In a peach shimmering gown, with her long silken hair swaying to the beat, she crooned “pyaar karne waale pyaar karte hain shaan se”, well that’s the image which comes to mind when anyone mentions Parveen Babi.
As a child of the 70’s, I need to confess getting thoroughly confused between her and Zeenat Aman, they were both stylish, broke stereotypes of the Hindi film heroines, who were categorized into either the virtuous ‘Ms Goody Two-Shoes’ or the bold and brazen ‘Vamp’.
Parveen and Zeenat were cool, sexy, vivacious and uninhibited. Fit bodies, they were unafraid to flaunt, their sense of style! Impeccable. Both didn’t care if they were dubbed as too ‘western’, they set the tone for the years to come.
Coming back to Babi, a rebel since her teen years, she took to modelling whilst still in college. Even though her Bollywood debut Charitra sank without a trace, she was noticed in Deewar opposite Amitabh Bachchan. She smoked, drank and her so called ‘unconventional’ avatar was the perfect fit for the angry brooding hero.
Her signature bangs and the so-called minimalistic look may have been in sharp contrast to the heroines onscreen image, she was a trendsetter. At a time when we applaud our stars making it to the cover of editions of International magazines, Babi graced the cover of the Time magazine in 1976. The first Indian actress to do so – the content, however, was met with criticism back home. Since many felt an upcoming starlet such as Babi being portrayed as the desi Marilyn Monroe and being labelled an emerging star was wrong.
Though she starred in films which revolved around the hero – such as Amar Akbar Anthony, Trishul, Suhaag, Namak Halal, Parveen stood out as bold and graceful. She starred in Vinod Mehta’s Yeh Nazdeekiyan, playing the ‘other woman’ in an extra marital drama. The image of her in a bikini running on the beach was the talk of the town.
She was the poster girl of sass, gracing magazine covers and sensuous in her dance numbers. Who can forget Jawani Jaaneman or Raat Baki? She was B-town’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
More than her on-screen image, however, it was her off-screen image which made headlines. Open about her relationships with actor Kabir Bedi, Danny Denzongapa and filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, Babi tried to live life according to her own terms.
But underneath the persona of the cool movie star, was a woman battling her own inner demons. Known to be temperamental, Mahesh Bhatt was one of the first to realize that Babi was suffering from a mental disorder. An incident he recounted, when in 1979, he came home to find her dressed in a film costume with a kitchen knife asking him to be quiet, since the room was bugged and someone was trying to kill her. Though the filmmaker stayed with her, but moved away on the advise of his spiritual guru, who said his presence in her life was only adding to her panic attacks.
Bhatt showcased his turbulent love affair with Babi in Arth, an extra-marital drama between a filmmaker, his wife and a movie star.
As her panic attacks became pronounced, she disappeared from the public eye, at the peak of her career in 1983 – moving to the United States, on a journey with spiritual guru UG Krishnamurthy. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Babi’s state was heart-wrenching.
When she returned to Mumbai years later, she was unrecognisable. Overweight and unkempt, Babi slammed the industry for conspiring against her, naming international politicians, as well as her co-stars.
Shunned by the same people who once courted her, Parveen was isolated and friendless. On January 2005, Parveen passed way alone in her flat, her body was discovered three days later.
The only two people present at her funeral were Mahesh Bhatt and Kabir Bedi.
In an industry where actors have now begun to open up on mental health and their fight against depression, Parveen fought her battle alone. A woman who tried to break free from the shackles of convention, passed away a lonely unloved woman.