Mumbai journalist Karishma Upadhyay took three years to research and write Parveen Babi: A Life, which has been published by Hachette India. The biography has been released at a time when a debate rages about dead celebrities, mental illness, the dark side of showbiz, and the role of the media in building up and tearing down actors.
On the surface, there is little to connect Babi’s demise on January 20, 2005, and Sushant Singh Rajput’s death on June 14 this year. While Babi, a major star in Hindi films in the 1970s and 1980s, died from natural causes, Rajput died by suicide. (The Central Bureau of Investigation is looking into allegations of abetment of suicide and embezzlement). Yet, there are some elements in common. Babi struggled with schizophrenia through much of her career, leading to episodes of debilitating paranoia, breaks from the sets and turbulent off-screen relationships. Rajput, by several accounts, was dealing with bipolar disorder before his death.
One figure bizarrely connects the stars and their tragic trajectories. Babi returned to India in the mid-1980s after undergoing treatment in the United States, a bloated and nearly unrecognisable version of her former self. Her co-star Amitabh Bachchan was fixated in her troubled mind as her biggest adversary, somebody whom she claimed had repeatedly tried to kill her and interfere with her relationships.
In 2002, she repeated many of her paranoia-fuelled allegations against Bachchan when the actor Shekhar Suman interviewed Babi for his talk show. Sensational, exploitative and unfeeling about Babi’s condition, Suman’s interview further solidified the image of her as an unhinged mess.
After Rajput’s death, Suman was among the people who speedily inserted himself into the conversation, making statements on behalf of the departed actor and even travelling to Patna to meet Rajput’s grief-stricken father. Karishma Upadhyay’s fluidly written and solidly researched biography eschews judgement or facile moralising, providing a vivid portrait of the severe lack of empathy faced by a woman with a serious mental condition.
The book contains Babi’s voice, reproduced from her own writings and interviews, as well as insights provided by key figures in her life, including her friend and costume designer Xerxes Bhatena and men with whom she had romantic relationships, Danny Denzongpa, Mahesh Bhatt and Kabir Bedi. We learn about Babi’s childhood and formative years, her entry into modelling and the film industry, the early warning signs of schizophrenia that were dismissed as character tics, and the descent into all-consuming illness.
“Parveen’s life was like a mirror that shattered into a million pieces,” Upadhyay writes. “Each shard had its own little story – of beauty, fame and fortune; of hard work, determination and humility. It was the shadow cast by her illness that would never allow the mirror to be put back together and made whole again.”
In an interview with Scroll.in, Upadhyay talks about the efforts that went into reassembling the shards into a portrait of an actor who lived life on her own terms, however difficult they may have been.
Who is the Parveen Babi we will meet in your biography?
A real person, flesh-and-blood with contradictions, ambitions and aspirations – she was all of that.
The book is extremely well-researched. We learn of Parveen Babi’s childhood in Junagadh, her years as a student at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad, her initial career as a model. How challenging was it to unearth these details?
The book has missed so many deadlines. But it didn’t feel right as a reporter – you had to make sure you had done everything possible.
It took me nearly two years to dig out her early years. One of the first things I tried figuring out was who was still around from her immediate family. Her mother [Jamal] passed away before she did. She lost her father [Wali Mohammed Khanji] when she was a kid. She was the only child.
I started asking around with people who had worked with her. Everybody spoke of this one gentleman called Javed, who was her cousin’s son and who had been with her mother from the time he was 10. Javed was very reluctant to talk, but over a period of time, I guess I wore him down.
I also went to Ahmedabad and met her friends from college. I went to Gangtok to interview Danny Denzongpa, and to Pune to meet Amol Palekar [Babi’s co-star in Rang Birangi, 1983].
The book has around 60 people who have been quoted. I spoke to over a hundred. There were people who spoke to me, and then people who refused point blank too.
What impression did Parveen Babi make on her acquaintances?
One of the earliest bits I got to know about was her fantastic memory. When people talk about her, they talk about the glamorous bits, but also the intelligent and well-read side.
People who had known her spoke of her very fondly. Everybody said how cultured and intelligent she was. She could hold conversations on everything from pop culture to philosophy. It says a lot about her – there were enough people who genuinely loved working with her. I spoke to a cameraman for two hours, who told me how she would lift lights on the sets and remember the name of every light boy.
