In Parveen Babi: A Life (Hachette India), film journalist Karishma Upadhyay traces the journey of a shy but ambitious girl from an aristocratic family in Junagadh, Gujarat, to the merciless scrutiny of the Bollywood spotlight. Drawing on interviews with industry veterans and close friends, as well as a wealth of archival material, Upadhyay unravels the individual who was Parveen Babi.
Along the way emerges a picture of Bollywood in its flower-power era, and the misconceptions about mental health that prevented a vulnerable woman from receiving the care she needed.
You've worked on this book about Parveen Babi for three years. Could you walk us through the process, from your publisher suggesting the idea to the moment when you decided that this was a life and story you wanted to delve into, to the research and writing of it?
The first thing I did when an editor from Hachette got in touch with me about writing this book was to ask one of my oldest friends in the industry about Parveen. Until then, I knew very little about her life " the iconic songs and movies like Deewar and Amar Akbar Anthony. His immediate reaction was 'what a fascinating life' and then he told me a little about her and about interviewing her in the '90s after she had returned [from the US]. I was immediately hooked.
Research for the book seemed to be a never-ending but very fulfilling process. At heart, I am a reporter so meeting new people and uncovering details that have been forgotten or lost is very exciting for me. I knew it would be hard to find information about Parveen's life before and after movies but I didn't realise just how hard. People in the industry are used to talking about their lives but people outside, like the couple that she lived with in Bengaluru or the priests she interacted with towards the end of her life weren't. So, convincing them was hard. Also, there is lot of disdain towards film magazines in regular libraries. Even repository libraries like Asiatic in Mumbai that are supposed to have everything that's printed, don't have old film magazines.
You've traced Babi's life from her childhood in Junagarh to college years in Ahmedabad, the various phases of her Bombay career, the time in the US after her second breakdown. Which of these places was most interesting to you as a writer, to explore who she'd been when living in them?
For me, the most fascinating parts of Parveen's life were those years she spent in Ahmedabad. I got a sense of who she was and who she moulded herself into, in those three-four years. Her journey from being a quiet, small-town girl who was unsure of herself, to someone who captivated audiences in auditoriums, taught herself a whole new language and eventually made the decision to pursue a career in films is quite remarkable. This period added dimensions to her personality that most people wouldn't have known about.
When talking to people about her for the book, and when researching her life, was there an anecdote or insight that really stayed with you? Why did it make such a deep impression?
As someone who loves films and trivia, there's a little nugget of information about the song 'Pag Ghunghroo' from Namak Halal that completely blew my mind (but no spoilers here!). Also, Parveen's reaction to being replaced at the last moment by Yash Chopra, not once but twice really shows us who she was. She was kind and respectful but was no pushover. She made sure that Chopra understood that he owed her one.
Do you have a favourite film featuring Babi? What do you enjoy about her performance in the film?
I don't have a favourite Parveen film but there's a scene in Kaalia that I absolutely love. It's where Amitabh Bachchan's character is teaching her how to make an omelette and she smashes the egg on her forehead. This scene made me laugh out loud as a kid and still does.
The depiction of the "Juhu Gang" " Bollywood's own version of Hollywood's Rat Pack " made for very engaging reading. Could you give our readers a brief sense of the culture and scene at that time?
In the '70s, there was a social group that included actors, directors and star kids who often met and partied together. Most of them lived around Juhu so it was called the Juhu Gang. The group included the likes of Shekhar Kapur, Shabana Azmi, Jalal Agha, Danny Denzongpa, Kabir and Protima Bedi. There were all-night parties on the beach, midnight bus rides to Mount Mary Church and sunset swims at Sun n' Sand Hotel. Legendary filmmaker Chetan Anand's son Ketan told me, 'Some mornings, you wondered how you got to where you woke up'. The members of the group turned to spiritual gurus for enlightenment and dabbled in drugs. Most of those I spoke with were very categorical in stating that Parveen never did drugs of any kind.
You've addressed the imaginary rivalry that was manufactured between Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi. What in your mind set the actresses apart, despite both of them being held up as these 'Bohemian sirens' in Bollywood?
I actually don't think Zeenat and Parveen were very different on screen. Both brought a certain amount of sex appeal the others probably didn't. It was off-screen that one can really make out the differences. I think Parveen was a lot more candid about her life whereas Zeenat wasn't.
In the book, there are chunks of Parveen's life that can be viewed through the prism of her relationships with four men: Danny Denzongpa, Kabir Bedi, Mahesh Bhatt, UG Krishnamurti. Would you briefly encapsulate the various stages of her life that these equations represented?
All four men were a part of Parveen's showbiz years. She met both Danny and Mahesh on the sets of her first film Charitra. In her formative years in the industry, she was in a relationship with Danny. They parted when Parveen and Kabir started seeing each other. Though he was still married, Kabir moved in with Parveen. She believed in the relationship enough to leave her career in the movies to follow him to Italy and then London. Her relationship with Mahesh started when she returned broken hearted from London. Parveen met UG Krishnamurti for the first time while she was seeing Kabir, but her emotional dependence on him as a spiritual guide began after she had her first public breakdown. UG tried to help Parveen as much as he could over the next five years but when she disappeared from New York, he distanced himself.
Parveen Babi seemed to inspire a fierce loyalty among her close circle even though being with her during her breakdowns can't have been easy in the slightest " Ved Sharma and Xerxes Bhathena come to mind. What drew these people to her?
I think it was the fact that she was genuinely invested in them and that she was kind and generous. Even her driver, Hanuman Patre who worked with her through this decade, sings her praises because she treated him with the same respect and courtesy that she would show any director or producer. Even towards the end when Parveen was finding it hard to keep a grip on reality, she'd remember the names of the lightmen or spotboys on her sets and talk to them.
You make some striking observations about Parveen's role in a couple of films " Deewar and Razia Sultan " in the book that our readers might find particularly interesting.
The characters Parveen played in both Deewaar and Razia Sultan were not what leading actresses of the time would have signed up for. Her character Anita owns her sexuality and isn't coy about sleeping with a man out of marriage. Film magazines at the time referred to her character as a 'call girl'. Deewaar is credited as the film that cemented Bachchan's 'angry young man' image, but most ignored the economic, social and sexual autonomy the writers gave Anita's character. This new female protagonist prototype was very different from what we had seen in Hindi films before.
In Kamal Amrohi's Razia Sultan, Parveen played Khatun, a close confidante of Hema Malini's Razia. There is a hint of homoeroticism between the two ladies in the song 'Khwab Ban Kar Koi Aayega' when Khatun covers Razia's and her face with a large white plume. Remember this was released in the early 1980s when homosexuality was punishable by law and no one talked about these things openly.
How do you view the life of Parveen Babi?
It was a tragic life. She came to Bollywood to build a life for herself but untreated mental health issues meant that she couldn't sustain her career. She craved love and stability but none of her relationships lasted.
Are there any lessons or cautionary tales that Bollywood or the PR/gossip machinery or the field of entertainment journalism should have picked up from Parveen Babi's life, but didn't?
Empathy. There was a distinct lack of empathy when Parveen was written about towards the end of her career in the early '80s and then briefly in the late '90s and early 2000s when she made wild public accusations. And, in light of everything that's going on in Bollywood today, empathy is still not a concept we seem to have understood let alone mastered.
Read an excerpt from Parveen Babi: A Life by Karishma Upadhyay. Excerpted with permission from Hachette India "