What feels like a chunk of my childhood was spent in complete awe of her. Parveen Babi.
Growing up in West Asia of the 1980s, renting Hindi film VCRs at the corner store was a hugely desi predilection: nostalgia and heartache and the stuff of phone calls/dinner party chatter for my parents, and a vision of an India for me, a country that I knew was home, real home, even though I had no real memories of it since I’d left at the age of two. Plonked in the middle of a desert, in an air-conditioned room, in front of a TV that played her movies as if on loop, I was enthralled.
Shaan. Mahaan. Namak Halaal. Amar Akbar Anthony. Do aur Do Paanch. Deewar. Jaani Dost. Rang Birangi. Parveen would shine – at times literally – in movie after movie, and I’d watch them all, mesmerised by her beauty, her larger-than-life aura, her ability to command your undivided attention each time she was on screen. I’d rewind her songs and scenes – the omelette one in Kaalia, Pyaar Karne Wale in Shaan, Jawaane Jaaneman in Namak Halaal, the scene where she’d stretch and turn in black leotards, her straight black hair shimmering, her face radiant, Yeh Din Toh Aata Hai in Mahaan. She could be really funny, an absolute riot; and she could be all flashing-eyes dramatic. Her screen presence exuded unparalleled magnetism, such that she held her own across all the multiple multi starrers she was part of (including one with the reigning superstar Amitabh Bachchan in a triple role). I duly devoured it all over family-time weekends, my parents placing international calls back home during songs that seldom affected plotlines.
Parveen Babi, to me, was nothing short of electric. A vision of India for me who was a vision to behold.
Of beasts, angels, ambition and fame
Relegated to the subconscious as I grew up, Parveen came back into my life last year when I read Karishma Upadhyay’s Parveen Babi: A Life (2020), an exhaustive biography of the actor that brings to the fore, through a study of her troubled life, questions around how the systems we’ve built over time, in their strident definitions of what ‘normal’ looks like, leave little to no room for alternative identities, lives, behaviours, choices.
There was only the Pandora’s Box, housing the unknown, uncharted spectrums and territories of mental-health issues, all forcibly bundled together, lid shut tight, all labelled under paagal.
Starting on this note with a Dylan Thomas quote – “I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me”, suggesting an exploration of the multitude of identities each of us holds within ourselves – Upadhyay goes onto describe in the book’s preface her discovery of the actor’s life as “so much more than a story of fame. It’s a story of ambition and expectation, love and betrayal, obsession and mental illness”. Later in the book, when she quotes Parveen herself from a prominent magazine editorial, an adored public personality at the peak of the fame and success, the first Indian celebrity to grace the cover of TIME, there is no circling around it anymore. Parveen wrote in ‘The Confessions of Parveen Babi’, the cover story for the Illustrated Weekly of India, 1984: “I certainly did not want to go mad again.”
According to India’s National Mental Health Survey 2015–16, 10.6 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population have mental health disorders, and yet around 80 percent of them are not receiving any treatment for the same. A 2018 WHO report dispelled any doubts on the topic when it declared India the most depressed country in the world. It was as recent as 2017 that the Indian government replaced the Mental Healthcare Act (MHCA) from the 1987 Mental Health Act (MHA), which had superseded the Indian Lunacy Act of 1912. Decriminalising attempted suicide, previously punishable under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, is one of the 2017 Act’s most progressive clauses, which came into effect on 29 May 2018. Until 2017-2018, the usage of ElectroConvulsive Therapy (ECT), for instance, was considered viable even for minors, allowed by law, both of which are now prohibited.
Parveen Babi, to me, was nothing short of electric. A vision of India for me who was a vision to behold.
Furthermore, it is only in the 2017 Mental Health Care Act 2017 that ‘the stigma of mental illness’ has finally been addressed as a reality that needs tackling. This is not surprising when one considers the fact that we live in a country that has, through decades of newsprint and broadcast media, spoken about the prevalence of farmer suicides in India, at times – complete with expert analyses – in purely financial/economic terms. It is as if there has been no other lens we can equip ourselves with – as if one’s mental health is not a concern when you decide to end your life, only the value of the debt you were under at the time matters, which somehow exists in a silo separate from everything else.
