How exactly did the media address and cover actor Parveen Babi in her last years? Unfortunately, the actor who passed away due to multiple organ failure on 20 January, 2005, had to largely deal with an insensitive and unkind press that called her names and was totally unsympathetic towards her condition. After being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in the early 80s, Parveen Babi had slowly faded away from the big screen. In the mid-70s it was Babi who along with Zeenat Aman gave the Hindi film heroine a new bohemian face - there were leading ladies who smoked, drank, wore bell bottoms, skirts and danced their way to popularity.
Here’s an excerpt from the recently published book Parveen Babi: A Life by Karishma Upadhyay, where the author delves into the press coverage of Babi’s life after she made news again in 2002:
On 14 July 2002, she filed an affidavit, claiming to have in her possession highly incriminating documentary evidence against actor Sanjay Dutt for his alleged involvement in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blast cases. Gulf News reported on 20 August 2002, ‘She has alleged that a conspiracy to acquit Dutt was hatched by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and that various international intelligence agencies were behind the bomb blasts, with Dutt being a pawn in their hands.’
The affidavit named a host of co-conspirators – the US, UK and Indian governments, intelligence agencies like the CBI, the ISI, the CIA and the British secret service, Amitabh Bachchan, Prince Charles and founder of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray – who were also apparently trying to kill her.
Parveen had lived through the last decade in relative obscurity. But Sanjay Dutt’s trial in the TADA court was one of the most high-profile cases anywhere in the country at the time and her allegations in relation to it were outrageous. They were bound to have repercussions, one way or the other. The relentless eye of the media had once again come to rest on her. What was different this time was that the focus was entirely on her mental state. And no one was pulling any punches. In articles that reported on the case, Parveen was described as a ‘crack’, a ‘sex kitten’ turned ‘conspiracy theorist’ and just plain ‘pagal’ (insane).
By this time, people had forgotten about Parveen Babi the actress, and thought of her only as a crazy woman who caught the public eye every once in a while by making wild allegations. Just as Jamal had feared, her daughter had become a joke.
There were only a few interviews, like Rohit Khilnani’s for the Indian Express, which truly captured Parveen’s troubled mind with empathy. Every journalist worth his byline has to jump through hoops to get the interview he wants. In Parveen’s case, these hoops always came across as extreme. For the Indian Express interview, published on 14 August 2002, Khilnani was first asked to read the eighteen-page affidavit, the twenty-two-page petition and the thirty-three-page complaint Parveen had drafted, all of which were attested by her, before they were handed over. She insisted that he record the interview on a tape recorder and that the accompanying photographer Mahendra Parekh carry ‘two umbrella flashes and a digital camera – because digital cameras give you the best pictures’. After the photo session, Parveen used her own camera to click a photo of Khilnani and Parekh ‘just for the record’.
Even as she was plagued by hallucinations and delusions, there was no denying that Parveen was still highly functional. For the petition she had filed in the TADA court, she didn’t have a lawyer representing her. ‘Filing an affidavit is a complicated process and certainly not a madman’s job,’ she said during the interview for the Indian Express. ‘I conduct all my legal activism myself. I draft my legal documents myself and I take all legal decisions. This should be enough to prove my sanity.’ Parveen pointed to the hundreds of notebooks, each filled, from start to finish, in her own handwriting, with all the ‘evidence’ she had collected.
Signs of the innate intelligence and photographic memory that had helped her learn a new language in college, do well in exams and learn her dialogues as an actress were still intact.
The Indian Express interview conducted by Khilnani turned out to be one of Parveen’s last, where she talked about her bitterness towards her former colleagues and said it was justified. ‘I never severed ties with the film industry. They broke their ties with me… They didn’t respond to my phone calls or my party invitations. They didn’t even invite me to their parties.’ She confessed that she had become a recluse. ‘I’m not in touch with anyone. Occasionally, I might bump into someone I have known, and I might say hello, but I have no friends at all.’
Her brief tryst with the spotlight, yet again, in connection with the Sanjay Dutt trial had consequences Parveen wasn’t prepared for. The courts had dismissed her petition and the media had branded her insane. The bitter aftertaste pushed her deeper into the shadows.
The only time she stepped out of her home now was when her landline phone wasn’t working. At these times, she’d go down to the building manager’s office to make all her calls. She was suspicious of everyone except a handful of people like Enam Pir, the priests of All Saints Church, Ved Sharma and his son Lalit, her building’s watchmen and, inexplicably, a handyman who painted homes in her neighbourhood. The joke in the building was that every time this painter had no work, he would land up at Parveen’s home and offer his services. She was such a bleeding heart that she’d give in without hesitation, asking him to repaint a wall in her home that required no touching up at all.
It was these people who had become her community and her only links to the outside world.
Excerpted with permission from Parveen Babi: A Life by Karishma Upadhyay, published by Hachette India, Rs. 599
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