Author: Karishma Upadhyay
Price: Rs 599
In July 1976, a TIME magazine cover created ripples in India. Gracing it was an up-and-coming Hindi film actor, resplendent in a pearl-festooned bustier, her sleek jet-black hair framing a face that audiences in India were just beginning to recognise. It was Parveen Babi, who along with her contemporary Zeenat Aman, redefined the Hindi film heroine. Unlike the conventional goody-two-shoes leading ladies that the industry had been used to, the “westernised” Babi smoked openly, led a bohemian lifestyle, and admitted to having lovers. Being free, frank and open, the gossip press couldn’t have enough of her, and she was never far from the headlines.
To make the cover of TIME so soon into her career was a major accomplishment. The cover story on the Bombay film industry was a detailed if condescending look at one of the biggest cinema behemoths in the world. Still, for a major global magazine to take serious cognisance of “singing-dancing” Bollywood was significant.
In Karishma Upadhyay’s biography, Parveen Babi: A Life, we get the backstory of how that cover came about. Sanjay Khan and wife Zarine, amongst Babi’s first filmi friends, took her under their wing after Khan signed her on for a film opposite himself. It was Khan who took credit for the cover, saying he recommended her name to one of the editors of the weekly; soon after, in an interview to the India Today magazine, a delighted Babi said, “these things happen to me.”
There are several such delicious anecdotes in Upadhyay’s meticulously researched, smoothly-put-together volume of the life and times of Parveen Babi, who burnt bright for a short while before being consumed by the demons of her mind. The book has come at a timely juncture, when public discourse around Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide is finally able to focus on the real issue, that of the enormous, often insurmountable burden of celebrityhood. Some people can deal with the constant see-sawing of fame and failure; others, who have fragile minds to begin with, crumble under the pressure.
The preface says that the book is the result of three years of work, with over a hundred interviews. It shows in the painstaking build-up that we get, from Babi’s youthful years in Ahmedabad, to her splashy arrival in Bombay and rapid ascent to an envious position where she was on the wish list of almost every A-list producer, and the relationships that made and unmade her. Upadhyay, a Mumbai-based film journalist, navigates with ease the slippery slopes of Bollywood, and through the people that she speaks to, we get a compelling portrait of a person struggling constantly with both sunshine and shade, never quite knowing which way to go.
The men, who were major influences in her life, are all here: Danny Denzongpa, who kept up with her through her most troubled times; Kabir Bedi, who left his wife Protima to live with Babi for a tumultuous period before moving on; and Mahesh Bhatt, who also abandoned his family to move in with Babi, and then made a U-turn because he couldn’t live with her “insecurities and obsessiveness”. Details of her platonic but intense, and, ultimately, problematic relationship with new-age philosopher UG Krishnamurti, whom she met through Bhatt, are also here. She would run to him whenever she thought she needed refuge, but she also resented him telling her not to return to Bombay. Was he looking out for her, trying to shield her from the harsh media scrutiny she would invariably run into, or was he trying to control her?
There are no clear answers, but you are never left in any doubt that Babi was slowly, steadily unravelling, heading to a tragic, lonely end.
One of the main characters in Bhatt’s 1982 semi-autobiographical Arth, the jealous, possessive wife of the protagonist, was based on his troubled relationship with Babi. The actress, who had by this time already suffered a couple of breakdowns and left Bombay only to come back to start over again, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. By this time, her well-known obsession with Amitabh Bachchan, with whom she worked in a number of hit films (Majboor, 1974; Deewaar, 1975; Amar Akbar Anthony, 1977; Shaan, 1980; Kaalia, 1981), had also reached a point of no return: those who wanted to “kill her” included Bachchan’s name.
The one thing I missed in Upadhyay’s book was her own assessment of Babi’s work, which would have given it more context. Always known for her striking looks and ability to learn her lines super fast, Babi wasn’t considered to be much of an actor, but her presence in the movies at the time she blossomed — in the ’70s and ’80s — changed Bollywood’s notion of what a leading lady could do: be full-on, unapologetically sexy and own her sexuality.
But that aside, the story of the sparkly-sad Parveen Babi is told with clarity and empathy. It left me moved.
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