The culture of shame enveloping mental illness and any talk of it is a deeply entrenched one in Hindi cinema and its workings. Depictions of mental health issues and illnesses in mainstream cinema began to see affirmative and nuanced portrayals and resonances only in recent times, with films such as Dear Zindagi (2016) and Judgemental Hai Kya (2019, (interestingly, rechristened from ‘Mental Hai Kya’ upon objection by the Indian Psychiatric Society). These are far cries from the prominent ‘paagalkhaane’ (‘lunatic asylums’) of cinema through the decades that almost always portrayed mentally unstable characters as frightening and dangerous, right up to the 2000s, with the chained-up protagonist of Tere Naam (2003).
Talking about mental illness
In recreating her life in Parveen Babi: A Life, one of Upadhyay’s struggles is in the realm of Parveen’s condition – the details of what exactly she suffered from are never too precise. There is talk of paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, but this challenge is significant, not due to the author’s research – which is extensive, including, among other things, interviews with 100 people of whom 60 are on record – but the era that the actor lived and worked in, and the larger cultures we operate in. According to the book, Parveen had consulted a psychiatrist twice in her life and had been medically diagnosed only once; she had never undertaken regular therapy or sustained medication. Her spiritual practice – she was a practitioner of the U G Krishnamurti school of philosophy – seemed to offer her solace, but it remained erratic and at odds with her profession, a constant battle in her life that remained unresolved until the very end, by which time Parveen, born a Muslim, had officially converted into Christianity.
Throughout the book, there is a sense that Upadhyay conveys of Parveen’s own fear about what was eating her up alive from the inside – the voices in her head and the extreme mood swings left her deeply confused, and the world around her either misunderstood her at best, or blamed and shamed, and took advantage of her, at worst. This glaring vacuum in culture reflected in real-time situations ranging from ex-boyfriends portraying her pain as material for their writing and producers, certain that her mysterious illnesses were excuses, conspiring to slap income-tax raids on her, barring her from leaving the country. In one poignantly recreated moment in Upadhyay’s book, she writes about a moment on set when Amitabh Bachchan walked in on a visibly unwell Parveen Babi and started parodying the situation, applying his acting chops to great effect, resulting in Parveen finally looking up “with a weak smile”. A simple joke or prank, even a fun moment played to the gallery, hiding ominous and brutal truths.
According to India’s National Mental Health Survey 2015–16, 10.6 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population have mental health disorders, and yet around 80 percent of them are not receiving any treatment for the same.
Hence, it was a landmark moment in 2015 when the popular Hindi cinema actor Deepika Padukone shared her personal struggles with depression on national television and was subsequently lauded for her valiant public confession. Her stature as a public figure went on to gain prominence, even as she was credited for bringing about a revolution in mental health narratives. The fact that all three of her releases that year were positively appraised, one even fetching her the highest commercial honour, a Filmfare Award – that ultimate litmus test for movies and those who make them – spoke of mass public acceptance too. Padukone went on to start a foundation expressly to further and deepen the cause she had signed up for, to do the work of questioning, addressing, and fighting against the stigma and taboos that abound in and around mental health in India. From this watershed moment, the timeline of celebrities, specifically Bollywood stars, addressing and embracing mental health as a legitimate need kicked off. In 2017, Anushka Sharma spoke about anxiety when she shared over social media that she had been on medication for the same, equating it to the illnesses that have mainstream acceptance and understanding – “If you had a constant stomach pain, wouldn’t you go to the doctor?” she tweeted. Since then, Hrithik Roshan has spoken about growing up with a speech impediment and how that distressed him, Ileana D’Cruz has opened up about her body dysmorphia, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas has addressed the importance of wellness, all of which has significantly contributed to public discourse of mental health and illnesses. Most recently, in May 2021, Ira Khan, Aamir Khan’s daughter, launched an organisation for mental health support.
Today, we can sign up for newsletters specifically covering the growing debates and conversations on the topic, share trendy posts that attempt to discuss the importance of mental health on our Instagram feeds and watch panel discussions on the silent mental health crises afflicting mothers. Indeed, with rumblings of content finally appearing on the interwebs that are also viewing or addressing mental-health concerns and issues at the grassroots, from the ground-up – the mobilisation of relief work during pandemic-induced lockdowns among them – it is heartening to see mental health too, finally, if slowly, finding its way into public spheres and general discourse. An idea whose time has come, one could say.
