Hindi Film 101: Poor Parveen Babi

After taking a little journey through film as a family industry and the Ratnam-Rahman connection, back to the old reliable Hindi Film 101 topic, tragic film heroines!  Parveen Babi is a strong contender for “most tragic”.  And part of that tragedy is how very short her story is, I bet I can do it all in one post.

Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people in real life and I have no insides knowledge.  Everything I am about to say may or may not be true.  But it is the commonly accepted version by the popular press and fans.  And if you are new to Hindi film, or somehow missed this part of it, this will fill in the gaps.



Poor Parveen Babi!  Such a sad life.  And a life that would have been sad even if she hadn’t joined films.  Although, thinking back on all my other “sad heroine” posts, all of them had lives that were cursed before films!  That’s kind of why they ended up in films, because they were so desperate.

Parveen turns the pattern backwards a little, she had a great life before films!  That’s not just a random thing, that’s a sign of how the film industry was coming of age, and India in general was coming of age, in the 1970s.  Back in the early years, when Nargis and Meena Kumari started out, there were very few “respectable” ways for women to be involved in public life.  Which meant that the ways remaining all tended to be lumped together as equally unrespectable.  Prostitute, dancing girl, actress, singer, all the same thing in the minds of many.  This was more than just a perception problem, it also mean that actresses were routinely propositioned, blackmailed, and forgotten and thrown aside.  Because they were just another kind of disposable women.

This is why the Kapoor family, I think, was so much against their women acting.  They wanted to keep them in the “respectable” side of the line, to avoid this kind of behavior.  Most families wanted that, if at all possible.  It was only families that were really desperate and/or didn’t care what happened to their daughters who pushed them into film.

But now, ta-da!  1970!  Everything is different!  Female prime minister, more and more woman in the respectable workplace, typists and office worker types, not just nurses and teachers and, well, whores.

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(Also, flight attendants!  Still one of the most respectable and desirable ways for an Indian woman to earn a living, see Badrinath Ki Dulhania)

Parveen wasn’t the first of this new group, by far.  Before her came Sharmila Tagore, for one.  From a super respectable family, artistic types, but very respectable.  And Sharmila wore a bikini, worked after marriage, and generally was very modern and unapologetic about it.  There were others as well, confident happy heroines onscreen and off.  None of that Nargis nonsense of “well, onscreen she may seem smart and independent and not needing anything, but offscreen she is miserable and just needs a husband”.  No, these women are fine even without a husband.

And they aren’t driven to it by desperation either!  The heroines of the 70s were not necessarily little teenagers going out to support their whole families.  No, they were upperclass woman with exciting lives behind them trying film as a bit of a lark.

Parveen was one of these.  Her family had royal blood (supposedly), and were high up administrators in the Gujurat colonial era government.  They were Pathan Muslim, but had been settled in Gujurat for generations.  Parveen was born 14 years after her parents’ marriage and an only child.  Her father died when she was 10.

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(This isn’t Parveen’s family, this is the royal family her father worked for.  They look very royal)

All of that, to me, adds up to a very very spoiled childhood.  Aristocratic background, a little set aside from the rest of society by her ethnicity and religion, doted on miracle baby of older parents, and no doubt even more doted on after her father died.  Wonderful education too, all the best schools, all the way through to a masters in English Literature.  English Literature is such a classy degree, not practical like engineering, but still challenging and modern.

And then, at age 23, she started a career in modeling.  Again, classy!  Modeling is still kind of a “nice” career path in India.  Not sure why, in America it is more glamorous than classy.  Maybe because our body requirements for models are so extreme?  But in India, being a model is a nice job that any fresh-faced young woman who can pull off a modern consumerist look and knows how to wear clothes can do.

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(Here’s an early Parveen modeling pic)

I was just mentioning in my nepotism post how different Hrithik’s launch was from earlier launches, not because of Hrithik, but because of how the industry had changed, with wide releases and promotional campaigns and all of that.  Parveen’s launch was decidely NOT like that.  Back in the 70s, movies would have a release of more like 30 screens, not 300.  And there were more films coming out, there wasn’t such a “one film per weekend” vibe.  Producers were always looking for new pretty women to be heroines in their films, and sometimes these actresses would be in 3-4 movies in one year and then get married or retire and never been seen again, and sometimes they would hit it big.

