The unmaking of a femmé fatale

The dead don’t talk back. If Parveen Babi had survived her mental disorders, she would have been 63 on January 20. It has been seven years since she passed away. And the image that has lingered is that of a woman who went way over the edge.
All that is recalled is that the drop-dead-beautiful heroine of the 1980s returned to B-town after a decade-long self-imposed exile. She had put on mounds of weight and had gone stark raving bananas. The Jawani Jaaneman heart-throb from Namak Halaal called for a press confence to announce absurdities — including surreal allegations against Amitabh Bachchan. The word was out, “She’s cuckoo. A…void!”
No one, however, has sought to find out why La Babi couldn’t cope with the excesses of showbusiness,which obviously exacerbated her mood swings. Some say that she suffered from acute schizophrenia; some say nothing at all.
Some say that Mahesh Bhatt shouldn’t have stoked her fragile mental condition by making Arth. The man-stealer, played excellently by Smita Patil, was modelled on her. She was depicted as a tangle of neuroses. Some say nothing at all, or if they do, assert that all’s fair in love and making movies. Arth made Mr Bhatt, it unmade Parveen Babi. That wasn’t sufficient, Arth was retreaded after her death as Woh Lamhe. Congratulations, Mr Bhatt toted another hit.
This is not an anti-Mahesh Bhatt harangue, though I do think if real-life experience has to be adapted into a film or a book, it should be at the cost of hurting yourself and not others. Hollywood legends — Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford — all have been subjected to posthumous hatchet treatments, portrayed as coked out, hard-drinking, oversexed predatory females, but with the exception of Crawford’s over-the-top Mommie Dearest, none made an impact.
Books, monographs, analyses — call them what you will — aren’t written on what pushed Parveen Babi into an abyss of no return. Or take the death by accident or suicide of Divya Bharati. The heroine of over 15 films fell/jumped off a five-storey apartment building in Versova. Allegations even
circulated that there was foul play. Divya’s husband, producer Sajid Nadiadwala, fashion designer Neeta Lulla and her husband, were reported to be with her shortly before the fatal “plunge”. The case has been closed; no one’s interested at all in the tragedy of Divya Bharati. Outstanding subject for a movie or a painstakingly researched novel, but maybe not. After such a long gap, the actress has been forgotten. No interest.
The story of Silk Smitha, who died at the age of 35 in 1996, rocked in The Dirty Picture but the extent to which the film came close to her relentless exploitation is debatable. The film, first-rate no doubt, chose to concentrate on double-entendre dialogues rather than any strong critique of the male exploiters. Naseeruddin Shah, as the philandering superstar, was actually likeable, not hateful.
Scores of tough-luck stories of heroines abound in Bollywood but they are either hushed up or exhumed. Will anyone ever know why Suraiya retreated to the Lonavla hills soon after rejecting a marriage proposal by Dev Anand? Will anyone ever know why Madhubala had a congenital heart illness?
Perhaps not. For a journalist, there are only some moments left. At the New Delhi International Film Festival of India, Divya Bharati was late by an hour for an interview I was supposed to conduct with her for Doordarshan. On calling her Ashok Hotel suite, she came on the line to say, “Tell the Prime Minister to call me. Then I will come.”
Now what was her head-space about really?
And when I went over to Parveen Babi’s apartment towards the autumn of her life, she opened the door to ask, “What do you want?
“To talk to you,” I said.
“Who is You, there is no You living here.”
“Okay”, I persisted. “I’d like to talk to Parveen Babi.”
“Parveen Babiji kaho,” she snapped, shutting the door on my face “Madame Babiji is not at home. Try tomorrow.”
Tomorrow never came.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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