations.


Born in Mumbai, India in 1948, she was discovered at the age of 13 by a photographer while eating dinner in a restaurant with her family. Some test shots he took of her were used in the advertising campaign for Rexona soap and she started getting work as a model. In 1965, she won the Miss India contest and in 1968 she was cast by director K.A. Abbas in her first Bollywood movie. She said: “I was very fortunate. I had done so much modeling in India, but I was like a big fish in a small pond and I wanted to try somewhere else, to be known internationally, to feel inside me that I was good and I would make it abroad, so I decided to go to London.”

In England, Khambatta played small roles in The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) with Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier, and Conduct Unbecoming (1975) with Michael York and Richard Attenborough. Then she realized she didn’t want to act, so she moved to New York and signed with the Wilhelmina modeling agency. On a flight back from India, where she traveled every year to visit her mother, she showed her portfolio to two Indian actors, then went to sleep. It was only when the plane took off after a stop in London that she realized they had stolen her portfolio, which represented all of her work. “I knew that that would stop my career and I would have to start all over again. But if this didn’t happen, I would have never really taken acting seriously.” That’s when she decided to move to L.A. to give acting another try.

When Khambatta auditioned for Star Trek she wore a bald cap because Deltans are hairless, but when she won the role of Ilia over hundreds of other actresses she promised to really shave her head, drawing inspiration from a statue of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The shedding of her dark locks was captured on video as she shed a few tears, and that look became iconic.

Of her role as Shakka in the crime thriller Nighthawks, she said, “I was portraying a terrorist because terrorism right now is there. We’re trying to avoid it, thinking it’s going to go away, but it’s not. And I felt that governments have to see that it’s so easy for terrorists to make demands and get what they want. So it’s useful for people when they watch me to see that baddies always lose in the end. I do die in this film and to me, that’s very important.”

Asked what other roles she would like to play in the future, she replied: “I feel that I’m a talented actress who can express a lot of emotions. I want to play a woman that, when I walk into a room, people know that I can take care of myself, that I’m not a weak person but I’m tough. I would like to play a Clint Eastwood part like in Dirty Harry, a Sean Connery part like James Bond or a Robert De Niro part like Taxi Driver. That’s where the glamorous roles are. If John Wayne played a sheriff in a Western, why can’t a woman do it? Why can’t she take care of the bad guys? I feel that women are much stronger than we think they are. There are going to be more important roles for women in the 80s.”

To a question about the condition of women in India, the country she left behind, she revealed: “Although I left India years ago, I haven’t changed. I still have my morals, principles and values. I’m a Zoroastrian but I believe in all religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity. The situation of women in India is backwards, but it is changing. They divorce and take jobs now. I am sorry for my school friends who were not able to do what they wanted. Most of them are married with four kids and they ask me to explain to their husbands why they would like to work.”

Khambatta would star in a few more movies: Megaforce (1982) with Barry Bostwick, Warrior of the Lost World (1983) with Donald Pleasance, She-Wolves of the Wasteland (1988), and make some TV appearances, but this talented actress with a good head on her shoulders and forward-thinking aspirations never did get the strong female lead roles she hoped for. In 1983 she underwent coronary artery bypass surgery, and in 1998 she died of a massive heart attack in Mumbai at the age of 49. 

Today, 25 years after her passing, Persis Khambatta, whom Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once called the Pride of India, deserves to be remembered as a courageous young woman who had enough faith in her own worth and abilities to leave her country of origin and go out into the world to make the life that she wanted for herself.