Parveen was noticed quickly once her photos started appearing as a model.  Producers snapped her up.  Her first film flopped, her next 4 were so-so, but her 5th was a hit.  I suppose if she had quit after film 3 or 4, we wouldn’t be talking about her today, but she didn’t.  And she made it to 5, Majboor opposite Amitabh, and bam!  Hit!

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(This is her in Majboor.  Terrible hair and make-up, but she still looks good)

Parveen is a great Amitabh Bachchan heroine (possibly why rumors of an affair started between them).  She has that modern damaged outsider vibe, just like he does.  She is also a great Salim-Javed heroine (they wrote Majboor).  Confident, complicated, strong.  And she looks great in western clothes.  Which isn’t as shallow as it sounds, the decision for a heroine to wear pants and sweaters and blouses and mini-skirts instead of saris is also a decision to show that she is comfortable in the modern globalized world, she is rejecting old standards and women’s roles, she is the “new” Indian woman.  And someone like, say, Jaya Bachchan just never looks quite right in pants.

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(It was so much of her image, films even made fun of it.  In Kaalia, Amitabh has to show her how to wear a sari before she meets his family, because her character never has before)

After Majboor, Parveen’s career was smooth sailing.  She never quite reached the level of, say, Hema Malini or Rekha who had films that were based around their characters.  But she always had work, she was always in the news, and she easily handled complex characters like her tragic call girl in Deewar.  She also easily juggled a series of men.  Amitabh (although I don’t necessarily believe that, seems like he was rumored to have an affair with anyone he had chemistry with onscreen, and he had chemistry with everyone), and Danny Denzongpa, and Kabir Bedi.

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(Damn Kabir Bedi was hot!  Good for Parveen)

Parveen’s biggest asset continued to be her striking looks and attitude.  She had the confidence and global attitude of Zeenat Aman, but there was a strange kind of fragility in her face, some kind of tiny flaw that made her all the more mesmerizing for it.  Even though she was never the top-top actress of the industry, she was the one chosen by Time magazine to appear on the cover in 1976 to represent the Indian film industry.  And you can see why she is just magnetic in the photo in a way I don’t know that any of the other actresses would have been.

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That little “off” feeling in her face, and sometimes in her performances, it wasn’t imaginary.  And it was getting worse.  Parveen was generally known to be “emotional” but, you know, all actresses were.  Remember how Rekha would leave filming locations to rush off and spend weekends with the men she loved?  Or Neetu Singh, panicking if her film shoots went late because she had to be home waiting for Rishi’s call?

But, the thing is, those other actresses had reasons to be like that.  Rekha and Neetu were just teenagers, by the time they got into their mid-twenties, they were in control of their emotions.  Meena Kumari never got control of herself, but then Meena had world’s worst childhood and never really got a chance to grow up.  But Parveen, she had a wonderful childhood and didn’t start acting until she was fully “grown-up”, there was no real reason for her to be like this.  Her mother thought she had been possessed by a demon, some armchair psychiatrists claim it was scarring from when she was hidden by the nuns at her school as a child during communal riots.  But her mother was probably closer to the truth, it sounds like she had schizophrenia, which is a lot closer to being possessed by a demon than needing therapy for some childhood trauma.

It was intriguing though, this gorgeous woman with dramatic mood changes, who you never knew what she would do next.  Which is what attracted young writer/producer Mahesh Bhatt.  Mahesh (who someday will get his own Hindi Film 101 post) was a bit emotional and confused himself.  He’d eloped at 20 with his college sweetheart, he already had two kids, and was trying to scrap out a living in the film industry, working as a manager, or an assistant director, but dreaming of making his own films.  Oh, and he was beginning to really suffer from his alcoholism.

So, we have a guy who is beginning to feel frustrated with making the “safe” choices in order to support his wife and kids, who is starting to drink heavily, who wants someone to tell him “take a risk!  Enjoy life!  Make the crazy choice!”  And we have a beautiful woman who is increasingly emotional and irrational and is looking for someone who will love her anyway and stay with her.  Naturally, as soon as they met, sparks flew.

We, the public, get to know a lot about this romance because Mahesh tends to work out his personal problems through public films.  If you put together Woh Lamhe and Arth, you get a complete picture of their romance.  At first, passionate and wonderful and magical.  She was so unpredictable, so needy, it was like nothing ever before.  But then she started getting really really unpredictable.  And really really needy.  Mahesh, even in his alcohol haze, started to see that this was more than he, or anyone, could handle.  And even though he had left his wife and ruined his family over Parveen, after a couple years, he left her as well.

