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Parveen Babi birth anniversary: The diva who was undone by mental illness

Parveen Babi would have turned 69 had she been alive. All that she is remembered for today is her sensuous onscreen avatar and her illness. Truth is she was much more than that.

bollywood Updated: Apr 04, 2018 13:39 IST
Nivedita Mishra
Nivedita Mishra
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Parveen Babi,Parveen Babi mental illness,Parveen Babi schizophrenia
Parveen Babi, alongwith Zeenat Aman, was among the top-billed actresses of the 1970s.(HT Photo)

Part of the famous glamour set of Bollywood, late actor Parveen Babi (not Bobby), is best remembered today for revolutionising the image of a Hindi film heroine. Between Zeenat Aman and her, they completely altered the way Bollywood actresses looked and behaved. They were lissome lasses (compared to the average height of actresses then), wore their sexuality effortlessly and were unafraid of flaunting it. Their confidence was the envy of many a Bollywood heroine of the era. If Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra have had it easy being westernised and gaining currency with the mainstream Hindi film audience, then they have lots to thank the likes of Parveen Babi.

The other reason why the millennials will remember her is as the inspiration behind the broken woman shown in Mahesh Bhatt’s film Woh Lamhe. The filmmaker has claimed it was based on his memories of her (when they were in a relationship) around the time she was sinking deep into mental illness.

It is unfortunate that Parveen’s memories should be restricted to just these two distinct images. Yes, there is no denying these two facets of her life. However, there was more to her than just this…

On her 69th birth anniversary, here’s a look at some of the other aspects of her life which make a far fuller human being than has been ascribed to her thus far.

Born to privilege, not necessarily to wealth

Parveen Babi belongs to the Babi Pasthun clan, who settled in Gujarat. Her clan, the Babi or Babai, dates its ancestry to its founder Sherkhanji Babi (1654). The Babis entered into the service of Mughal emperor Humayun, under the leadership of one Usman Khan. It was during the reign of Shah Jahan that they moved to Gujarat. Parveen’s dad was employed with the Nawab of Junagarh as his systems administrator.

Post Independence, the fortunes of the clan members weren’t particularly impressive. If it is any indicator, Parveen left behind 80% of her wealth to be invested in a trust for the welfare of underprivileged women and children from the Babi community of Junagadh.

Born into this milieu, young Parveen grew up in far better circumstance. She received a modern education, having studied at Mount Carmel High School, Ahmedabad and later at St Xavier’s College, from where she graduated in English Literature.

Parveen’s health issues

Parveen’s end and the run-up to it has been fairly well documented in the media. The fact was, in early 1980s, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which WHO describes as ‘a severe mental disorder, characterized by profound disruptions in thinking, affecting language, perception, and the sense of self. It often includes psychotic experiences, such as hearing voices or delusions. It can impair functioning through the loss of an acquired capability to earn a livelihood, or the disruption of studies’.

Parveen Babi starred with Amitabh Bachchan in a number of films such as Kalia, Amar Akbar Anthony, Shaan and many more.

That she had health issues is pretty well known, but how they were triggered will always remain a mystery. It is often argued that her failed relationship with Kabir Bedi, among others, contributed to her ill health.

However, in an interview with Outlook magazine, Mahesh Bhatt, who came into her life when she was deep in mess, had said that she could have inherited her illness from her father. He went on to add that when once she suffered a mental breakdown, her mother came down to Mumbai and believed that djinns had taken over her daughter’s body!

Is schizophrenia curable? Perhaps not, but early diagnosis could have helped in managing it better. Mahesh, who was in a relationship with her between 1977 to 1980, had regretfully mentioned how he failed to see it coming.

In an interview to Pinkvilla, Mahesh had said, “’How can I ever forget that heartbreaking image of her, when I walked in to the house that evening, and found Parveen, in make-up and a filmy costume, cowering in a corner, with a knife in her hand, shivering with fear? She looked like an animal, one that I had never seen before. ‘Close the door Mahesh,’ she whispered. ‘They are coming to kill us. Close the door quickly!’” He added, “’The tape (sent by her) contained a letter that Parveen had recorded and sent me, in which she talked about her approaching illness, her loneliness and her need to get out of the entertainment business. The silences between her words spoke to me more eloquently than her words did. The only regret I have is that I couldn’t see her illness coming. Looking back, I realise now that there were so many signs that I just failed to read.”

Parveen Babi in a still from her film Amar Akbar Anthony.

A string of failed relationships contributed to her eventual descent into illness. It is alleged that her affair with Kabir went kaput after he found success with the Italian TV series Sandokan and wanted to shift abroad. Parveen, who had a flourishing career here in India, was obviously not enamoured by the idea.

India.com, quoting Parveen, says in one its reports, “I have never resented Kabir’s success. But to be with him, I’d have to follow him around all over the world. As a woman I have my ego, my pride, I could never become a man’s tag!”

It is further alleged that Parveen resented Kabir staying in touch with his former wife Protima Bedi, even after their divorce, and his kids, Pooja and late Siddharth.

Speaking about it, Protima was quoted by Pinkvilla as saying, “First of all, I think they overdid the beautiful side of relationship. They were in love, yes. I don’t deny it. It was beautiful for two beautiful people. I don’t deny that either. But why make it so idealistic? I think I knew she was doing the wrong thing by trying to act possessive. I tried to be so friendly but she was so rude. She resented Kabir spending any time with us. No woman should try to keep a man away from his family. No man likes it. Kabir was very understanding in the beginning. But I feel it must have finally started irritating him.”

Kabir Bedi in a still from his hit Italian TV series, Sandokan.

Possibly, Parveen’s problems started much before her entry into Bollywood. In yet another interview with Pinkvilla, Mahesh had mentioned that the Ahmedabad riots of 1969 (she was a student then and feared being raped by mobs), deeply affected a young and impressionable Parveen.

A series of setbacks, later in life, would certainly take a toll. Well known journalist Pritish Nandy, speaking to Rediff had said how her failed relationship with a particular actor was the final nail in the coffin. Who was the unnamed actor? We will never know.

Speaking about her, Nandy had said, “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.”

A mighty heart: Parveen Babi left behind nearly 80% of her wealth for the welfare of underprivileged women and children from the Babi community of Junagadh.

On the issue of why the industry isolated her so completely, he added, “She chose to be that way. Her final affair with a particular actor finished her self-confidence. She cracked up after that.”

The public image of Parveen as a bohemian rhapsody - free spirited, unafraid to show her failings and her life, a westernised woman who had no qualms of drinking and dating in public, her anglicised Hindi - were true but were only one aspect of her life.

She was also a rather perceptive human being; a rebel in her own way. Charming and witty and well read. Nandy had said, “She was wonderful company, very articulate, a terrific conversationalist, extremely well-read.”

In retrospect, we would want to believe that if Parveen had received early help, her life could have taken a different turn. The fact that she willed so much of her property for the welfare of the underprivileged shows that not all was lost.

The author tweets @mniveditatweets

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First Published: Apr 04, 2018 13:37 IST