The Death and Life of Parveen Babi

“I spoke to Vinod and Vinod said, “Have you got anything portable which I can take to Bangalore with me? If you got any portable spare parts, put them in my bag and I’ll take them for him.”

So I said, “Yes, I’ve got a portable soul which I’ll put in your pocket and you can give it to him.” And then I told him, we’ll meet tomorrow in Calcutta and we’ll talk.”

The Outsiders

There’s a widely held belief about Bollywood that it is abundantly sexist, racist and homophobic. Though this is largely true, there are some exceptions that would, once in a while, buck the trend and break the stereotype. In an industry known for the predominance of strapping Punjabi lads, it is no doubt refreshing that one of Bollywood’s most celebrated villains happens to be a Sikkimese, who not only survived but thrived at a time when Hindi cinema was rife with stereotypes.

But Danny Denzongpa didn’t have it easy. He had to claw his way in, every inch of the way. From perfecting his Urdu diction to reaching a place where he could choose his roles, Danny sweated it out and how. By 1974, he had consolidated his position in the industry, featuring in hits like Mere Apne, Rakhi Aur Hathkadi, Dhund and Khotay Sikkay. That year he was to star in 36 Ghante, a remake of William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours. The heroine of the film was a petite girl called Parveen, hailing from the blue-blooded Babi Family of Junagadh.

A modern woman with western sensibilities, Parveen felt like an outsider in the Bollywood jungle. And for good reason. In 1976, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine along with the cover story “Asia’s frenetic film scene”, which was a sardonic look at the Hindi masala movie scene from a westerners’ standpoint. All of Bollywood, rarely united in those days, was instantly up in arms. India Today said in its July issue, “the westernized stars that Time appears to approve of, get write-ups that are equally unbalanced in a favourable sense and Parveen Babi, at most an up and coming starlet, is made to sound like a swadeshi Marilyn Monroe (“soft and clinging as Benaras silk”) and her negative star status is magicked away in the phrase “India’s fastest rising new star””

 

Like Parveen, Danny was the very definition of outsider. The two drifting souls met, and sparks flew.  And the fact that they lived in the same building – Kalumal Estate in Juhu – didn’t hurt either.

Danny and Parveen spent four happy years together. And that’s when the cracks started making themselves known. A leading daily carried an interview of Amitabh Bachchan, quoting him as saying that Danny was a good friend of his. All hell broke loose – she called him Amitabh Bachchan’s agent and refused to let him in the house.

 

“We want to feel wanted, do you? I don’t know what you’re going through, Mahesh, and… I care to know what you’re going through. I hope I can find you on the phone. I think now I’ll sit and wait for the phone.”

The Bachchan Conundrum

Amitabh Bachchan did 12 movies with Parveen Babi, of which 8 were opposite her, almost all of them superhits. The on-screen chemistry was impeccable. The rumour mills went on the overdrive and suggested an affair between the two, though it’s unlikely there was any truth to it, beyond Parveen having a soft spot for him. In an old interview with Tabassum, Parveen mentions Bachchan as her idol and waxes eloquent about what a great actor he is. This must have been in the late 70s. In 1989, she gave an interview to a magazine where she says, “Amitabh Bachchan is a super international gangster. He is after my life. His goons kidnapped me and I was kept on an Island where they performed a surgery on me and planted one transmitter/chip/electronic bug right under my ear.”

13 years later, Parveen Babi appeared on Simply Sekhar, Shekhar Suman’s eponymous TV Show. When asked what was the biggest joke she’d ever heard, she giggled and guffawed at Amitabh Bachchan being declared as the Star of the Millennium, and went on to add that an even bigger joke is him being included in the ‘Ten Most Handsome Indian Men of the Century“. So, her relationship with Amitabh Bachchan was complicated. In their heydays, Bachchan and Babi moved in the same circles and later he spoke about how he’d drop in at her place to listen to music together. But this seemed to have soured pretty soon with Parveen going over the edge and claiming he was after her life. She also filed a case against him that was swiftly dismissed for lack of evidence and credibility.

And it was her paranoia about Amitabh Bachchan that caused her romance with Danny to come to an abrupt end, when she accused him of facilitating Amitabh Bachchan’s nefarious designs. The paranoia had started rearing its ugly head.