There were others who dismissed her as, woh to pagal thi [She was insane]. These people supplemented that with, she was an alcoholic, led a promiscuous life, and was on drugs all the time.
How did you sift the innuendo and gossip from the facts?
Those were the things I was very careful about. Memories are tricky. It’s not like people remember things the way they are meant to be. If somebody told me she had a certain habit, I would get other people to tell me something similar to confirm it. For instance, somebody from her college told me she was a drug addict at the age of 16. I asked around, and then ten people told me she wasn’t. I decided to go with the majority. A lot was removed that wasn’t backed by enough substantial evidence.
Were you a fan of Parveen Babi before you started working on the biography?
I had seen the bigger ones as a kid. But I am quite ashamed to say that I knew very little of her.
When an editor from Hachette approached me, what got me interested was that she was the only actor I can think of who left the industry and then came back pretty much as she had left. Showbiz is fairly unforgiving, but there must have been something special in there.
By the end of the research, her struggle with mental health stuck with me. It is incredibly sad – she didn’t have enough people around her who could help her get the treatment she needed.
How did you maintain your distance from your subject?
I have spent 20 years in the business. I don’t fangirl even otherwise.
Having said that, I felt a deep sense of responsibility because she isn’t around and there are other people telling her story. And because of the mental health bit, the more I read about how the industry and media reacted to her struggle, I realised that it hasn’t changed at all. We still believe that somebody so beautiful couldn’t be suffering from a mental illness. I felt a sort of responsibility to get that story out as accurately as possible. I have heard of actors who are afraid to go to psychiatrists. We really need to work towards not having this stigma.
Much of what we know about Parveen Babi was through film magazines of the period. You write about how an issue of ‘Stardust’ in 1979 said that Babi was like ‘an object aimlessly hurtling through space’. What do you make of the media coverage?
The media at that time was smaller, but they were incredibly catty. Actresses would be called sex kittens, for instance. I read a headline about them being braless in films. How is this even allowed?
Initially journalists were confused by who she was. They couldn’t handle the fact that there was no chaperone, she didn’t hide her boyfriend, and she would be sitting on the sets and smoking. As the talk about her behaving strangely increased, they were harsh. It was all very sensational and over the top.
There was one article in which director Prakash Mehra said she was faking it, her illness was a hoax.
Prakash Mehra, outraged that Parveen Babi is missing from his movie’s sets, says, ‘She is a liar and a cheat. Her only intention is to ditch her producers and leave the country.’ Her former boyfriend Mahesh Bhatt, on the other hand, was deeply supportive.
Mahesh Bhatt was the first person in her life who realised that something was wrong. He mobilised support and said, we need to help her.
From what I could make out, the relatives I met didn’t refer to her illness as an illness. They would call it a problem. Even her mother thought she was possessed. There had to be someone to take charge.
Danny Denzongpa, Parveen Babi’s first boyfriend in the film industry, is remarkably frank in his interview.
Danny had almost never spoken about her in the past. He is incredibly private as a person. It took me a good six months to get through to him. We spent a few hours in his home in Gangtok, where he spends most of his time. He was quite candid. I didn’t know him at all and I am glad he did the interview.
Parveen Babi was, at best, a competent performer, and was better known more for her screen presence. How did you even out her lack of a discernible body of work with her struggle with mental illness?
Regardless of how she performed, she was a part of some very successful films. Her legacy, which is intertwined with Zeenat Aman’s, went a long way in changing how we look at heroines, how they were portrayed, and even how they dressed.
I wanted to balance the earlier bits with what the directors thought of her, her work ethic and her diligence. I wanted to make sure that we don’t just see her as someone who suffered from a mental illness, but also remember her as an actress.
What do you hope the book will do for the debate about mental illness in the film industry?
There was so much gossip about her that if I meet even one person tomorrow who says, I thought she did drugs and she didn’t, I will be very happy.
I don’t know if we have had celebrity biographies that talk about the person’s mental health issues in so much detail. I am hoping the book will dispel some of the myths that people have about who can get affected and what are the larger repercussions.
My place is not to judge. Let the reader walk away with what they want to walk away with. At the end of the day, what makes people do what they do? Nobody really knows.
With Parveen Babi, there is always the ‘what if’ question – what would have been if she didn’t have schizophrenia?
Could she have become an artist? A writer? An interior decorator? Or led a quiet life where no one recognised her and she lived the way she wanted to live? What if – I don’t know.