Yesteryear late actress Parveen Babi’s biographer Karishma Upadhyay blames (though not as directly) Mahesh Bhatt for weaponizing Babi’s mental illness as source material for his films. First Arth, then Phir Teri Kahan Yaad Aayi, then Woh Lamhe. She isn’t wrong. The first time I ever heard of Babi’s name was in the context of Mahesh Bhatt, the story of her running naked behind him while it rained. What I didn’t know was that Arth was made when Babi was still around and acting in films, and still incredibly fragile from a mental-health collapse. The ethics of this film, however good, is questionable at best. (In interviews that Upadhyay points to, he defends his film as something that was humiliating for him as well, calling himself “a roadside leper selling his wounds. I make money from my humiliations.”)
Upadhyay’s 300 page book first plays the role of compiler. There is a rich amount of interviews, both primary and secondary research. It’s a bit cluttered, as we move from one source to the next in a rapid succession of paragraphs. The timeline also, while largely linear, is invariably a bit loopy with stories going back and forth. Time here is stretched and snapped, there are years unaccounted for, as there are years with abundance. This is, obviously, a factor of Babi’s life, which through the 70s and early 80s was lived through gossip columns and film reviews in the open glare of the glitterati, and later through hushed whispers and rancid op-eds as she retreated into herself. She was a forsaken mind, a schizophrenic who refused treatment, blaming Amitabh Bachchan and the CIA for attempting to bug and murder her, and thus a lonely woman who slowly excavated her life into a hollow end.
Here is a woman who penned down her thoughts on her mental illness in 1984’s Illustrated Weekly Of India, about the irrationality of it, the arbitrariness of it, and sometimes the triggers. She spoke of vaginal cream, the nonsense of virginal brides, and smoking without shame, puffing through Dunhills, unbothered about what this means for her repute. I remember Neena Gupta telling me, “Kabhi kaam ke log ke saath sharab mat pina, ghar mein doston ke saath pee lo. Cigarette bahar bilkul nahin pina. Agar aap ko aise role chahiye, toh vaise kapde pehen ke jao. Apni image banao.” But here was a woman, slotted with Zeenat Aman as oomph-girls, the “sex kittens” of the 70s.
She was also the actress who left overnight for London, where the book starts. She had 19 unfinished films in different stages of production, and an entire team unaware of her whereabouts. The volatility of such a character is something that is both inexplicable, but also ironically, ripe for explanation. (In the Illustrated Weekly piece Babi wrote, “Have you ever wondered what it is like to function in life, distrusting everything and everybody?”)
Reading biographies of well-known, tragic characters is like reading a novel, fully knowing how it ends. Every detail you read becomes a clue towards the final unraveling, as opposed to building character. Here too, it’s somewhat similar, with Upadhyay commenting about first signs and first cracks and first inklings, all in retrospect. Babi’s life is recounted through the men she fell in love with- a college sweetheart, Danny Denzongpa, Kabir Bedi, Mahesh Bhatt, and UG Krishnamurthy (though this was, according to Updadhyay’s sources, entirely platonic). She had lived with her lovers, something even celebrities today would be cautious of doing, and spoke of them liberally to the media. There wasn’t a sense that she was hiding, no sense of malice.
But by making Babi’s story of life (and indeed death, with Denzongpa, Bedi, and Bhatt, all three present as she was buried) mostly about the men in her life, Upadhyay creates a narrative where her personality is reflected in the relationships. So when Bhatt, a penniless man who had cheated on his wife with Babi, calls himself Babi’s “keep”, he was tapping into the feeling of financial dependence that Babi saw no issue with. In the same vein Babi did not care for leaving her work behind and following her then-lover Bedi to Europe to be by his side. Through all the affairs it seems that only Denzongpa was able to retain their love and morph it into friendship. (“I still care for Parveen the way one human cares for another,” he said)
There is also Ved Sharma, her secretary, publicity person, and everything in between who stood like a rock, coming back everytime Babi beckoned, hoping for new beginnings. The first 200 pages thus feel bloated in an attempt to set the stage for the final act of both the book and Babi’s life, one that left me feeling empty and sad.
The small details helped. How she was a no-fuss actress, eating without a plate on set, standing using her roti as the plate for the sabzi. The sweet parallels between her life in academia where she excelled despite not working hard, and her life as an actress where despite being one of the most hardworking actresses, she wasn’t considered good. There were also anecdotes like her reading Jean Paul Sartre, discussing existentialism, and gulping down books in UG Krishnamurth’s ashram when she had nothing else to do, asserting her intellect.
Back in Mumbai with dwindling savings, she had herself locked in, writing legal petitions against Bachchan (she gave interviews slamming him for attempting to murder her), Bill Clinton, CIA, Mossad for trying to kill her with radiations, bubbling a state of paranoia and took to Christianity.
I couldn’t help but pause the book to watch the video of her shimmying ‘Jawani Janeman’ from Namak Halal, her take on Donna Summer’s disco hit “The Wanderer”. Xerxes Bathena, the costume designer who would become her closest confidante, designed a sequined leotard with a tie at the waist. “Parveen didn’t have much of a cleavage so I gave her a Gossard bra. This was Parveen’s most daring outfit yet.” Like a fool I was trying to exorcize meaning from her empty eyes. So much beauty and hope that would unravel.
Towards the end, she had gone off the radar entirely for a few years till she resurfaced in an American jail. Her lack of medication played on her mind, and Upadhyay empathetically weaves in her relationship with her mother, Jamal, the only person now who was willing to be around her, despite how intolerable they found one another. Back in Mumbai with dwindling savings, she had herself locked in, writing legal petitions against Bachchan (she gave interviews slamming him for attempting to murder her), Bill Clinton, CIA, Mossad for trying to kill her with radiations, bubbling in a state of paranoia and took to Christianity. (I am reminded of Balraj Sahni, who though a kattar Marxist his whole life, took to the Guru Granth Sahib towards the end of his life.)
Her death was as expected as it was avoidable. She was a hurtling train on tracks that needed mending. Upadhyay gives a neat sense of completion to her life, one that is shrouded in more questions than answers. Her apartment, spare, was described as a “film-set after shooting was over.” How apt, given that the lights were dimmed, the people had left, but Babi was still lying there waiting. For a better world, perhaps. Certainly not a more meticulous biographer. For Upadhyay is just that.