Released within six months of each other, both Charitra and Dhuen Ki Lakeer sank without a trace. The critics weren’t kind to either film. Dhuen Ki Lakeer, the love triangle with a murder angle, was described as ‘uniformly bad from the word “go”’. In the Free Press Journal of 19 May 1974, there was also a mention of Parveen ‘in the most atrocious of outfits and hairstyles’. In Ishara’s film with a social message, however, the reviewers were kinder to the actress. ‘Parveen Babi’s debut is promising,’ said the Free Press Journal in its 11 November 1973 issue. ‘The girl has the makings of a good actress if she can keep her head and not be misled down superstarry alleys.’
Quick learner that she was, Parveen had already picked up the ways of showbiz. She knew that she must ‘always deflect failure’ by adopting the lofty stance that ‘art trumps commerce’, when called upon to explain her association with a flop film and justify her poor performance in it.
‘Charitra was not a commercial film – I knew that from the outset – but I took the role because it had good characterization and people have liked my performance,’ she told Stardust during an interview that was published in the magazine’s September 1974 issue. ‘Dhuen Ki Lakeer was my first signed film. I had a stubborn director who gave me no scope for expression. I had no make-up man. I was forced to wear clothes that didn’t suit me one bit – it was inevitable that the film flopped.’
Parveen and her newly hired secretary Ved Sharma weren’t too worried about the poor performances, because even while she was shooting with [BR] Ishara in Poona, Bollywood was buzzing about her in Bombay. At the screening of Charitra for its potential distributors, the film met with little enthusiasm, but the select audience was bowled over by Ishara’s ‘discovery’. The buzz was that Parveen, not the film, was ‘selling’.
What helped in her campaign for winning over the not- so-easily-pleased Bollywoodwallas was the media, which had already fallen in love with her. Hard-nosed, cynical journalists, who were used to flitting from star homes to movie sets, couldn’t decide what to make of this actress who openly chain-smoked during interviews and didn’t bother to hide her glass of wine at parties. What was most refreshing, however, was the fact that they didn’t have to wade through a sea of obstructive secretaries or bossy, protective star-mothers to interview her. And then there was her fledgling romance with Danny Denzongpa that she was completely unabashed about.
Filmfare put Parveen on the cover of its 11 January 1974 issue with Rishi Kapoor, another newcomer who had made waves the previous year with Bobby, his first film as a leading man. The half-page profile began in the following manner: ‘Parveen Babi returned from the shooting at Manali, went to Danny Denzongpa’s flat in Juhu and to bed – with a cold. Danny is very sick with jaundice, by the way. She met us unflinchingly at the flat – all credit to her – and said the recent reports about her marrying Danny weren’t true.’ The magazine did clarify, however, that ‘Parveen doesn’t quite live at Danny’s. She has a place of her own in a cottage where she is a paying guest.’
The media couldn’t get enough of her. They wanted to know everything they could about the long-haired beauty with royal antecedents. Interviewed by Stardust for its February 1974 issue, Parveen was happy to scotch rumours about being a divorcée (‘I’ve not been married, so how can I be a divorcée?’) and talk about everything from drug use (‘Yes, I’ve tried dope’) to pre-marital sex (‘All that talk about virgin brides is bull’) and her smoking habit. It took journalists quite a few years to stop harping on her nicotine addiction. There were even rumours that this was a ‘compulsive attention-getting tactic’, to which her exasperated response in the September 1974 issue of Stardust was as follows: ‘I am not an attention-getter. Nothing I say or do is to attract or distract people. I smoke because it’s a habit with me. I need it badly, something like paan-eaters. For me, smoking is like drinking a glass of water. I can’t be like the others and run to the john every time I want a fag, because then I’d be running there every half-hour.’
Parveen always spoke the truth, even while talking about the profession that would bring her fame and fortune, and her candour succeeded in disarming the most jaded film journalists of the time. In an interview with Bikram Vohra, a much respected journalist from Filmfare, ‘she confesses through a Dunhill smokescreen that nine out of ten Indian films require no talent, no anything, just a pretty face, some deadpan dialogues and a few slippery movements’. Published in the 27 December 1974 issue of the magazine, the interview also carried her startlingly candid observations on her own place in Bollywood’s scheme of things: ‘I’ve earned a lot of money for doing practically nothing… There is hardly any work; it’s very elementary. But the money is terrific; so let’s leave this art for art’s sake business out of it. I am happy as things are.’
While this was an accurate summary of what Bollywood had been demanding of its leading ladies for decades, no one had ever come out with it quite so nonchalantly in public. Parveen’s views on singing and dancing on screen were no less controversial. While shooting for her first few films, she was terribly embarrassed at the idea of singing and dancing around trees. It was only after she saw Zeenat Aman doing the same that she felt less discomfited. Quoted in the September 1976 issue of Stardust, she apparently told herself, ‘If Zeenat can do it, so can I.’
Excerpted with permission from Parveen Babi: A Life, Karishma Upadhyay, Hachette India.