By Neha Kirpal
An unassuming girl from an aristocratic family in the conservative small town of Junagadh transforms into a glamorous, sensuous and bold actress that an entire generation of Indians can never forget – that’s the story of Parveen Babi. A new biography Parveen Babi: A Life (Hachette) on the life of the 1970s’ Bollywood siren by well-known film journalist Karishma Upadhyay recounts many known and little known details from her fascinating life.
The author has dug through a decade-plus worth of interviews Parveen had given during her years in the limelight. Further, several of her friends, former lovers and colleagues have shared their candid insights, memories and anecdotes, which formed the research that helped put together a book about someone as complex as Parveen.
Parveen Sultana Wali Mohammad Khanji Babi was born on April 4, 1954, in present-day Gujarat. An heiress of the Nawab of Junagadh, she grew up in a 54-room haveli she called home, having half-a-dozen staff. She was only six when her father passed away.
According to the author, Parveen’s mother, who was in her forties when she was born, was not particularly maternal, which led Parveen to grow up with a sense of emotional alienation. For this reason, she constantly craved her mother’s attention, and it is perhaps this void that influenced all of her important adult relationships.
In 1968, a shy 14-year-old Parveen went to study at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad, living away from her family for the first time. Here, she joined a friends’ circle of some of the most popular girls in college, including activist, classical dancer and actress Mallika Sarabhai, Kavita Bhambani (nee Singh) who went on to become a Miss India, and Khurshid Ravji who now runs the Karma Foundation. It was during her college days that Parveen began smoking openly, an addiction that stayed with her until her final days.
During her college break in the winter of 1969-70, Parveen was engaged to a distant cousin, Karachi-based Jamil Khan, who was a pilot with Pakistan International Airlines. Back in those days, her obsessive behaviour came to the fore when she pricked Jamil’s initials on her wrist in blood.
When the 1971 war took place, however, Parveen’s mother called off the engagement, leaving Parveen heartbroken for the first time in her life. Thereafter, she began dating Neville Damania, the frontman and bassist of the band Purple Flower.
Parveen got a chance to act in two plays in Ahmedabad, and the stage gave her an all-new high. Next, she modeled for a city fashion show. These two experiences led her to believe that her looks could be her ticket to money, fame and freedom.
One of her fellow models in the show was the daughter of a successful Bollywood director of the time. He asked Parveen to come to Bombay for a photoshoot and signed her on for a film immediately. Since respectable girls from good families didn’t do showbiz in those days, Parveen’s decision met with a lot of opposition from her mother. Finally, she gave in, and the rest as they say is history. Within the first year of her debut, Parveen had signed on eight other films.
Often compared to her contemporary Zeenat Aman, Parveen came to epitomise the 1970s’ bohemian mindset, and changed the notion of how a Hindi film heroine should dress. “Clingy gowns and flowing maxis, long skirts with thigh-high slits and knotted blouses, halter necks and bikinis – Parveen and Zeenat wore everything with their trademark carefree confidence. Probably for the first time, Bollywood had leading ladies, not vamps, who were unapologetically sexy,” writes the author.
In Deewar, Parveen’s character has economic, social and sexual autonomy unlike anything female protagonists had been portrayed as so far. In 1976, she became the cover girl of the European edition of Time magazine, dressed in a black bustier with strings of pearl.
A thorough professional, Parveen was hard working, punctual and had a photographic memory that helped her learn her dialogues. People liked working with her because she got along well with everyone and never threw the typical starry tantrums.
Further, she was always frank and open in all her interviews—whether about her relationships or other choices. Most of all, she had the courage to return to the spotlight again even after what was a very public mental breakdown.
Owing to her loneliness and desperate need for companionship, Parveen went through a string of relationships—with everyone from Danny Denzogpa to Kabir Bedi and Mahesh Bhatt—yet never found her “happily ever after”.
“Many believe that the release of Bhatt’s Arth (1982), a fictionalised version of his extramarital affair with Parveen, pushed the latter towards the breakdown that would result in her finally quitting Bollywood. The film exposed some of the most intimate moments in her relationship with Mahesh—including stark episodes from her personal battle for sanity—to harsh public scrutiny,” the author writes.
Over the years, various behavioural aberrations, such as unhealthy possessiveness, acute jealousy and irrational anger began to emerge in Parveen’s personality. Those who interacted with her felt that she always seemed tense and on the edge.
But people around her failed to realise that her insecurities and eccentricities could be the signs of a serious mental illness. In those days, there was very little information—not to mention, stigma—about mental health disorders, and not many people recognised or understood them.
Later, Parveen began to hallucinate that Amitabh Bachchan would kill her. As she became more and more distrustful and suspicious, she started having delusions that everyone around her was colluding with “him” to kill her. She tried to find solace under the guidance of spiritual guru UG Krishnamurti, and even converted from Islam to Christianity in her later life.
On January 22, 2005, Parveen was discovered dead in her home where she lived alone, a piteous end to a stormy life. She was just 50.
Karishma Upadhyay and her book Parveen Babi (Hachette)
With its powerful imagery and vivid descriptions, the book is also a kind of trip down memory lane, and a rare peek into a timeless era gone by. The famous “Juhu Gang”, which most of Bollywood’s young brigade belonged to, personified hippie culture and flower power.
Sporting bell-bottoms, they rejected conventional societal norms, meditated or dropped LSD to fuel their creative energies, and believed in breaking free from the 1960s’ orthodoxy. During this time, many also turned to spiritual gurus, philosophies and movements in search of enlightenment, peace and wisdom. Mind-altering and hallucinatory drugs were an integral part of this quest.
Highly relevant in today’s time when mental health, narcotics and the cost of fame in Bollywood are burning issues, the biography is an eye-opener about what it must have taken for a woman like Parveen Babi to defy social convention, seek equal relationships, and attempt to live life on her own terms. Like the several Bollywood films that portray women like her, Parveen’s life too ended a tragedy.
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