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(He really works through his demons about it in Arth, how the whole relationship was terrible for her start to finish, falling in love and obsessing over him was just another form of self-medication, and leaving her was even worse)

Kind of seems like a jerky thing for Mahesh to do, to leave Parveen just as she started to get really sick.  But what I didn’t realize until just now is that Parveen was still at the top of her career when he left her.  She still had producers lined up outside her door looking to sign her for “complicated sexy modern love interest” in their films.  And, of course, she was still a stunningly beautiful and desirable woman.

Everyone else in her life didn’t care enough about her to mind her little “eccentricities”.  They just rolled with it and took what they wanted from her anyway, whether it was sex or an acting performance.  Supposedly her directors/producers were pushing for her to have electric shock therapy as a quick fix.  But Mahesh wanted to put in the time and work with her and try to make her better.  Which is much more exhausting.  And after a few years, he just couldn’t do it anymore.  Even though he was a struggling young director/producer who could have benefited a lot from having this gorgeous famous actress on his arm.  And even though he was a straight man, and therefore no doubt attracted to her.  He cared about her too much as a person to be able to stand by and watch her get sicker and sicker.  So, he left.

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(Parveen, at the time Mahesh walked away)

And Parveen really started to spiral after that.  She started saying odd things suddenly in the middle of interviews, randomly cutting people out of her life, being more and more paranoid.  She still managed to give great performances and looked beautiful.  But she wasn’t healthy.  And in 1983, suddenly, she left acting forever.

There were all kinds of rumors that she had been kidnapped or some underworld figure had made her his mistress.  But the truth was, she was just really really sick.  I don’t know if there is a formal official diagnosis of record, but it sounds an awful lot like schizophrenia, or else manic-depressive.  It wasn’t just “eccentricity” or “emotionally damaged”, she had a disease.  And no one (except Mahesh Bhatt) cared enough to try to do anything about it, they just enabled her.  It’s impressive, to me, that Parveen was self-aware enough to see that she needed to stop acting and everything else and just try to deal with her disease.

The next 30 years are familiar to anyone who has dealt with mental illness.  She’d have long periods of remission, and then another burst of sickness.  She self-medicated with various drugs, and no doubt took high dose prescription drugs as well.  They would work for a while, but have terrible side-effects.

One thing that worked the best was when she spent a few years working with the guru U.G. Krishnamurthi.  I mentioned him in my Osho post as someone who was actually the real deal.  He preached calm and letting go and meditation.  And so far as I know, he never took any money from Parveen or anyone else.  While she was with him, old friends remembered her as seeming calm and happy again, like they had their old Parveen back.  Although even with him, she would still have momentary breaks.  For instance, in 1984 she was arrested at an American airport after refusing to give her identification papers and general causing a scene.  She was taken to a general mental health ward, where UG visited her, and eventually the Indian consul had to release her.  There were always rumors of her being “difficult”, but this was the big public official news story that told all of India that she was more than just “difficult”, she was sick.  She stopped traveling with UG in 1989, and returned to Bombay, sicker than ever.

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(There aren’t many photos of her with UG, which is kind of the point, he didn’t seek out publicity, and when she was with him, the photographers couldn’t find her)

Her beautiful face and body had been ravaged by sickness by this point (and no doubt by medications as well, powerful anti-psychotic drugs tend to have powerful physical side-effects.  And were even worse back in the 80s).  People were shocked to see her.  But she was still Parveen Babi, and she was still news.

That’s the thing I find really despicable, how the press fed on her illness.  She was very willing to give interviews, charming intelligent interviews with lots of English scattered through out.  But the content was all about how Amitabh Bachchan was mobbed up and had kidnapped her and put a transmitter behind her ear, or how Al Gore and Bill Clinton were conspiring to kill her.  And she would beg the reports to taste her food for her, in case it was poisoned (something Mahesh Bhatt remembered as one of the first signs of her sickness when they were living together).

