Flashback | Parveen Babi death anniversary: The actor died a lonely death isolated by her insecurities

The nature of Parveen Babi's illness was such that she was terrified of people; she wanted to be left alone. She deliberately distanced herself from everyone.

Subhash K Jha January 20, 2022 13:51:50 IST
Flashback | Parveen Babi death anniversary: The actor died a lonely death isolated by her insecurities

With her good looks, perk, poise, and sex appeal, the sky was the limit for Parveen Babi. But God and schizophrenia had other plans.

Parveen Babi died 17 years ago on 20 January, 2005. But as far as the film industry was concerned, she died a long time before, after she was reportedly diagnosed as schizophrenic. In her last years, one seldom heard or saw her, except for an appearance on Shekhar Suman’s talk show where she appeared as normal as she could be, except when she took off on her favourite subject – Amitabh Bachchan. Distinctly overweight, it was difficult to recognise Parveen Babi in the last one-third of her life. She died a lonely, isolated death.

And to think that in the 1970s, she embodied the new-age heroine! Introduced by Babu Ram Ishaara, alongside cricketer Salim Durrani, in Charitra, Babi shot to fame in the films that she did with Amitabh Bachchan – Amar Akbar Anthony, Do Aur Do Paanch, Namak Halaal, Shaan, and Khuddar.

Flashback  Parveen Babi death anniversary The actor died a lonely death isolated by her insecurities

In Yash Chopra’s Deewaar, she was cast as a liberated working girl, smoking, drinking, and sleeping with her lover, defying every Hindi film heroine rule. At the same time, she could carry off the sari-clad look opposite Jeetendra in J Om Prakash’s Arpan. Parveen Babi’s most glorious moment was when she was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1976 to represent the new face of Hindi cinema.

Then, suddenly, everything began to go wrong for this defiant girl. According to her close friends, Parveen began to lose her mind. Recalls media baron Pritish Nandy, “Yes, she did begin to crack up. She couldn’t take the pressures of being naked before the camera. I think Parveen was very uncomfortable with the idea of exposing her feelings. The exhibitionism required to perform in front of a camera tormented her. She quietly and quickly withdrew from the rat race to the extent that no one could keep track of her.”

But why did the industry isolate this beautiful actress so completely? “She chose to be that way,” Nandy answers. “Her final affair with a particular actor finished her self-confidence. She cracked up after that.”

Flashback  Parveen Babi death anniversary The actor died a lonely death isolated by her insecurities

In the late 1970s, Babi had a tumultuous, widely-publicized affair with Mahesh Bhatt. When in 1982, Bhatt made a sensational film, Arth, based on his affair with Parveen Babi, with Smita Patil playing Babi’s role, she was deeply affected.

 Recalls Nandy, “Yes, I suppose the film affected her, as did the men in her life. She was wonderful company, very articulate, a terrific conversationalist, extremely well-read. She had begun to write her memoirs, which she never completed. I had published portions of her intended memoirs in The Illustrated Weekly Of India when I edited it. Now, of course, we’ll never know her full story.”

Parveen Babi died a frighteningly lonely death isolated by her insecurities and paranoia, she was obsessed with bringing down Amitabh Bachchan, accusing him of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors from being a spy to a terrorist. Mr. Bachchan took it all in his stride and never lashed out at her, even when her attacks got progressively vicious and absurd. In the last interview of her life with Shekhar Suman which had to be conducted in her house as she refused to step out of her home for the fear of getting killed, she had made fun of Mr. Bachchan being designated the Star Of The Millennium when there were Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley to consider. She also mocked his being considered the Most Handsome Indian Actor when there were Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Raj Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, and even Shashi Kapoor’s son Karan, all of whom Parveen considered handsome.

Not Mr. Bachchan, Parveen said to Shekhar Suman who sat poker-faced listening to her tirade. When Parveen had passed away, Mr. Bachchan in an uncharacteristically candid moment spoke exclusively to me about her. This is what he had to say. “Parveen Babi and I worked together in several films – Majboor, Deewaar, Amar Akbar Anthony, Namak Halal, Shaan, Kaalia, Mahaan, Do Aur Do Paanch, Kala Patthar… I did the maximum number of films with Parveen after Jaya, followed by Raakhee and Rekha. A lot of these films I had forgotten about until the press reminded me of them after her death. And then I thought, ‘Gosh, so many films with Parveen Babi!'”

Mr. Bachchan was all praise for Parveen’s stardom. “Most of my films with Parveen were superbly successful. The audience liked us as a pair. She brought in a new, bohemian kind of leading lady to the screen. We’d work on all these films and go our own way. But because we belonged to the same social circle we’d visit each other, listen to music. She was a very fun-loving, light-hearted person. Always full of joie de vivre! She never interfered with anyone’s work. On the sets, you barely knew she was around. She completely minded her own business. What happened to her is sad. I feel very bad for her. We’d meet socially very often. We all belonged to one big group – Romesh Sharma, Danny Denzongpa, Reena Roy, Smita Patil, Javed Akhtar, Parveen. When I had my accident, they all would come to see me every single day. It was so nice of them. One never forgets the people who stick close to you at a time of crisis. I used to be very depressed then. In 1983, I took Parveen out for her first live show, and then suddenly she just disappeared!”

