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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Parveen Babi, A Life--by Karishma Upadhyay: Break-ups and break-downs

Parveen Babi, A Life--by Karishma Upadhyay: Break-ups and break-downs

Appearing out of nowhere, Parveen Babi made her screen debut with the film Charitra, acting opposite cricketer Salim Durani, in 1973. That was not the first film she had signed, which credit goes to Dhuen Ki Lakeer, released the following year. Her career really took off with Majboor (1974, co-starring Amitabh Bachchan) and she was seen in some 58 films totally, the last one releasing in 1991, years after she had given up acting. This chronology in itself does not lend itself to a biography, but her untimely death at 51 does. As do her royal background, a string of affairs with both film and non-film personalities, her fascination for spiritual Gurus, her recurring disappearances from India that lasted months or even years, and she being a severe case of schizophrenia, or manic depression, or both.

Parveen Babi, A Life, by journalist Karishma Upadhyay (@karishmau), takes a close look at the way she functioned as an individual, her skeletal family, the men and women who stood by her through thick and thin and her live-in involvements with men, both married and single, without ever getting married to any of them. It does touch upon her films and the persons she worked with, but this is not a scholarly critique about her outstanding roles or acting techniques. Neither does it provide salacious material for those who might expect blow by blow details of her sex life. Yes, no account of Parveen Babi’s life would be complete without the affairs and the break-ups. But these are reproduced almost neutrally and vicariously. For one, none of those men would share intimate moments with a stranger (in this case her biographer), and for another, even if they did, such encounters are private, unverified, and best left that way. On the odd occasion, a glimpse is shared with the reader, like when she ran down the steps after Mahesh Bhatt, only to run back upstairs, because she realised that she wasn’t wearing anything. Incidentally, Mahesh Bhatt was neither the first man in her life, nor the last.

Born to Wali Mohammed and Jamal Bhatke, who were linked to the Babi dynasty that ruled over Junagadh (in present-day Gujarat) from 1654 to 1947, Parveen’s official date of birth is 04 April 1954. Her father passed away when she was six, and the merger of Junagadh with the Union of India meant that all her royal privileges became a thing of the past. Shy and introverted, Parveen picked up the habit of reading and writing from her mother, and there were many books that she had access to, in Gujarati, Urdu and Hindi. In 1968, she joined the St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, and stayed in its hostel. That was the time when names like Mallika Sarabhai and Achyut Vazé were active in extra-curricular activities, like theatre and dance.

Meanwhile, she was engaged to Jamil Khan, a Pakistani, who worked as a pilot with Pakistan International Airlines. Not surprising for the time, she first saw him at the engagement ceremony. But definitely surprising was Parveen writing the initial J on her wrist with her blood, using a pin! Yes, she was in love, with her fiancé. Then came her first heart-break. After the 1971 war, involving Pakistan and India and leading to the hiving off of East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh. Jamal saw this as an ominous sign, and called off the cross-border engagement. Parveen had her first cigarette towards the end of her three-year stint at Ahmedabad, a move that was to lead to a life-long addiction. The author uses a vivid expression to describe what one encountered when one came close to the actress, a “Dunhill smokescreen”!

In a quick two years afterwards, she was in Bombay, facing the arc lights. Both her initial films were disasters, her leading actors being as new as her, and the films had shoe-string budgets. Then came Majboor, in which she played Amitabh Bachchan’s attractive girlfriend, who drives around in a fancy, red, Opel. Karishma describes it as Amitabh’s biggest solo success of 1974 and Parveen’s first box-office hit. Suddenly, one could hear idle gossip in Mumbai about the new heroine called Parveen “Bobby”, who bore similarities to Zeenat Aman. Physically, the way they wore their hair was similar, and their Westernised demeanour was not very different either. However, they came from vastly different backgrounds. Zeenat was the daughter of Amanullah Khan, a film writer, and a certain Mrs. Heinz, a Hindu woman who was first married to Khan and then to somebody called Heinz, a European with whom she spent many years. Zeenat was three years older than Parveen and had made her debut about three years before Parveen. Yet, they were often spoken of in the same breath, and it was felt that a role that Zeenat could do, Parveen could do too.

Now let’s talk about the men in her life. After the engagement broke, she hooked up with a succession of the male species, and the list begins with a man who has been described thus, “Unruly waves of ebony coloured hair framed the contours of his face, set off by an angular jaw.” No, he was not an actor, nor was he a film director. His name was Neville Damania, and he was the front-man and bassist in the band Purple Flower. For the first time, Parveen was in a relationship, and wanted to marry Neville after doing Charitra. Neville’s father and her own mother had opposed her decision to join films, but she went ahead. It was during her keeping company with that the bohemian girl was born. She was still in Ahmedabad then. The marriage did not take place because, by then, Neville had “other priorities”. Cut to page 56, where Danny Denzongpa, a single man, and Parveen met, and exchanged phone numbers. He introduced her to serious cinema, both Indian and foreign, and this, along with the intensive workshop that Roshan Taneja (who taught acting at FTII before opening his own school in Bombay) had conducted at the behest of Kishore Sahu, who made Dhuen Ki Lakeer, opened her eyes to the wide world of film appreciation and studied performances.

After a live-in relationship with Danny that lasted about two years, Parveen moved out of his apartment, telling him that she was attracted to his friend Kabir Bedi, even as Kabir’s marriage to Protima was falling apart, but it was a different paradigm here: Kabir had two growing children. In 1975, Kabir moved into her apartment. Kabir soon tasted big success and became an international celebrity with the Italian TV series, Sandokan. Parveen put her assignments on hold and followed him all over the world, as fans swooned after the ‘pirate prince’. Kabir was not immune to female fans throwing themselves at him, and Parveen realised that she could not merely follow him around as part of his baggage. That was it. End of affair. She came back to India to enjoy the thundering success as one of the stars of Amar Akbar Anthony.