In one poignantly recreated moment in Upadhyay’s book, she writes about a moment on set when Amitabh Bachchan walked in on a visibly unwell Parveen Babi and started parodying the situation, applying his acting chops to great effect, resulting in Parveen finally looking up “with a weak smile”.
Through the late seventies and early eighties, however, which was the predominant timeline of Parveen Babi’s tryst with stardom and largely the decades that Upadhyay focusses on, there was practically little to no space in which such constructive conversations could be had. There was only the Pandora’s Box, housing the unknown, uncharted spectrums and territories of mental-health issues, all forcibly bundled together, lid shut tight, all labelled under paagal. To be paagal was most unpalatable, undesirable, unwanted – the exact opposite, you could say, of Parveen Babi the superstar.
And specifically, Parveen Babi, the female superstar. The mad man hasn’t ever been entirely invisible in both culture and life, and visibility, as we know, is the first step towards course correction. After all, we need to see a person to ‘pass the mic’ to him/her. The madwoman, on the other hand, has simply always been in the attic – a hideous, almost horrific secret never to be spoken of. They have always fared badly in Bollywood cinema too, with the institutionalising trope shown as a form of punishment for transgression, such as Damini’s fate in Damini (1993), for speaking against the patriarchy of her marital home that has no qualms normalising and ignoring the rape of a working-class woman. And there is the crazed lover from an otherwise progressive film Arth (1982), the character herself – created by Mahesh Bhatt, based on his ex-girlfriend Parveen – was shown as unhinged because that was the only resort for broken-hearted women.
Resorting to labels
Upadhyay’s careful putting together of the facts of Parveen’s life leaves no doubt that like with everything else, gender-centred power dynamics remained dominant in the mental health narrative as well. It’s like that joke about how poor men are mad, but rich men are eccentric, in a nod to another kind of power play. The gender-skew on mental health, true of contemporary India as well, is testament to this too. This was one of the reasons why Parveen put herself through a gruelling, geared-towards-high-productivity functioning lifestyle; in a drive to prove herself in a world of men ready to judge and/or abandon, Parveen stormed through her work commitments, all the while feeding the beast of fame. In 1979, a year that was tough on Parveen’s mental well-being, she had signed up for several movies, most of which were filming together – resulting in a mind-boggling volume of work that saw Parveen on the sets in the early a.m., with her makeup on, a routine she repeated day after day. It was akin to a charade that she kept up – the cracks appearing here and there, such as the moments recalled by her makeup stylist when Parveen would suddenly start crying in the middle of the process, and they would have to start all over again.
The book tells us that as a woman in the spotlight, Parveen was loved as a glamorous actor. She was often called a ‘media darling’ because her candid responses, sharp mind, and quick wit ensured that the copy pretty much wrote itself. “She confesses through a Dunhill smokescreen that nine out of ten Indian films require no talent, no anything, just a pretty face, some deadpan dialogues and a few slippery movements… I’ve earned a lot of money for doing practically nothing” (Filmfare December 1974). Moreover, her no-holds-barred sharing of her love life – the TIME feature described it quite hilariously thus, “she has publicly admitted that she has had two lovers. Some social critics claim that such behaviour has only encouraged the young to jump into bed with each other” – earned her the (downright inexplicable) ‘sex kitten’ tag. Considering how popular actors since, right from Madhuri Dixit to Deepika Padukone, have chosen to be diplomatic when asked about their boyfriends, puts this in some perspective. (In other words, the “just good friends” tag does not get old). And here back in the seventies was Parveen, casually flicking away our cultural holy cows – “If we were to marry, it would be because it’s the natural thing to do, and not because it’s a solution.” (Stardust)
But when the cracks in the narrative appeared, the gaps in the perception of what a mentally sound, hugely famous woman is, or should be, there was a glaring vacuum, an actual inability to address it. The only ways we knew how were to resort to labels that toed the line. Even when Parveen herself stated what she went through, with such perfect articulation – “Have you ever wondered what it is like to function in life, distrusting everything and everybody?” (Illustrated Weekly India); “How many people have touched insanity and come back to normal?” (Star and Style) – the world was fixated with their labels ranging from ‘the girl with the broken heart’ to the ‘sex kitten’. Public chatter in 2005 when she passed away from multiple organ failure as a result of a foot injury that she had neglected over the weeks, which had turned into gangrene, was not kind either. As a woman, Parveen was mournfully made an example of even in death – the convenient narrative of a crazy single middle-aged lady destined to die lonely ruled the news cycle. Echoing a similar sexist vibe, albeit in a different context, were the 2020 reports around the suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, which quickly spiralled from the severity of mental illness into deeply misogynist territory, with the endless news cycle of Rajput’s ‘evil, drug-peddling girlfriend’, and the media witch hunts that continue to be the flavour of the season. (Another tag that doesn’t get old).
