She was one example where her reel life, in all its glamour, appeal, and success, was no consolation for her real life. After a sparkling stint – where she become the first Indian actress to figure on Time’s cover, Parveen Babi’s glittering career descended into a maelstrom of despair, depression, and delusions, confining her to a sordid, reclusive existence for the last two decades of her life.
That was the tragedy of Parveen Babi, whose classically exquisite features, svelte form, and readiness for the unconventional, along with her professionalism, politeness, and sharp memory, made her a favourite female star in Bollywood for most of the late 1970s.
While her westernised attributes, like of contemporary Zeenat Aman, made her ideal for roles of the “modern women”, Parveen Babi struck new ground here too. While Hindi films did have feisty or tomboyish female characters, they usually ended up in social conformity. However with Anita, who is socially, economically, and sexually independent, in Deewar, she went on to establish the untrammelled urban Indian woman, who could hold her own with the “Angry Young Man”.
She was also capable of delivering the goods in more conventional, or, rather, stereotype roles of the housewife.
In a career that lasted just a decade (1973-83) or so, Parveen Babi, who was born on April 4 in 1954, did it all – masala potboilers, as well as ‘art’ films, social comedies, ‘disaster’ thrillers, crime capers, costumed swashbucklers, grand historic epics – opposite all lead actors of her time from Amitabh Bachchan to Feroz Khan, Dev Anand to Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor to Shatrughan Sinha, and Rajesh Khanna to Vinod Khanna.
While Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Kaala Patthar, Suhaag (both 1979), Do Aur Do Paanch, The Burning Train, Shaan (all 1980), Kranti, (1981), Namak Halaal, Ashanti – a desi version of Charlie’s Angels with Zeenat Aman and Shabani Azmi the others of the trio, Khud-Daar, Yeh Nazdeekiyan (all 1982), and Mahaan (1983) are enough to keep her in mind of Bollywood films fans of the era, three stand out.
One is Kaalia – especially for that splendid mime scene where Amitabh is trying to tell her how to break an egg, Rang Birangi – where she convincingly shed her glamorous image to play the archetypal saree-clad house-wife in a role that was the reverse of her cameo in Pati, Patni, aur Woh (1978), and Razia Sultan – where she pulled off a classy homoerotic scene with Hema Malini.
On the other hand, she was tipped to be part of Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila but was replaced, though the filmmaker made up for it with other roles in his films.
Parveen had quite a unique life – born in Junagadh to former princely state’s official Vali Mohammed Khan Babi and Jamal Bakhte Babi – 14 years after their marriage when they had despaired of ever having children, she had a fairly comfortable childhood. However, the parents’ advanced ages – and her father’s death when she was six – meant that she never had a close relationship with them.
Doing her BA in English from St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad, she was supposed to marry after her graduation. A prospective bridegroom was also selected – a Babi kinsman in Karachi, working as a PIA pilot, and they had got engaged too but worsening relations between the countries, culminating in the 1971 war, scuppered the union.
Meanwhile, she did a couple of theatre plays and also some modelling – and these would lead her eventually to Bollywood – after a string of arguments with her mother. While a co-model – the daughter of veteran actor turned producer-director Kishore Sahu – recommended her to her father, another Bollywood director B.R. Ishara had come across her while shooting in Ahmedabad, signed her up, but then forgot about her.
When Sahu announced her, Ishara suddenly recalled her and took credit for her ‘discovery’. However, Sahu and Ishara met and settled the matter amicably. As it happened, it was Ishara’s Charitra (1973), where Parveen was paired with dashing cricketer Salim Durrani, that became her debut. Sahu’s Dhuen Ki Lakeer came out next year.
While both these sank without a trace, it was her role – the first opposite Amitabh Bachchan – in thriller Majboor (1974) that brought her to notice of filmgoers, and her role in Deewar cemented it.
On the other hand, her personal life was getting complicated – Parveen, on moving to Bombay, had joined a group of young bohemian actors and it was among this, she had three affairs consecutively – with Danny Denzongpa, Kabir Bedi, and then, Mahesh Bhatt.
In fact, amid her liaison with Bedi, she left India – and the industry – with him when he got the chance to play Sandokan in Italy. However, her absence did not last long as she realised that he was the star and she was not getting many chances.
She came back to India and her career picked up again. But handicapped by alienation and lack of family support, a string of failed romances, and a slowly increasing mental ailment – which few of those around her could identify, let alone make arrangements for treatment – was forced to take a break in mid-1979 that could have spelled a premature end to her stint.
While some producers, who had shot extensively with her, did wait for her , some went to replace her – she lost her role in Laawaris to Zeenat Aman, in Naseeb to Reena Roy, and so on. She was retained by an irate Prakash Mehra in Namak Halaal – but in a severely reduced role – two songs and 20 minutes screen time, while the original plan was to put her in the role played by Smita Patil.
However, while Parveen did her best to complete her work, her mental status was getting precarious as her schizophrenia advanced, which made her literally flee India in mid-1983, irrevocably sundering her association with Bollywood.
She did return home in 1989 but the rest of her life – periods of sanity interspersed with periods of paranoia where she claimed persecution by leading Bollywood figures and old friends distanced themselves – was a travesty before death liberated her in January 2005.
Read More: ‘Aap jaisa koi…’: The dazzle of Zeenat Aman