Danny had found love in a woman called Satyakim Yashpal, better known as Kim, whom he was to introduce in a psychological horror drama called Phir Wohi Raat, that he directed, released in 1980. Parveen, for some strange reason, wanted to be with the couple as often as possible, Kim, obviously, did not take kindly to this. Danny did his best to put up with her intrusions, but after all, there is a limit to how much one can tolerate in such a situation. In terms of her career, she was featured on the cover of Filmfare, and, hold your breath, Time magazine, although the cover story, titled Asia’s Frenetic Film Scene, was not centred around her. An Australian called Bob Christo, a civil engineer who some people described as an ex-mercenary, fell in love with her on seeing that picture, and came to Bombay to meet her. Eventually, he became a baddie in local films, and passed away a few years ago. With superstar Amitabh, she had done another film, called Deewar, a block-buster. She had also acquired the services of a Secretary/Manager called Ved Sharma, who would remain by her side through thick and thin. And as could be predicted, her ‘single’ status did not last long. Someone who had first met on the sets of Charitra, now filled in the void that had been created by the exit of Kabir.

His name was Mahesh Bhatt, a man in his 20s, like her, married to his teenage sweet-heart, Lorraine Bright, later renamed Kiran. His first ‘visit’ to Parveen’s house is described thus by the author, “As evening descended, the sky was littered with tiny, sparkling, stars. The hours passed by, and it was late, but neither Parveen nor Mahesh noticed.” I wouldn’t blame you if you read much more in those two lines than meets the eye. Six months into his relationship with Parveen, Mahesh told Kiran about it, and moved-in with Parveen. Earlier, she had already had her first public breakdown, post the Kabir break-up. Her mental disintegration was happening all this while, undetected, untreated. With Mahesh, she suspected that he was still seeing his wife, so she would sniff his clothes for any trace of an alien perfume, and he used that very image in the film he directed, Arth (1982). Mahesh has described himself as a leper selling images of his infected body. On another occasion, more recently, when I was present, he said that he was like a prostitute, and was selling his art (body) like one.

We are on Page 161. Parveen is terrified that she is going to be killed. Mahesh Bhatt asks her who is trying to kill her? And she replies, “Amitabh Bachchan”. She was undergoing a psychotic episode. It was surely not a bi-polar disorder. Was it manic depression or schizophrenia? I have a friend who suffers from schizophrenia and talks to me about things, people and places that have had no role in his life. Manic depressives include Francis Ford Coppola, Vincent Van Gogh, Stephen Fry and mathematician and Nobel Prize winner for Economics, John Nash. Russell Crowe played John Nash in the movie, A Beautiful Mind. Mahesh arranged for two psychiatric doctors to treat her. But soon, he was to depart from her world, leaving her in the care of his friend, the philosopher, U.G. Krishnamurti. The roller-coaster ride continued for many more years, and the last man who was close to her was from Kolkata, named Enam Pir. Parveen breathed her last on 21 or 22 January 2005 in her Mumbai apartment. She had been dead for about 24 hours when the police managed to open the door and get a post-mortem done. No foul play was suspected.

There isn’t much to celebrate about Parveen ‘Babi baby’s life, because, at best it has been told as it was, or, at worst, what Karishma Upadhyay believed it was. And it was no bed of roses. There were many more lows than highs. Since the star is no more, Karishma has obviously had to rely on media archives and some personal meetings/interactions to assemble the book. She began writing the book some five years ago, it took some three years to put-together, and the delay in publishing can be squarely attributed to the Covid pandemic.

Among the publications that have provided the meat of the stories are Stardust, Free Press Journal, Telegraph, The Illustrated Weekly of India, Filmfare, Star & Style, Movie. Personalities quoted are too numerous to be listed here. Obviously, she has had the advantage of writing about a personality who passed away in the new millennium, which meant that a lot of persons who knew her are still alive, though, I guess, a few, like Vinay Sinha, producer and Secretary of Amjad Khan, might have left us even before the book saw the light of day.

It is mostly easy reading, without being pedestrian, and you do have to consult a thesaurus occasionally. Did you know what higgledy-piggledy (sometimes written without the hyphen) means? And some of you might think that swatch is only a brand to be worn on your wrist. Think again. The biography includes a brief intro to Parveen, praise for Babi, a dedication, a quote from Dylan Thomas, a preface, 30 chapters without titles, an epilogue, a filmography listing 58 films and acknowledgements. In 300 pages, the paperback (apparently, there is a hardcover edition too) has several pictures, but only those on the cover are in colour. The type-face is easily legible and the spacing is generous.

A few observations, to sum up: Kai po che is a Gujarati term that means “I have cut”. Although Chetan Bhagat’s book spells it this way, the correct, phonetic spelling is ‘Kaipo chhey’. Salim Durani spells his surname with a single r, which is phonetically wrong, but after all, it is his name. There are two Babboo/Babbu Mehras in the film industry, both mentioned in the book. To differentiate, one is the son of producer-director Prakash Mehra while the other is the son of actor-production designer Jankidas, who was producing the aborted multi-sarrer film Chamatkaar. The dubbing studio owned by Prakash Mehra was called Sumeet. The actress who is referred to as Kanchan Matto is Kanchan Mattu, and is the daughter of producer-director Jagmohan Mattu, who was Mr. Ameen Sayani’s brother-in-law. Shaan was a non-starter, and declared a flop very early. These minor hiccups do not detract from the inherent readability of the book at all.

Though the price is not mentioned on the copy that Karishma sent me for review, it is available in the Rs. 400-500 range, on websites like Amazon and Flipkart. Do you buy that?

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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