She was the most sought after actor of her time, a diva with deadly looks who conquered cinema. Parveen Babi was one of the most successful actors in India in the 1970s and 1980s.
She could match the popularity of Amtitabh Bachchan and even made it to the Time magazine cover.
So who really was Parveen Babi?
Was she the Westernised woman who broke traditions in Indian cinema or the plump persona whose erratic behaviour was unfathomable to say the least?
Whatever she was, her tale is a tragic one. She was the toast of the industry one day and then a lonely woman who was deserted even by her close friends.
There were two distinct sides to the Parveen Babi story. The first half was focused on her immense popularity when filmmakers stood outside her house to get her into their venture. She was a pioneer of sorts along with Zeenat Aman. They broke through the typical sari-clad sterotype and literally gave some flesh into to the “sati savitri” image.
She was certainly striking to look at and dressed superbly. She immediately caught the eye in her first film Charitra opposite cricketer Salim Durrani. The tone was set there probably for taking up roles which were bold and defied tradition. Here she is made pregnant by a young man who her father owes a debt.
She is told to fend for herself and is finally rescued by a drunk. It was a typical B R Ishara film, bold and no holds barred. It is possible that she may have reflected her own self or a latent desire to do things which defied traditions and boundaries.
She didn’t need to. She got all the attention she needed.
She became a major star quickly, tilting more towards the glamour than acting skills. Her Westernised image and accented dialogue became a novelty and was tapped by filmmakers.
She was a fashion icon too. She won praise for her minimalistic and impeccable style. She was in sync with the Westernised mores which had begun the sweep India in the 1970s and 1980s. She portrayed that she was different from the others.
She openly had affairs with actors and believed in a live-in relationship. She smoked and drank openly and didn’t give a damn. It was also believed that she had a relationship with Bachchan with whom she acted in eight films.
In the male-centric cinema of her era, she fitted in perfectly as the love interest, which only required her to flash, pout and shake a leg. She was on top, enjoying her popularity.
But then something snapped in 1983 and Parveen Babi just disappeared.
Nobody knew where she was or what happened to her. It is believed she was in the US and that she was “under the control” of the underworld. But there was an instance when she was handcuffed at the JFK Airport for not furnishing information. She kept in a mental hospital for a few days.
Rumours kept spreading before a rather plump Parveen Babi returned to Mumbai, unrecognisable from the glamorous heroine who left at the height of her career.
She was immediately branded as “mad”. Her statements did nothing to change that. She was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and behaved oddly. She thought that she was sane and blamed Bollywood for spreading false rumours about her.
She believed that there was a conspiracy to kill her and named top political leaders and Bachchan as a ringleader.
It is claimed that she was under severe depression and the hallucinations got worse. Some said her many failed relationships began to catch up with her. Director Mahesh Bhatt’s film Aarth deals with his rocky relationship with Parveen Babi and his personal opinion of her. Later Woh Lamhe focuses on the changing phases of the actress.
She died a lonely death on January 20, 2005, and her body was found three days later. Her death was due to diabetes and related gangrene.
The pretty woman became a victim of her own delusions. She did not know “where her dreams ended and reality began”.