“I closed my eyes and I kind of saw myself, you know, uh… getting inside my head and trying to knife my brain so that it would stop!

And then I said, by knifing the brain, I was actually in my head, you know, physically, it was like I had opened the skull and I had gone inside and I was trying to knife my brain because I wanted it to stop. And then I thought you can’t stop the brain by beating the brain, you know.

You have to get into your heart! And I kind of came out of the brain and opened my heart and plonked myself into it. And, uh… I actually did it, you know! I saw myself physically doing it. And then I slept – it was like a womb, you know, in the heart. And then I slept. So that’s so much for my crazy fantasies. See you later.”

Kahat Kabir suno bhai saadhon

70s was an interesting decade. The intellectual bankruptcy of the 80s hadn’t set in, and of course, there were no Internet herds. You had to think for yourself, and convictions weren’t so fluid. Protima Bedi was a person with her own mind, and a radical one at that. Instead of being born into it, she took up Odissi classical dance later on in life, of her own volition. She tutored under Pt. Kelucharan Mahapatra and soon became a popular exponent of the dance form. But she also gave in to the fad of streaking and ran across Juhu beach buck naked. It’s obvious her marriage with the dashing Kabir Bedi couldn’t have been a conventional one. They were free spirits and Protima once said about Kabir – “He could take anything from me, except my unfaithfulness.”

It’s therefore not so shocking that when their marriage turned stale, it was Protima who pushed Kabir towards Parveen Babi. I’ll let Protima speak for herself, because nobody else could do it better.

“I was then busy trying to untangle complications from my own life and I wanted Kabir off my back. Besides, like I told you – as long as Kabir and I no longer attracted each other sexually, why should I have been a dog…sorry, bitch in the manger? Kabir needed a sexual outlet. In fact it was at a party in my house that I saw them giving each other those special vibes and I went out of my way to encourage them! And when it finally happened, Parveen came to me the next day and told me about it. I told her that I didn’t mind it and that she should go ahead!”

A whirlwind romance took place. Two strikingly good looking and cerebral stars hooking up. Perfect, right? What could go wrong? The next three years were like a dream. Kabir says, “Parveen and I were part of the gang that hung out together in Juhu. That’s how we met. The gang included the young progressive actors of the 1970s  Shekhar Kapur, Danny Dengzongpa, Parkishit Sahni, Dev Anand, his brothers and many others….She was very fun loving, devil-may-care on the outside and very conservative on the inside, a girl who was either ultra-casual or ultra-formal. We were very much in love, and lived together for three years. We were one of the well-known couples of the time, and it was no secret that we lived together.”

But Parveen’s paranoia crept into their lives light-footed, without a sound. Protima noticed how she seemed to be uncomfortable with the idea of Kabir spending time with his family, his children. She’d call her and demand to speak with him. And with Kabir, that seemed to be the first nail in the coffin. The two went on a trip to Europe, and that’s when Kabir Bedi was lapped up for the tv show that many in the western world know him for: Sandokan. The Italian show where he played an Indian prince-turned-pirate who roamed the seas of Borneo, turned Kabir into an international sensation. He was away from Parveen for longer and longer periods of time. Work kept him at bay, and the absences seemed to work her up and drive a wedge into the relationship. Ironically, it was in Venice that the two spoke about it and considered splitting up. Finally, in 1977, Parveen Babi returned to India. They had called it quits.

That year, Parveen had her first and one of the biggest hits of her career, Amar Akbar Anthony. She was the flavour of the season and filmmakers – quite literally – lined up at her doorstep. This was also the time when Parveen Babi fell in love with a young flop filmmaker named Mahesh Bhatt.

“At night, I finished this tape recording and I couldn’t sleep. And then Kabir Bedi was somehow prominent in my consciousness. So I picked up this goddamn phone and I dialled his number in London. And at night, I couldn’t get him on the line.
And then, um when I got up in the morning, I rang him up. He said, “Hello”, and I said (booming), “Kabir!” and he said, “Hello” and I said, “Kabir?” (louder) so he said, “Oh Jojo, how are you? I said, “I’m fine.” I didn’t know what to say so I just said, “Happy Diwali to you!””

