Parveen Babi Was Bollywood’s Bohemian Leading Lady: Big B

On Parveen Babi’s birth anniversary, Amitabh Bachchan and Pritish Nandy talk about her free spirit and sad demise.

4 min read
A candid moment from the troubled life of Parveen Babi.

Parveen Babi passed away on 20 January, 2005 but for the film fraternity, she died a long time before that, almost as soon as she was reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia. In her last years, one seldom heard from, or saw her, except for an appearance on Shekhar Suman's talk show, where she appeared as normal as she could be, except when she took off on her favourite subject, Amitabh Bachchan. Distinctly overweight, it was difficult to recognise her towards the very end of her life. She died a lonely death.

In the 1970s, she embodied the new-age heroine. Introduced by Babu Ram Ishaara, alongside cricketer Salim Durrani in Charitra (1973), Babi shot to fame in the films that she did with Amitabh Bachchan - Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Do Aur Do Paanch (1980), Namak Halaal (1982), Shaan (1980) and Khuddar (1994).

In Yash Chopra's Deewaar (1975), she was cast as a liberated working girl, smoking, drinking and sleeping with her lover, defying every Hindi film heroine rule. At the same time, she could carry off the sari-clad look opposite Jeetendra in Om Prakash's Arpan (1983).

Babi's most glorious moment was when she featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1976, representing the new face of Hindi cinema. Then suddenly, everything started going wrong for the defiant girl. According to her close friends, Babi began to lose her mind.

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.
Pritish Nandy, Journalist and TV personality

But why did the industry isolate this beautiful actress so completely?

She chose to be that way. Her final affair with a particular actor finished her self-confidence. She cracked up after that.
Pritish Nandy

In the late 1970s, Babi had a tumultuous and widely-publicised affair with Mahesh Bhatt. In 1982 Bhatt made Arth, based on his affair with Parveen, with Smita Patil playing Babi's role. She was deeply affected by that.

Yes, I suppose the film affected her, as did the men in her life. She was wonderful company, very articulate, a terrific conversationalist, extremely well-read. In fact, she had begun to write her memoirs, which she never completed. I had published portions of her intended memoirs in The Illustrated Weekly Of India when I edited it. Now, of course, we’ll never know her full story.  
Pritish Nandy

Parveen Babi died a frighteningly lonely death, isolated by her own insecurities and paranoia. She was obsessed with bringing down Amitabh Bachchan, accusing him of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanours, from being a spy to a terrorist.

Mr Bachchan took it all in his stride and never lashed out at her, even as her attacks got progressively vicious and absurd. The last interview of her life, with Shekhar Suman, had to be conducted in her house as she refused to step out of her home for the fear of getting killed. She had made fun of Mr Bachchan for being designated as the Star Of The Millennium, when there were Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley to consider. She also mocked him for being considered as the Most Handsome Indian Actor, ignoring the likes of Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Raj Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor and even Shashi Kapoor's son Karan, all of whom Parveen considered handsome. Not Mr Bachchan, Parveen said to Shekhar Suman, who sat poker-faced listening to her tirade.

When Parveen passed away, Mr Bachchan spoke exclusively to me about her.

Parveen Babi and I worked together in several films. In fact, I did the maximum number of films with Parveen after Jaya, followed by Raakhee and Rekha. A lot of these films I had forgotten all about until the press reminded me of them after her death. And then I thought, ‘Gosh, so many films with Parveen Babi!’ Most of my films with Parveen were superbly successful. The audience liked us as a pair. She brought in a new, bohemian kind of leading lady to the screen. We’d work on all these films and go our own ways. But because we belonged to the same social circle, we’d visit each other. She was a very fun loving, light-hearted person. Always full of joie de vivre!
Amitabh Bachchan, Actor 
She never interfered with anyone’s work. On the sets, you barely knew she was around. She completely minded her own business. What happened to her is really sad. I feel very bad for her. We’d meet socially very often. We all belonged to one big group- Romesh Sharma, Danny Denzongpa, Reena Roy, Smita Patil, Javed Akhtar, Parveen. When I had my accident, they all would come to see me every single day. It was so nice of them. One never forgets the people who stick close to you at a time of crisis. I used to be very depressed at that point of time.
Amitabh Bachchan

Mr Bachchan also went on to discreetly talk about what plagued the starlet.

In 1983, I took Parveen out for her first live show, and then suddenly she just disappeared! I don’t really know what happened and it wouldn’t be ethical to talk about her condition. The nature of her illness was such that she was terrified of people. She wanted to be left alone. She deliberately distanced herself from everyone. We felt by associating ourselves with her, we were causing her more grief.
Amitabh Bachchan

Like lakhs of Indians, Amitabh Bachchan says he was also a fan of her work.

Did she make a difference to Hindi cinema? Oh, certainly! She was one of the first Indians to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. She was very meticulous about her career. She had a very efficient management system. Her secretary and managers were very efficient. She lived all on her own and was very self-dependent. I sincerely feel that she was a very genuine, honest and down-to-earth person, very loving and caring. And that’s how I’d like to remember her.
Amitabh Bachchan

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on January 20, 2016. It is now being republished to mark Parveen Babi’s birth anniversary.)

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