For a generation used to exaggerated coyness, Parveen Babi must have felt like an anomaly. In an industry where most actresses would abide by the rules, Babi’s refusal earned her a legion of fans, with a side of caustic headlines. Parveen, along with her contemporary Zeenat Aman, did not care for conventional clothes, film roles, or even life.
But Parveen Babi’s ‘daring’ (when it came to wearing bikinis) and bewitching smile are discussed almost in the same breath as her schizophrenia and the delusions that followed. The most enduring legend surrounding the star, thanks to the corrosive entertainment journalism that was the norm in the 70s and 80s, is the paranoia that shrouded her life in later years.
Her debut film Charitra (1973) sank without a trace, but Babi endured. By 1974, she had become a legit star having given her first blockbuster Majboor opposite Amitabh Bachchan. Deewar (1975), Kala Sona (1975), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) propelled her to stardom. But for the media, it were her relationships that mattered. Her live-in relationship with Danny Denzongpa was haaw-ed at, and her extra-marital affair with Kabir Bedi gave tabloids enough material to drive them into a frenzy. A woman who lived life on her own terms? What a horror. Right before Amar Akbar Anthony, her life was causing near-apoplectic op-eds from entertainment magazines.
In 1977, when her affair with Kabir Bedi came to an end, Stardust published side-by-side interviews of Parveen Babi and Protima Bedi. ‘Praveen-Protima, the two women who loved and lost Kabir Bedi!’ ran Stardust’s headline, simultaneously reducing two spirited women to the age-old trope of ‘gharwali-baharwali’ fighting it out over a man. And although the floor was laid out for a cat-fight, with the world peeking in through the window, the two resolutely refused to go that route. What was clearly meant to be a sensational scoop, had turned out to be an interview full of quotable quotes from two women who refused to be relegated to the background.
“To be with him,” says Parveen in the interview, “I’d have to follow him around all over the world. As a women, I have my ego, my pride. I could never become a man’s tag.” Showing the sort of persistence nosy neighbours and bored relatives specialise in, the interviewer proceeded to ask her whether she believed marrying Bedi would have been the ‘solution’ to their relationship problems.
Because no matter what the question, in India, the answer is always marriage and babies.
That was the crux of the media’s dynamic with Parveen. They examined her unorthodox life with unwavering fascination, while also hoping to make her conform.
When Babi was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1979, the media was ill-equipped to handle the news with any semblance of sensitivity. But it wasn’t the media but Mahesh Bhatt — who at the time of her diagnosis was having an extra-marital affair with Babi — is said to have done the most damage to her image. The film that catapulted him to fame, Arth (1982) was based on their affair.
Bhatt wrote in a column in 2005 after her death, “Some people complained that I had exploited Parveen and pushed her over the edge. They forget that she is a part of my memory. I would never portray her irresponsibly. Once Arth released Parveen didn’t give a damn about what the world thought about her. She has stopped caring about people by then. The media unnecessarily made a big deal of it.”
But the fact remains, that it were the details Bhatt revealed of his interactions with Babi that were used to paint a picture of a woman unhinged, and not one who was struggling with mental illness. The time he found her clutching a knife, when Babi’s mother thought she was possessed by djinns, her memories of 1969’s Ahmedabad riots, and how she suddenly started saying namaz were recounted time and again with little to no tact. While talking about their breakup, he revealed that she ran behind him naked: “I walked through the dark passage. I heard her call, “Mahesh, Mahesh!” I didn’t turn back. neither did I wait for the lift, fearing she’d come and take me back. I took the stairs instead. I heard her run behind me… stark, bare… I heard her even take a few steps down the stairs… I wanted to run back and tell her, ‘Look, you can’t come out in this state!’ But instead I walked on and out… into the rain”.
Details that the world, and certainly Babi’s already broken image could have done without. The focal point of these ‘discussions’ by both Bhatt and the media, were never Babi’s illness and what it was doing to her, but how disturbing her behaviour was.
Amar Akbar Anthony and Namak Halal, two of the biggest hits of her career came after she had already been diagnosed with schizophrenia. But it was her paranoia, and not her roles, that made for better headlines.
After a prolonged stay in the US for treatment, Babi returned physically altered. She had gained weight, a crime society is never keen on forgiving. Due to her illness, she lived in perpetual paranoia. She thought Amitabh Bachchan, Mel Gibson and several others wanted to kill her.
In an ideal world, her struggle would have elicited empathy, but we gave her only ridicule.
Parveen Babi passed away on January 22, 2005 after years of being a recluse. And just like in life, even in death, the media’s obsession with her centered not around her films, but her affairs with married men, and her tryst with mental illness.