The reluctant filmmaker

Mahesh was still in his teens when his mother urged him to go out and earn some moolah to support his father. Father Nanabhai Bhatt was known for seedy swashbuckling actioners and mythologicals. He had married twice, and Mahesh was the son of his second wife, Shireen Mohammad Ali (Rings a bell? Yes, Zakhm was inspired from Mahesh Bhatt’s life) . Egged on by his mother and to supplement family income, Mahesh Bhatt started assisting the illustrious Raj Khosla. He worked with Khosla on Mera Gaon Mera Desh, among others and in seven years, he was directing his own film, starring Kabir Bedi: Manzilein Aur Bhi Hain (1974). Three more films followed and sank in quick succession: Vishwasghaat, Naya Daur and Lahu Ke Do Rang. Mahesh was branded a flop filmmaker. But the rebel in him refused to conform, much less give in. His incredible self-belief and candour shines through in these lines that he spoke in an interview for Stardust:

“True, I haven’t made a single worthwhile film to date. I’m not saying this just because an artiste is never supposed to be satisfied – that’s bullshit. My films were bad – it’s a fact I admit readily. But if someone says I don’t know my job, I beg your pardon.  I am superior to many directors who are successful today. I genuinely feel superior – they also feel that about me. I run down certain successful directors for the kind of films they make. I respect other successful directors and have tried to learn from them to enhance my own superiority. So now, I am at par with them. Look, the fact that I have survived in spite of my flops, shows that people believe there is something in this joker. I keep getting work all the time, yet I’ve never gone to any producer for films.”

In the same interview, he also talks about his forthcoming film, Ab Meri Baari starring Rishi Kapoor, Rekha and Dev Anand. Ab Meri Baari was originally launched with these gentlemen and Parveen Babi in the lead, only to be replaced by Rekha later. Considering the cast, it’s a pity the film never got made.

During this period, Mahesh started dabbling with spirituality. Osho aka Rajneesh aka Chandra Mohan Jain was at the height of his popularity back then. Mahesh Bhatt, accompanied by Vinod Khanna, became a follower of Osho. Spirituality also seems to be one of the things that brought Mahesh and Parveen together.

Parveen oozed glamour and sensuality, but that didn’t make her just another glam girl. She had strong spiritual and philosophical leanings. And maybe that’s what brought these drifting souls together. But by now Mahesh was married. His romance with Lorraine Bright aka Kiran Bhatt formed the basis for Aashiqui, and also depicted in the much-acclaimed Janam (in which Mahesh and Lorraine were played by Kumar Gaurav and Shernaz Patel respectively.)

But the heart wants what it wants, when it wants. Mahesh had fallen for Parveen Babi, hook line and sinker. And Parveen clutched on to him like he was her last straw. And she was right. This was the time she kept spiralling deeper and deeper into her paranoia, and he stood by her through it all. She also begun recording cassette tapes addressed to Mahesh Bhatt, chronicling her state of mind. Vinod Khanna, a fellow Osho disciple, was a close confidante and liaison between the two, who used to deliver these tapes.

It was in ’79 that Mahesh witnessed a major attack for the first time. He came across Jamal Babi – Parveen’s mother – in the corridor of her Juhu flat, distraught and afraid. Parveen had squeezed herself in a small corner of her room, moving like a feral creature, knife in hand. Mahesh tried to act normal and asked her what was happening. She whispered, the room is bugged and they are going to bring the chandelier down on her. She led Mahesh out of the house, as an utterly despondent Jamal Babi looked on.

“I, I don’t know what to say Misha. I need you because I am incomplete. I am not total complete in myself. I … I’ve been feeling very lonely (tearfully) been feeling that, not vacuum, but this, I’ve been feeling empty. I’ve been feeling restless, I’ve been feeling frantic. And I’ve been watching it. And I’m waiting for you Mahesh. That’s all I can say, my love. I’m waiting. Good night.”

From then on, things only went south. Mahesh called up Kabir and Danny, and they confirmed they knew of her condition. Kabir recommended some doctors from UK. Danny was also a big help – Mahesh took her to his place from time to time, to calm her down. Psychiatrists diagnosed her with Paranoid Schizophrenia, and prescribed drugs as well as electroconvulsive treatment (ECT) – shock therapy in common parlance.

