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Parveen Babi: A Bold Feminist Icon
A bold feminist icon of the 70s and 80s, Parveen Babi, broke the stereotypical feminine image in Indian cinema by essaying the roles of sophisticated, intelligent and sexy women with independent identities. Touted as one of the most successful actresses of her era, she was the first Bollywood actress to have graced TIME magazine in 1976.
Parveen Babi single-handedly transformed the image of the Bollywood heroine from chastely, overweight meek women to anglicized accents, westernized attires, and well-sculpted bodies that would remain the defacto standard of the industry for the years to come.
First Fashionista of Bollywood
At a time when actors and actresses would be least concerned about their fitness, she would not only go jogging every morning before shoots but also share health tips with other actresses. She was also the first fashionista of Bollywood who brought minimalism in style and dressing that still continues to this day.
Her career ended abruptly when she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a condition that led to her tragic demise. In the last years of her life, one seldom heard or saw her except for an occasional talk show when she tried her best to appear as normal as possible. Distinctly overweight, it was difficult to identify her in the last days of her life.
She died a lonely, isolated death on January 20, 2005, in her Juhu apartment. Her body was discovered three days later.
The Story of Parveen Babi
Parveen Babi was born Parveen Wali Mohammad Khan Babi to a Gujarati Muslim family on April 4, 1949. She was the only child of her parents, and her father worked as an administrator with the Nawab of Junagadh. Parveen completed her schooling in Aurangabad and later graduated from St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad.
It was at her college when she was discovered by controversial director R.B. Ishara who launched her in his movie Charitra in 1973. Although the film was a flop, Parveen was noticed for her striking looks and natural on-screen chemistry. And with that, she began her career of 13 years, marking her as one of the most successful actresses of all time, acting alongside some of the most iconic actors of those times, including Amitabh Bachchan.
Babi and Bachchan Rule 1980s
She and Amitabh became the golden pair of the 80s as the duo sealed their superstardom with a string of blockbusters, including Majboor, Amar Akbar Anthony, Deewar, Kala Patthar, and Kalia. She also worked extensively with other actors like Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman, delivering iconic hits like Kranti, Suhaag, Namak Halaal, Meri Aawaaz Suno, The Burning Train, and Yeh Nazdeekiyan.
Parveen Babi transformed the course of Indian cinema, defying every rule of the chaste Indian actress. But at the same time, she was versatile and unique in her performances. From Yash Chopra’s Deewar, where she played the role of a liberated working girl who smoked, drank, and slept with her lover, to Om Prakash’s Arpan, where she played the role of a timid sari-clad girl with finesse.
She was efficient, down-to-earth, funny, and generous to her staff. The audience loved her performances as she became the face of the new-age Indian actress on the international stage.
She was radical, unbridled, outspoken, and lived life fully on her terms. On the personal front, she never married, although she had highly publicized affairs with director Mahesh Bhatt and actors Kabir Bedi and Danny Denzongpa. Her romance with Mahesh Bhatt was so close that he immortalized it in celluloid by writing and directing a semi-autobiographical film, Arth, in 1982.
Diagnosed With Paranoid Schizophrenia
And then, at the peak of her career, everything started going downhill for this iconic girl when she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. As media baron Pritish Nandy recalls.
“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.”
As the terrifying disease started incapacitating her, Parveen lost touch with reality. She became unreasoningly paranoid and started fearing for her life. She even went on record to say that actor Amitabh Bachchan and former US president Bill Clinton conspired to kill her. She had also developed a habit of keeping a tape recorder while speaking to the other person so that she could uncover "conspiracies" against her.
Parveen’s Downfall and Death
As Mahesh Bhatt recalls those troubled times,
“Sometimes she’d say the air conditioner had a bug. We had to dismantle it and show it to her. At other times there was ‘a bug’ in the fan or in the perfume… Once we were driving back after meeting my friend, philosopher and guide UG Krishnamurthy, when she said, “There’s a bomb in the car. I can hear it tick!” She threw open the door of the moving car, saying the bomb would burst and ran out on the road with me trying to hold her.”
Parveen Babi was found dead in January 2005 in her apartment. According to the police, she had not collected her milk and newspapers for the past three days. While the exact cause of death remains unclear, it is agreed now that she possibly starved herself to death. She was buried next to her mother at Santa Cruz, Mumbai according to Islamic rites. She was 56 years at the time of death.
Generous Even After Death
Parveen Babi was one of the most misunderstood actresses in the movie industry, with the world isolating her when she needed help the most. Her tragic death shows the apathy and stigmatization of mental diseases shown by society that, unfortunately, continues to this day.
It's worth mentioning that Parveen's generosity continued after her death. According to her will, she left 80% of her property to underprivileged children and women and 10% to her alma mater, St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad.
For all that she did, this iconic feminist icon deserved better.
Iconic Parveen Babi Movies
- Majboor (1974)
- Deewar (1975)
- Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
- Suhaag (1979)
- Kaala Patthar (1979)
- Shaan (1980)
- Kaalia (1981)
- Meri Awaaz Suno (1981)
- Namak Halal (1982)
- Khuddar (1982)
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- Parveen Babi Biography
- A biography of Parveen Babi by journalist Karishma Upadhyay gently unravels a life less ordinary
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© 2022 Ravi Rajan