What is hell? Hell is oneself. Hell is alone, the other figures in it, merely projections. There is nothing to escape from, and nothing to escape to. One is always alone.T.S. Eliot
When you think of Parveen Babi’s life, what comes to mind? The fact that she lived to break conventions? The arc lights? Or the death in seclusion? It is a question perhaps only Babi can answer. She lived in her private hell as the persona non grata, away from her loved ones, and forgotten by those who once clamoured for her autograph.
Born in an aristocratic family in Gujarat, Babi was schooled in English and carried an air of bohemian elegance, which caught the attention of BR Ishara, the man behind the controversial film Chetna (1970). Babi was cast opposite ex-cricketer Salim Durrani in Charitra (1973) which went cold turkey at the box office. But Babi with her tall frame, and rapturous eyes could not be ignored.
Offers poured in, but success eluded Babi until Amitabh Bachchan came to her rescue. It was the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Majboor (1974) which gave her her first hit, though she played nothing more than his arm candy. Nonetheless, her glamorous sheen stood out. She was ready for the fame which was about to erupt in wondrous fashion, when she again played Bachchan’s love interest. This time the film was Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975), and Babi was depicted as the woman who strayed from the conventional Hindi film heroine, displaying her love for drinks, and indulging in premarital sex with her man. This was the film that sealed her image as the unconventional anglicised woman, beauteous and elegant.
A few more flops followed but another Bachchan vehicle salvaged her. Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) was an ensemble but Babi had the fanciest role among the heroines. Her films never witnessed consistent appreciation at the box office, but Babi’s image was that of a star, adored by millions, and waiting to be signed on by countless producers. This was also the time when she became the cover girl of Time magazine, and her fame had hit the roof.
The ‘70s was also the time when she was constantly compared with her contemporary, Zeenat Aman. The two women had almost the same image, that of the English-speaking svelte figured women, who served up the image of a sex symbol, the anglicised Hindi that reflected their western attitude towards unconventional roles, and being favourably paired with the reigning king of the ticket window, Amitabh Bachchan. Both were stars in their own right, but unlike Aman, who vied to make her career prosper, Babi was the woman who was impulsive and followed her heart.
At one point, she packed her bag and baggage to fly out with her then boyfriend Kabir Bedi, who was to play the title role in an Italian television serial, Sandokan. Her career was in question, and the film industry didn’t really take her spontaneity positively, but Babi didn’t care. Fortunately, before too much damage could be done to her career, she returned as impulsively as she had vanished, signing many multi-starrers, including B R Chopra’s The Burning Train (1980), Ramesh Sippy’s Shaan (1980) and Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1981). The audience lapped her up again. When she appeared in Namak Halal (1982) belting out sizzling cabaret numbers, Raat Baaki and Jawani Jaaneman, she was at her dazzling prime worth every dime for her spectators.
At the height of such fame and success, she vanished again, on a spiritual sojourn. Nobody could explain the reason, some claimed it was due to the release of Arth, Mahesh Bhatt’s semi-autobiographical film on their affair. Others said it was her association with spiritual guru U. G. Krishnamurti. The talk of her slowly declining mental state started gaining momentum.
This time when she returned, she was a poor version of her old self, almost unrecognisable. She accused Bachchan, her former co-star, of conspiring to kill her. Tongues started wagging and what used to be the rumour became the authoritative talk on industry’s part, that she was going insane.
Slowly, she locked herself in her house, and the world, which had earlier hovered over her like bees over honey, deserted her in no time. Babi died in oblivion, in 2005, but for the unforgiving film industry, she died decades ago, when she was reportedly diagnosed as a schizophrenic.
Unlike today’s stars like Deepika Padukone who get applauded for speaking up on depression, Babi was labelled simply as ‘mad’ by the press. With no help, even from those who claimed to love her, Babi made herself impenetrable in solitude. Solitude is great, but we always need someone to tell us that solitude is fine. She had no one.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 20 January 2016. It is now being republished to mark Parveen Babi’s birth anniversary.)