Parveen Babi died 19 years ago on January 20, 2005. But as far as the film industry was concerned, she died a long time before, after she was reportedly diagnosed as schizophrenic. In her last years, one seldom heard 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 Parveen Babi in the last one-third of her life. She died a lonely, isolated death.
And to think that in the 1970s, she embodied the new-age heroine! Introduced by Babu Ram Ishaara, alongside cricketer Salim Durrani, in Charitra, Babi shot to fame in the films that she did with Amitabh Bachchan - Amar Akbar Anthony, Do Aur Do Paanch, Namak Halaal, Shaan and Khuddar.
In Yash Chopra's Deewaar, 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 J Om Prakash's Arpan. Parveen Babi's most glorious moment was when she was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1976 to represent the new face of Hindi cinema.
Parveen Babi on the cover of Time magazine
Then, suddenly, everything began to go wrong for this defiant girl. According to her close friends, Parveen began to lose her mind. Recalls media baron Pritish Nandy, "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."
But why did the industry isolate this beautiful actress so completely? "She chose to be that way," Nandy answers. "Her final affair with a particular actor finished her self-confidence. She cracked up after that."
Parveen and Mahesh Bhatt
In the late 1970s, Babi had a tumultuous, widely-publicized affair with Mahesh Bhatt. When in 1982, Bhatt made a sensational film, Arth, based on his affair with Parveen Babi, with Smita Patil playing Babi's role, she was deeply affected. Recalls Nandy, "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."
Poster for the film 'Arth' and Parveen
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 misdemeanors from being a spy to a terrorist. Mr Bachchan took it all in his stride and never lashed out at her, even when her attacks got progressively vicious and absurd. In the last interview of her life with Shekhar Suman which 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 being designated the Star Of The Millennium when there were Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley to consider. She also mocked his being considered the Most Handsome Indian Actor when there were 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. This is what he had to say. "Parveen Babi and I worked together in several films - Majboor, Deewaar, Amar Akbar Anthony, Namak Halal, Shaan, Kaalia, Mahaan, Do Aur Do Paanch, Kala Patthar… 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 about until the press reminded me of them after her death. And then I thought, 'Gosh, so many films with Parveen Babi!'"
Parveen and Amitabh in 'Majboor'
"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 way. But because we belonged to the same social circle we'd visit each other, listen to music. She was a very fun loving, light-hearted person. Always full of joie de vivre!"
"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. In 1983, I took Parveen out for her first live show, and then suddenly she just disappeared!"
"I don't really know what happened. 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."
"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 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."