With unconventional roles that were somewhat fiercely individual, Babi broke from the stereotype of the “good woman” who was often rescued or accepted by the lead hero. Instead of trying to hide her unapologetic, fearless image for want of an uncontroversial public life, she embraced it. Babi, often called a bohemian rhapsody by critics, fans and authors alike, was not governed by her mental illness or just by her modern roles, but by her charm, wit, ability to take a stand, and her well read, thoughtful persona. In this sense Babi was truly a woman who lived life on her own terms, no holds barred.
“I come from the Nawab family of Junagadh but I was born after 1948, and the princely states were already dissolved by then. I never forgot that I was a product of independent India and a democratic India.”
In an interview with Shekhar Suman on his hit show Simply Shekhar, Parveen Babi said, “She was a westernized girl always” and that “Her self image was westernized“. And so she, along with Zeenat Aman brought forward a side of Bollywood beauties that was bohemian, sexually liberated and adventurous with their anglicized hindi, chic style statements and no holds barred, unconventional roles. At a time when women smoking and drinking was still considered a taboo, Babi played women who not only smoked and drank, but also indulged in premarital sex. In her own words—”In those days, smoking and drinking was quite a taboo. I found that very hypocritical because everyone, including senior stars would indulge in it. I could not understand these double standards because I never believed in hiding things.“
The very definition of the bohemian 70s baby, Parveen was a self professed westernized girl with a love for Hollywood flicks. With her long legs and lustrous hair, she became the sex symbol of the time along with Zeenat Aman. The scene with her frolicking on a beach wearing a bikini in ‘Yeh Nazdeekian‘ was the stuff technicolor dreams were made of. The song ‘Pyar Karne Wale‘ from ‘Shaan‘ featured Babi in a sequin white gown with a plunging neckline which was unconventional at the time of somber sarees. However, that isn’t all — the fact that she managed to shine despite the song being shot at the height of her struggle with paranoid schizophrenia shows her professionalism and love for her work. Parveen sported many trends that are still seen on B-town beauties today. Her metal headband look in ‘Ameer Aadmi Gareeb Aadmi‘ was an instant rage and can still be seen today. Slit skirts, deep necklines, bandanas, sarong skirts, bikinis; you name it, Babi donned it. Quite a stunner in a black bodycon dress in Raat Baaki Baat Baaki, Parveen sashayed and swayed, spoke with her eyes and sang about how the night was young and so were they.
Amar Akbar Anthony, though it was filmed at the height of her issues with paranoid schizophrenia, was a blockbuster that established Babi as not only an ultimate “cool girl” but also a sensuous woman whose sophisticated nonchalance was irresistible, borderline femme fatale. She had the rare distinction of being featured on a Time Magazine cover. However, a hippie by heart, Babi always listened to what it said. She followed Kabir Bedi to Italy, studied philosophy and did interior design for hotels. There was a great chasm between the fans of Parveen and fans of Zeenat, but Parveen asserted that the rivalry between Zeenat and her was made up, and that she was very confident, even as a teenager and never compared herself to anyone. She takes the credit for bringing a whole new generation of movies to Bollywood, along with Zeenat Aman. As told to Ranjeeta in 1998, there was no malice among the heroines, “We actresses, which included Zeenat, Shabana, Rekha, Neetu, Rakhee and I, were quite friendly with each other. We would sit and gossip and laugh about our wigs and the dresses we wore“. Mischievously hippie and full of life, she claimed her favourite co-star was a chimpanzee named Lulu.
Parveen‘s journey from stardom to anonymity and again stardom to a lovelorn death is one of the greatest tragedies in bollywood. In a heartbreaking autobiographical account, after mentor U.G Krishnamurthy told her she would have a break in her career, she says, “The future of my career looked sound. The only two things I didn’t think of were death or crippling ill health, but then the possibilities of such things don’t come into the head of a 25 year old, perfectly healthy, fairly successfully, glamorous movie star. These two things only happen to others!“
Sania Ansari is a student pursuing English Honors from Jamia Millia Islamia.
edited by: Rutba Iqbal