Her paranoia about Big B kept getting worse and worse. She made them dismantle the air conditioning to prove there were no bugs in her room. She went with Mahesh to Mehboob Studio to apologise to Mr. Bachchan so that he’d forgive her (and thereby stop terrorising her). While driving back from somewhere, she screamed that there’s a bomb in the car and she could hear it tick. She flung the door open and ran out of the car in fright, Mahesh hot in pursuit.

Ramesh Sippy’s set for Shaan was gargantuan, and extremely expensive. By this time Parveen’s situation was public knowledge and the producers were visibly worried. They contacted the doctors, who suggested ECT to keep her in check. When Mahesh refused to let her undergo the painful procedure, he was accused of opportunism. Today, when one sees her waltz ever-so-gracefully to Pyar karnewaale pyar karte hain, shaan se, it’s a testament to sheer professionalism of the actor that she was walking the depths of hell and yet managed to look so resplendent.

At the time, Mahesh Bhatt’s dabbling in spirituality had led him from the communes of Osho to the shining beacon of his life, the enigmatic U.G. Krishnamurthy. In Bombay, things were heating up and he ‘ran away’ with her to Bangalore (yeah, yeah – Mumbai and Bengaluru, respectively. I know.) where U.G. was based out of. It was September of 1979. Kaala Patthar had released just a month prior.

U.G. recommended a life away from the madness. In a short while, U.G. and Parveen flew to Gstaad, Switzerland. He advised Mahesh to keep away, adding that his presence was actually facilitating her doom. “She’ll drown you with her! Take hold of your life.” he said. Mahesh Bhatt went back to Bombay and filmmaking. Something stirred inside of him, and he wanted to give vent to it by doing what he did best: make movies. But this time, it was going to be his story. Arth was about to take shape, and define the course of his career.

U. G. Krishnamurthy wrote to Mahesh expressing concern that full recovery might not be an option for her – maybe she’s doomed to a life of insanity. The fiery Parveen Babi, the sex symbol, the Bollywood diva – begged to disagree. She returned to India. Mahesh had returned to family life, but it was her.  They met again but it all came crashing down when in a tender moment of intimacy, she asked him to choose. It was either her or U. G. That was it. Mahesh Bhatt stormed out of her house, never to return again. It was raining hard. She ran out, naked, screaming out his name. Mahesh wanted to go back and comfort her but he didn’t. Something had snapped. Something that couldn’t be un-broken. It was 1980.

Then began a long, ardous journey of coping with schizophrenia, all alone. By 1983, Parveen quit acting and went to America. After spending six long years in the US, she finally returned in 1989. It was a different Parveen. She was a shadow of her former self, overweight, diabetic and as paranoid as ever. At one point, she claimed she had definitive evidence implicating Sanjay Dutt in the ’93 Bombay bomb blasts case, but didn’t turn up when the courts summoned her.

On 22 January, 2005, the cops arrived when her neighbours reported that she was unresponsive. She didn’t answer the door, she had not been picking up the milk and newspapers for three days straight. The police had to break in. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Her left foot was infected with gangrene. She hadn’t eaten anything for three days, and starved to death. A solitary wheelchair lay beside the bed, abandoned.

Most Bollywood biggies gave her funeral a miss. But there were these three men in their late fifties, haggard and worn, saying their goodbyes.

“I had this nasty feeling that I’m not going to speak to you tonight. But now the phone is ringing outside and maybe it’s you! But just have this nasty feeling that I may not be able to speak to you tonight, I don’t know why.”

[As with most Bollywood inside stories it’s impossible to know what really transpired. This piece bases itself on a number of accounts, interviews and reports from the time that one comes across online.

Parveen’s quotes are from the tapes she made for Mahesh Bhatt. A transcription of the tapes can be found here and here.]

3 Comments

  1. Jocelyn White

    August 31, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    Wonderfully informative article. Beautifully written. Thank you!

  2. Subhashis

    August 31, 2017 at 6:16 pm

    How many unknown tales lie behind the silver screen of stories… I wonder! An Article which is too Good!

  3. yutheeka

    September 3, 2017 at 11:33 pm

    this was so tragic. well written tho. i wanted to know, if you have written about any goan actors?

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