Parveen Babi is somewhat of a byword for tragedy in Bollywood; a star who everyone recognises, but nobody remembers. Few, if any, look beyond the shallow sympathy her story of mental illness and failed relationships evoke. Fewer still acknowledge that under this div(a)ine halo, she was a strong person. She was a survivor, and a woman who wore her heart on her sleeve.
Koi iss liye pee raha hai ki aaj doston ke saath hai, aur koi iss liye pee raha hai, ki aaj dost saath nahi. – Parveen Babi as Anita in Deewar (1975)
(Translation: Some are drinking because they are with their friends today. And yet, some are drinking because they are not.)
Babi was born in Junagadh, Gujarat on 4th April 1949, to a Pashtun family. Ever since, Parveen Babi’s life has been struck by the string of tragedy. She lost her dear father at the age of five. She completed her education at Mount Carmel High School and St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. Afterwards, while completing her bachelor’s degree, she began her career as a model. And once modelling came calling, could Bollywood be far behind? Hence, in due course, her silver screen debut happened soon after her debut on the ramp.
Babi’s first film, ‘Charitra’, was a failure at the box office. But the new talent did not go unnoticed by the audience. Her career breakthrough came soon with the all-time classic character of Anita in Deewar (1975). Her world-weary, unapologetic prostitute was a pleasantly shocking departure from the heart-of-gold, pure woman of traditional ties in Hindi Cinema. The film’s success catapulted her to the spotlight.
She went on to star in Suhag, Amar Akbar Anthony, Kaala Patthar (where she once again played a character named Anita and was, for a change, the foil for Amitabh Bachchan’s swaggering self-loathing), Kaalia, Kranti and Namak Halaal. In the mid-1970s, she graced the Time magazine’s cover creating ripples pan-India.
As her fortunes started fluctuating, however, she took a break from the industry. Her many off-screen affairs with Danny Denzongpa, Kabir Bedi, and even Mahesh Bhatt made sure the gossip-hungry media always graced her as page six news. What this media and the entertainment industry at large overlooked, alas, were her personal and constant struggles. Babi suffered with schizophrenia and crippling loneliness. Finally, her deteriorating physical health caught up with her as well. On the 20th of January 2005, she succumbed to multiple organ failure.
Though she is often reduced to the pejorative term diva, as if being a beautiful presence on-screen requires no talent at all. It would be cruel not to pay tribute to her characters. For example, let us consider the other female star of the 70s – Zeenat Aman. Zeenat was also an emblem for the unabashed female sexuality. Yet her signature film, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, portrays her as the ‘pure’ one. She is the very traditional, very conformist sati, who has to prove her purity. In contrast, Parveen Babi’s characters have no backstory. There is no redemption arc needing to justify why she is what she is.
She is also possibly one of the earliest actors to address the issue of queer sexuality, with the strong homoerotic undercurrents in her outing with Hema Malini in Razia Sultan (1983). I wouldn’t be surprised if Bollywood’s emerging queer cinema someday recognizes Aye Dil-e-nadaan as a paean to just that.
In retrospect, Babi’s characters are a natural extension of her real-life persona. Albeit the word ‘bold’ has lost its meaning due to chronic overuse over the years, I believe she is the true owner of the title. In a country where personal issues are shushed down to present a veneer of normalcy, she chose to be open and vulnerable. She might have become immortal on the silver screen. Yet, she left with us the image of a strong, vulnerable, fragile, and indeed, mortal woman.