As Upadhyay builds the life and times of Parveen in her well-researched book, other forceful truths about mental health, and our perceptions of it, come to the fore too. Those steeped in shame and fear, for instance. The almost constant harping on the public nature of Parveen’s breakdowns is laden with extreme shame, fear and mistrust. The biography opens with the dramatic sequence of Parveen threatening to jump out of a moving car and strip on the road in a demand to reroute the drive – a demand that is met with because the other occupants of the car respond with this fear and shame. These aspects continue to dominate our contemporary culture too; processing shame and fear as deep, intense personal rejections, those undergoing the suffering often resort to taking extreme steps.
The song Raat Baaki Baat Baaki from the film Namak Halal (1982)
Shifting the narrative
As an eight-year-old in Sharjah of the 1980s, watching Raat Baaki Baat Baaki, a mesmerising Parveen Babi song from Namak Halal unfold on the screen, was for me a recognition that the very emotions that make us human, also causes us to often lash out in ways devoid of humanity. Parveen’s character Nisha is a con artist employed by the villain to ensnare the business scion played by Shashi Kapoor whose name is – minus any irony – Raja Singh. She has of course actually fallen in love with him, and in this song, Nisha, who is meant to lead her ‘Raja Babu’ to his death, finds herself torn. As the song’s climax builds up, the air is rife with tension; it is writ large on Nisha’s face, the very picture of nerves, a mix of anxiety, dilemma, and sizzling sensuality. I would feel it each time I watched the song and could never understand how my parents could conduct those long-distance calls during that time. When Raja Babu responds to her whatever-will-be-will-be song – hona hai jo, ho jaane do – with his own joie de vivre, Nisha looks moved, distraught, caught between self-loathing and a task she has signed up for. Parveen plays it all so well – in her stunning black dress that catches the light as she dances, flaunting her sexy body as she sashays around the cruise-set, Nisha/Parveen cuts a tragic figure. She even makes the most unwieldy line said aloud in the middle of the song – Main tumhe kabhi marne nahi doongi Raja Babu – sound authentic, spine-chilling, heartbreaking, fateful.
The 2020 reports around the suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, quickly spiralled from the severity of mental illness into deeply misogynist territory, with the endless news cycle of Rajput’s ‘evil, drug-peddling girlfriend’.
What drove the song’s power hits home in Upadhyay’s book decades later as I read about how Parveen’s neurosis coupled with her severe diet at the time – she only consumed curd and fruits to be able to fit into a 21-inch waist outfit – led to her imagining things that were not there, confusing the movie’s hyper-fiction with reality. As the masked goons flit about in the song prepping for Raja Babu’s end, Parveen began mistaking them for real-life villains who were after her; in several moments during the shooting of the sequence, Parveen had been convinced that they were there in fact, to murder her (“was terrified by the sight of junior artists dressed as masked assassins walking around the set. She believed that those (masked) extras were going to kill her”). The fear I had felt watching the song was real then – it had jumped off the screen, resonating from a woman’s very real, deep-seated fear as she struggled with demons and voices inside her head, completely misunderstood by most around her, trying hard to keep it all buried inside, all the while living up to our ideas of what makes someone larger than life.
Ultimately, it is about all of us, the entire human race, and our collective mental health. It is time we seek out the flip sides to these truths and truisms we hold so dear. Like Upadhyay’s book does, we must all find the lives and narratives that abound beyond the binaries of sane and insane.