I will always remember how I chanced upon Parveen Babi for the first time — there she was shimmering in gold in Raat baaki, baat baaki; hota hain jo, ho jaane do... on Doordarshan’s Chitrahaar on a sultry Wednesday evening. And with that, I had discovered someone who could eclipse my all-time favourite 70-80s Hindi film heroes Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan on-screen. So, when I heard that fellow journalist Karishma Upadhyay was ready with Babi’s biography, Parveen Babi: A Life, I had to engage her and learn about the book and its alluring subject.
Truth be told, when Upadhyay revealed that up till the time of starting on the book she hardly knew about the films or personal life of Babi, I was surprised. Aside from the fact that she was the first Bollywood personality to grace the Time Magazine, main edition’s cover, “the first thing that struck me about her was that she made successful comebacks after quitting films — twice,” she avows. “And, each time, the best filmmakers wanted to work with her. There had to be something special about her that directors like Manmohan Desai and Yash Chopra wanted to work with her over and over again. That’s what got me interested.”
However, I am glad to learn that, now, she too has her favourites’ list. “There’s a funny scene that I love from Kaalia, where she’s being coached by Mr Bachchan’s character to cook an omelette. And then, there’s her character from Deewaar that I’ve come to appreciate so much more now. Everyone talks about the ‘Angry Young Man’ but Babi’s Anita really changed how we see female leads in movies. The kind of economic and sexual autonomy her character has in the film was pretty ground-breaking for those times.”
Shining truth like the summer sun
Having sunk in three years of research in the book, Upadhyay recalls that from the hundred odd interviews she has conducted her most special one “would be the one with Danny Denzongpa. He’s a private person and it took me months to convince him to open up. Somewhere he realised that I was genuinely invested in telling Babi’s story as authentically as possible. So, I would travel to his home outside Gangtok and he spent hours sharing his Babi memories.”
“Of the things that I learnt about her, the bit that surprised me,” she divulges, “was to know about how intelligent and well-read she was. All her childhood friends mentioned her photographic memory, something very few people know about. Then there’s this lovely anecdote about when Amol Palekar introduced Babi to celebrated playwright Badal Sarkar. She had made her theatre debut with one of his plays and spent hours discussing theatre and literature with them.” Who would have thought that this glamour gal had a rich literary side too? And that’s not all! “The biggest misconceptions about her were that she was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and led a promiscuous life — none of which are true. I hope the book dispels them,” Upadhyay affirms.
Babi’s charming candidness: A boon or a bane
When she started writing the biography, Upadhyay’s lack of knowledge about Babi helped her stay objective. Now, however, she believes Babi’s contribution to Hindi films and our celebrity culture is simply not discussed enough. “She might not have been the best actress of her generation but on-screen, she was a part of some classic moments that include songs like Raat Baaki and Jawani Janeman. Her characters in films like Deewaar and Razia Sultan were considered bold at the time. Off screen, she was as fearlessly candid about her life; living life on her own terms.”
The book elucidates how, at first, Babi was indeed the darling of the media thanks to her novelty- she’d invite people home and was friendly with the then film journalists. “Her newsworthiness, however, became a double-edged sword because she had set these high expectations. When she needed and wanted privacy after her breakdowns, the lack of news from her end would inevitably set the rumour mills ablaze. Reading these stories couldn’t have been good for her already delicate state of mind,” her biographer’s words reveal her fondness for Babi.
Upadhyay is as gentle in the book about all parties and sides involved. It’s objective, fact-led and information-rich — just the right badges to make a journalist proud. But that made me wonder, in keeping with this purpose-laden quality of the tome, did we miss the very visceral aims and instincts of humans (and, thereof, the industry) that cannot be logically explained - such as envy, jealously, treachery, fickleness, etc.?
Like her subject, Upadhyay has veered off the path of journalism many times only to return “because at heart I’m a reporter. I enjoy talking to people and digging out nuggets of information. And, that’s the aspect of writing this book that I enjoyed the most,” she admits. I’m glad she did, because the book published by Hachette is indeed a lovely read of an atypical career that bloomed when it was not meant to and faded when it was most wont to flourish.