20 January 2005: Parveen Babi, Indian actress, died

Parveen Babi, a glamorous and popular Indian actress of the 1970s and early 1980s — a time when the media and society were much more judgemental of women in the film industry who came across as ‘westernized’ in the public eye — was born on April 4, 1949. She died on January 20, 2005 after recurrent battles with mental illness that lasted more than two decades.

In her short film career she acted alongside leading actors of the era such as Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in hit films like ‘Deewar and ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’.

Babi was born at Junagadh in Gujarat to a Muslim family. Her father, Vali Mohammed Babi, who was earlier employed with the Nawab of Junagadh’s administration, died when she was 10 years old. She studied at Ahmedabad’s Mount Carmel High School and St. Xavier’s College, securing an M.A. in English literature.

Parveen started her career as a model in 1972. The following year she acted in her first film ‘Charitra’. Though the film didn’t succeed at the box office, she got several offers after this. The 1974 film ‘Majboor’, in which she starred along with Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman, was a hit. Her fame also increased after she appeared on the cover of the prestigious Time magazine in July 1976.

Her roles and lifestyle reinforced her glamorous image. The British newspaper ‘The Independent’ wrote after her death in 2005: “One of Bollywood’s earliest pin-up girls, Parveen Babi captured the Bohemian essence of the 1970s. She transformed the Bollywood heroine’s image from an ethnic, sari-clad ascetic to that of an enchantress, casually flaunting her Westernised good looks and upbringing, drinking, blowing smoke rings and seeking and actually enjoying men. At a time when buxom Bollywood leading ladies were expected to sob, bob and sing, the slim leggy beauty from a Muslim royal family made her début in ‘Charitra’…in 1973 as the ‘new’ Indian woman — modern, sensitive, intelligent and independent.”

She acted alongside Bachchan in eight films, most of which were hits.  Her other films included ‘Suhaag’, ‘Kaala Patthar’, ‘Namak Halaal’ and ‘Jaani Dost’. She also appeared in a few non-mainstream films such as ‘Yeh Nazdeekiyan’.

Babi was often compared to Zeenat Aman, who also essayed similar roles and was a fashion and style icon like her fellow-actress.

The film critic Dinesh Raheja wrote in May 2003 in rediff.com: “There was a great schism in the seventies between the fans of Zeenat Aman and the fans of Parveen Babi. The two were constantly singled out for comparison because both were sex symbols who spoke anglicised Hindi, had lustrous hair and long legs, were favourites of reigning superstar Amitabh Bachchan, and had made their mark in no-holds barred, unconventional roles (Zeenat in Dev Anand’s ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’, Parveen in Yash Chopra’s ‘Deewar’).”

In 1983 Babi suddenly disappeared from the film scene. Later there were reports that she may have been suffering from a form of schizophrenia. Over the years she sporadically interacted with the media.

On January 22, 2005 her residential society in Mumbai informed the police that milk and newspapers had remained uncollected from outside her door. Investigations revealed that she may have been dead for three days.

A 2011 report in The Telegraph said: “A heap of newspapers lay scattered outside her door. Inside, Parveen Babi lay dead. When alarmed neighbours called in the police, she had been dead for three days. Her foot had turned gangrenous because of diabetes. Torn by severe mental ailments, the actress — once worshipped by millions of fans — died all by herself.”

The filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt who was once in a relationship with Babi, said after her death: “For me, Parveen died twice — the first time when she had her first mental breakdown and was with me — the personality I had known completely collapsed, like a house of cards. And now, the second time, with her physical death. I would like to remember her as the girl who brought Bollywood to the cover of Time magazine and who died an anonymous death. She made the choice. She was a generous and giving person…She never deluded herself into thinking that she was a great actress. But yes, she was an extremely hardworking actress. She was a rebel who lived life on her own terms, died on her own terms.”

Also on this day:

1940 — Uppalapati Raju, Telugu film actor, was born

1949 — Tej Bahadur Sapru, Indian lawyer and politician, passed away

1964 — Fareed Zakaria, Indian-American journalist and author, was born

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