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(Still a beautiful woman, but with that anti-psychotic drugs bloat)

Amitabh was her consistent fantasy, which must have been terrible, because you can’t really escape him in India.  She thought every journalist was his agent, and she used to panic when his films were shown on television.  She even filed a police report against him.  She later filed a police report against Sanjay Dutt, claiming that she had evidence against him for the 1993 bomb blasts, but then failing to show up in court to testify.  The one thing I really get from that is how even the police were using her.  If she had been just a regular mentally ill person reporting these things about two of her old co-workers, she would have immediately been dismissed.  But since she was a big name, and she was reporting on two other big names, the police actually investigated and let the news leak to the media, giving them publicity and further humiliating poor Parveen.

If you look at it, Parveen’s life is a great example for how someone can and cannot survive with a mental illness.  Her body was falling apart, she had minimal ability to maintain relationships.  But her apartment was generally immaculate, and she had a good income based on well-managed investments.  She even managed to start a second career as an interior designer.  What I find really sad is a story that after her death, there were handwritten notebooks found all over her house, with every detail written down in them, exact menus for dinner parties, and what she needed to do to prepare.  It must have been a coping tool she taught herself, to write out what she needed to do everyday while she was clear headed, and then have the lists to refer back to if a bad spell hit her.  She was living with her disability, not succumbing to it.

Parveen’s mother died in 2001, and it sounds like that is when she really spun out of control.  Again, not that unusual for someone with mental illness.  Her support system was gone, the one person she could trust and rely on.  In her last few years, she let everything go.  Even her oldest friends were turned away because she no longer trusted them, she locked herself in her apartment for days, newspapers piled up outside the door, trash inside.  Again, if you’ve dealt with mental illness, this should be a familiar scene.  She finally died of complications related to diabetes and starvation.

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(Here is Parveen with her mother, in younger years before she got so sick)

Her body was alone in her apartment for 3 days before it was found.  The neighbors finally called someone to open the door when they noticed the milk deliveries piling up.  She had a gangrenous foot due to diabetes, clumsily bandaged by herself.  And no food in her stomach, just the remnants of medication.  She had starved herself to death, allowing the diabetes to cause total organ failure.

In her last years, Parveen had converted to Christianity.  But after her death, her Muslim relatives insisted on burying her in the Santa Cruz Muslim cemetery, next to her mother.  But that was a small matter compared to the controversy that erupted over her will.  Babi had wanted to leave the bulk of her estate as a charitable trust, to be supervised by her uncle.  A smaller percentage went to this uncle, and another small percent as a bequest to her university.  A perfectly sane (not a word to use lightly regarding Parveen) disposition of her assets.  But her relatives immediately descended and began contesting it.

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(Here’s the uncle with his wife and Parveen’s mother.  Seems like a nice enough man)

11 years later, in October of last year, the case was finally settled.  In the meantime, the state had taken control of her assets (thus the stories of her notebooks and the state of her apartment after death, filtering out through leaks from government offices).  Probably too much to hope for, but possibly now “Parveen Babi” will come to mean not “Headline-making Madwoman” but “Charitable Trust that Helps Women and Children of Bombay and Gujurat”.

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(Or else like this, a stunningly beautiful, talented, intelligent, charming woman who lived her life as she wanted and bravely faced down her demons)

8 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Poor Parveen Babi

  1. A sad story. It is rather remarkable that she managed to live as long as she did and that she learned to manage her illness (at least to the point where she could function and not get completely swallowed up by it). It’s shameful that the press preyed upon her issues for cheap news and stripped away a measure of her dignity, later on. Those interviews should never have seen the light of day. That is an absolute disgrace.


    • Yeah, it kind of puts Mahesh’s movies on her in perspective. He was using her issues for plot, but he always made her look tragic and brave, never humiliated her.


  2. nice write-up as usual-thank you ! I love love loved Parveen & her character in Deewar! I think the early Parveen modeling picture is that of Zeenat Aman….I used to get confused too growing up – both lovely women!


    • edited to add “I love love loved Parveen & her character in Deewar…and like to think she was strong & independent & large hearted like that in real life too”


      • I like to think that too! So far as I can see, no one really has a bad thing to say about her not related to her illness. No nasty words exchanged with fellow actresses, no unprofessional or selfish behavior onset, just a lovely person.


    • I spent so long staring at that picture! It was labeled Parveen (obviously), and I kept going back and forth on whether it was Parveen or Zeenat. Thank goodness you spoke up, now I can just go with your opinion and stop worrying about it!


  3. Pingback: TGIF: By Popular Request, Manly Men With Chest Hair | dontcallitbollywood

  4. Pingback: Hindi Film 101 Index | dontcallitbollywood

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