“Parveen Babi lived life by her own rules”
Author of the memoir Parveen Babi – A Life, Karishma Upadhyay, reveals how mental health issues can plague even the most successful.
Bold and bohemian, Parveen Babi symbolized the ‘free spirit’ of the ‘70s. Unapologetic about her lifestyle and unabashed about her relationships, she came across as a woman who lived by her heart.
But sadly, the superstar grappled with a fragile mind.
A mind, which couldn’t withstand the scrutiny that came with stardom. A mind that couldn’t handle the insecurity that each relationship was fraught with. A woman, who retreated into an alternate reality when the immediate became too threatening.
Author Karishma Upadhyay has chronicled the life and times of the tragic star with empathy and dignity. Minutely researched, Parveen Babi: A Life, is not just about her descent into madness, it’s as much about her hard-earned ascent to fame.
Here are some excerpts from a chat with the writer.
What made you attempt a book on such a controversial figure as Parveen Babi?
I didn’t know much about Parveen Babi. When the publishing house (Hachette India) approached me, a friend of mine, who belonged to the ‘70s, urged me to take it up.
My initial research revealed that though Parveen had quit the industry twice, the best of directors and banners were still willing to work with her, even if they had lost money due to her disappearance. Perhaps, it was her basic professional discipline that made them bet on her.
That fascinated me. I’ve tried to give equal weightage to her career in the book as well.
What were the challenges you faced while writing the book?
It’s been long since Parveen passed away. Neither is anyone from her family whom you could trust – people who wouldn’t lie about her. I had to crosscheck the various stories.
For instance, a college friend of her’s said that she did drugs, while some said she never touched drugs. Then some friends, as mentioned in the book, said that she had the habit of piling up dirty clothes in the hostel. I had to double check that.
There was a lot of information that I had to edit out as it couldn’t be authenticated. I reached out to Alumni Association of St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad.
That’s how I came to know Jyotsna, her friend and senior by one year in college and Donald, who remained one of Parveen’s closest friend.
What’s been the response like?
I have received praise from fellow journalists and editors. But most importantly, Parveen’s fans have remarked that the book has dealt with her condition empathetically. Also, that it was incredibly well-researched. That was my mission. People assumed it would be scandalous. But I’ve just stated the facts. It’s up to people to make their own inferences.
There are also those who felt that Parveen’s story was told from the lens of the men in her life. Some said that her films should have been touched upon more. I’m open to criticism. Everyone has their own viewpoint.
Late producer Johny Bakshi described the scene beautifully to me. He said at the kabrastan (Parveen's funeral), there were few people. But when he turned around, he saw the three men, Danny Denzongpa, Kabir Bedi and Mahesh Bhatt, standing together. He thought it was an extremely powerful moment!
What did you discover about her as a woman?
Once she tasted freedom after leaving her hometown Junagadh to study in Ahmedabad, Parveen went on to live life by her own rules.
Even after her psychotic breakdown, in a certain way, she still chose to live life her way. People say she was so successful, so beautiful. So how she could be so ill! But people with schizophrenia can seemingly lead normal lives.
Our understanding about the condition is limited. Parveen painted in those years, she wrote out legal documents in legal language – though of course that was part of her mental state. I also realised that people still love her years after she’s gone. That she had garnered a lot of goodwill.
Even producers, who had lost money due to her illness, spoke warmly about her.
While writing the book, were you emotionally affected by your subject and her travails?
One of my trainings as a journalist demands that you keep yourself emotionally distanced.
But I did feel incredibly sad at the thought that her body lay unclaimed in the morgue with other unclaimed bodies of people who had died in accidents.
Admirably, the three men in her life – Danny Denzongpa, Kabir Bedi and Mahesh Bhatt – were all present at her funeral.
Late producer Johny Bakshi described the scene beautifully to me. He said at the kabrastan, there were few people. But when he turned around, he saw the three men, Danny, Kabir and Mahesh, standing together. He thought it was an extremely powerful moment.
All three had played significant roles in Parveen’s life. Danny had continued his friendship with Parveen even through her mental illness. With Kabir, she had the opportunity to witness a world beyond Bollywood. And Mahesh was the one who had first recognised her illness and helped her in every way he could.
How can her obsession with Amitabh Bachchan be explained?
What I got to understand through my conversations with Mahesh and Danny was that Amitabh Bachchan was the No. 1 hero and she wanted him to be part of her career. Having said that, the signs of her obsession were there even before she had to drop out of Silsila (1981) as is mentioned in the book.
Even today mental health in the film industry is a matter of debate…
It’s important to talk about and understand mental health. Families ignore it, hide it.
A person can suffer mental health issues in any industry. But the scrutiny in showbiz is much more as is the uncertainty as compared to a corporate job.
So, here the probability of facing mental health problems is more. Mental illness is also genetic. If you have the tendency, then it becomes even more difficult in showbiz.
What makes the journey worthwhile?
When people write to me saying that the book was waiting to be written, all the madness of the years seems worthwhile.
My deadline for writing this book was a year. It stretched to three years. Then it was to be launched in January this year.
But it was finally released now in this scenario – where there’s a parallel ongoing debate on mental health. This is uncanny.