When I asked Mr. Bachchan what went wrong with this breathtakingly beautiful woman he refused to give an opinion. “I don’t know what happened. It wouldn’t be ethical to talk about her condition. The nature of her illness was such that she was terrified of people; she wanted to be left alone. She deliberately distanced herself from everyone. We felt by associating ourselves with her, we were causing her more grief. Did she make a difference to Hindi cinema? Oh, certainly! She was one of the first Indians to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. She was very meticulous about her career. She had a very efficient management system. Her secretary and managers were very efficient. She lived all on her own and was very self-dependent. I sincerely feel she was a very genuine, honest, and down-to-earth person, very loving and caring. And that’s how I’d like to remember her.”

Flashback  Parveen Babi death anniversary The actor died a lonely death isolated by her insecurities

Parveen Babi has, unfairly, been always compared with Zeenat Aman and even labeled as the ‘Poor Man’s Zeenat’. In truth, Parveen was a better actress who never got the opportunities that Zeenat did, never worked with directors like Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, and still left a mark even in the smallest of roles. In her very first film, Charitra in 1973, Parveen flung away the image of the typical heroine to play a girl who is compelled to sleep with her father’s creditor who impregnates her and refuses to own up to the child. It took a director of B R Isaara’s unorthodoxy to launch a new liberated Hindi film heroine whose Charitra was not impeccable and who shockingly enough indulged in pre-marital sex. From the beginning, it was clear that Parveen Babi wouldn’t fit into the typical Sati Savitri mould.

 Parveen did a string of some very successful films with Amitabh Bachchan including Amar Akbar Anthony in which she played the role of Jenny, Anthony’s sweetheart. They both emerged out of an Easter egg in the film and captivated the audience. But my pick of her films with Amitabh Bachchan is Deewaar (1975) in which she played the liberated, unfettered, and unorthodox Anita who shares the bed with Vijay in a no strings attached relationship. Her love theme, I am falling in love with a stranger typified the route that Ms. Babi had chosen for her career.

 Chandi Sona in 1977 was Sanjay Khan’s incurably silly treasure-hunt film with a treasurable Parveen Babi in that legendary Cleopatra get-up which Time magazine saw and put on their cover, much to the envy of the other top actresses of the time. This is how Parveen Babi became globally famous. This is the film’s only claim to fame. As she goes on a treasure hunt with Mr. Khan, Parveen can be seen having a whole lot of fun with her dim-witted part. Ever chic and glamorous, we seldom saw her having fun with her characters.

Ashanti in 1982 was Umesh Mehra’s Charlie’s Angels with Zeenat Aman, Shabana Azmi, and Parveen Babi whooping it up in style. Parveen seemed to enjoy the role of a gun-toting, karate-wielding kickass female hero. And this was one film she enjoyed making because there was so much sexual tension on the sets. I always wanted to see this stunning beauty in an action avatar. This was Parveen Babi's chance, and she grabbed it.

Flashback  Parveen Babi death anniversary The actor died a lonely death isolated by her insecurities

1982 was an exceptionally busy year for Parveen. She worked with Hrishikesh Mukherjee for the first time in Rang Birangi and he told me he wished he had offered her a more substantial role. During the same year, she played the Other Woman in three films: Eshmayeel Shroff’s Dil Aakhir Dil Hai, J Om Prakash’s Arpan (stealing Jeetendra away from Reena Roy), and Vinod Pandey’s Yeh Nazdeekiyan in which she played a sexy model named Kiran who steals Shabana Azmi’s husband but returns him when she realizes she doesn’t want to be branded a home-breaker. Her meatiest part ever, Parveen sank her crooked teeth into it with a wolfish delight. If only she had lived long enough to see sexual liberation hit Bollywood.

 

 Actor Danny Denzongpa in a rare interview with me had opened up on his relationship with the beautiful Babi. “She was my first girlfriend. The way she ended up was very tragic. I was in touch with her until I got married. After she became unwell I was in touch with her. We lived in the same building. She was on the 4th floor and I was on the 1st floor. Although I was dating Kim, Parveen would drop in quite often. She was okay then. Later she became psychologically unstable. She became very sick when she was dating Mahesh Bhatt. Mahesh told me of her condition and I went to see her. It was then that I found out she was frightened and paranoid.”

 What made Danny realize how unwell she was? “Because I was friendly with Amitji(Bachchan) she started suspecting I was his agent. She would keep on writing complaints against him to the police and other departments. Then she came to the point where she didn’t want to see me because of my friendship with Amitji. I was there for her funeral. What happened to her is very tragic. ”

Beyond the tragedy of a mind caving in part due to the pressures of a business of constant heartbreaks, the story of Parveen Babi’s destruction is the tragedy of how we isolate those who are mentally ill. There was a time when producers were breaking down Parveen Babi’s doors. A good three days after her death the neighbours had to break down her door to give her a decent burial. If only the vultures would leave her alone at least now.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at SubhashK_Jha.

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