Why can’t Mahesh Bhatt leave Parveen Babi alone?
Bhatt fictionalised his well-publicised affair with the Hindi movie star in his films Arth (1982) and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee (1993) and Mohit Suri’s Woh Lamhe (2006), which he wrote and produced. These endeavours contributed to an image of Babi that has been hard to shake off: emotionally volatile, clawing at the air, the archetypal casualty of showbiz pressures.
Knowledge of Babi’s struggles with schizophrenia (detailed in Karishma Upadhyay’s biography), her health problems and her lonely death in 2005 has done little to dislodge the morbid fascination about her.
The web series Ranjish Hi Sahi, which Bhatt has created for Voot, pays more attention than before to Babi’s turmoil, but is unable to entirely escape the charge of exploitation. Written and directed by Pushpdeep Bharadwaj, the eight-episode series draws largely from Bhatt’s extra-marital affair with Babi in the 1970s. Amala Paul plays the actor Amna Parvez, Tahir Raj Bhasin is the director Shankar Vats, and Amrita Puri is Shankar’s wife Anju.
A voiceover by Shankar sums up the show’s approach. All stories have a beginning and an end and it’s best to forget some portions but not everybody can, Shankar says sententiously.
Shankar is down on his luck when he runs into Amna. Labelled a flop director and frequently broke, Shankar responds eagerly to Amna’s aggressive propositioning. Amna stokes Shankar’s ego and boosts his career, but the affair begins to weigh heavily on Shankar’s conscience.
Already displaying the signs of mental illness that will ultimately consume her, Amna lashes out at Shankar’s newly discovered morality. When Amna’s public unravelling receives a medical diagnosis, Shankar finally begins to understand her better.
Both Amna and Shankar are given back stories to explain their respective agonies. If Amna has to deal with a grubby-handed mother and pervy co-stars and producers, Shankar grapples with the inter-faith marriage between his parents. Even this aspect of Mahesh Bhatt’s life has been dramatised in his film Zakhm (1998).
Bhatt’s confessional cinema was perhaps at its most honest in Arth. The movie, about an advertising filmmaker’s affair with a troubled model that wrecks his marriage, was seen though the bewildered and tear-laden eyes of the wife.
In Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee and Woh Lamhe, the focus was the obsessive and deluded woman who is ruined in part by her romantic passions. Ranjish Hi Sahi attempts to restore the balance between the main players, but ultimately ends up feeling very sorry for the filmmaker torn between the home and the bedroom.
Time-wasting sub-plots about the bad ways of the Hindi film industry only draw the bored eye to the tacky period detail and showbiz cliches. Shankar is romanticised as a hard-drinking and bold filmmaker who is punished by producers for his honesty. Tahir Raj Bhasin deserves credit for making a self-centred, hypocritical character worthy of our time and attention.
Amrita Puri has the thankless job of portraying Shankar’s long-suffering wife. The courage displayed by the heroine of Arth, who walks out on her husband and confronts him with his double standards, is missing in a series that is ultimately conservative in its treatment of extra-marital relationships.
The soul of the show is its doomed star. Once you get over Amala Paul’s uncanny resemblance to Deepika Padukone in the series, you begin to savour the empathy and warmth she brings to her portrayal.
Always on the edge and rarely in control – why don’t you want me, Amna deliriously weeps before Shankar – Amala Paul nevertheless gives Amna a semblance of humanity and dignity. Naina Sareen and Madan Deodhar play Amna’s secretary and driver, who stick by her side after nearly everybody else disappears.
Amna is defined by her love for Shankar and doesn’t have much of an existence beyond him even in her passing. Life is nothing without death, a character declares. Tell that to Parveen Babi, who, for all her troubles, was more than just Mahesh Bhatt’s lover.