Lonely in a crowd: Mental illness doesn’t spare the successful

Parveen Babi had everything she could ask for. Like Sushant Singh Rajput, she was successful, popular and living life king size. But she was also mentally ill

Parveen Babi
Parveen Babi

Vishnu Makhijani

Parveen Babi was cast in over 50 films with every Bollywood A-lister worth the name, appeared on the cover of TIME magazine and recovered from two mental breakdowns before dying a lonely death. “My biggest hope with this book is that it helps people understand that it’s possible for someone to be young, successful and living a seemingly perfect life, yet suffer from mental illness. Also, that this illness doesn’t always look like what Hindi films have told us. It is possible for someone to look ‘perfect’ and still be suffering within,” says her biographer, Karishma Upadhyay of the book published by Hachette.

“It took me three years to write this book but it was all worth it. One can’t help but wonder, ‘What if Parveen had received the medical help she so clearly needed?’ It’s sad to see that the stigma against mental illness that existed in the 70s and 80s while Parveen was in the industry continues even today,” adds Upadhyay. Parveen’s life as presented by Upadhyay, comes across in four major phases. The first was in Ahmedabad, where she was sent for her undergraduate studies and where she was in total control of her life to the extent of calling off her engagement – which her mother had insisted on.

The second was her shift to Bombay (now Mumbai), initially as a fashion designer and a model, her entry into the Hindi film industry and, most importantly, her three involvements beginning with the rather platonic one with the up-and-coming Danny Denzongpa. She went on to disrupt two marriages -- that of Kabir Bedi and Mahesh Bhatt -- and almost wrecks Danny’s relationship with rising starlet Kim Yashpal.

The relationship with Bedi ended after she travelled with him to Italy in the wake of his success with the TV serial “Sandokan” and realised that he was the bigger star of the two. With Bhatt, it seemed more a clash of personalities and the first breakdown happened when neither of these two relationships worked out. The second breakdown apparently happened after “Arth” -- the jury is divided on this -- Bhatt’s semi-autobiographical film that laid bare her relationship with the filmmaker.

The third phase centred around Amitabh Bachchan - but this was one marriage she couldn’t disrupt. Upadhyay explains, “The few who knew Parveen well at this juncture of her life believe that the nature of her obsession began changing only when she assumed her co-actor was reciprocating her feelings and she wasn’t merely imagining his overtures.”There was another thought playing at the back of her mind: being seen as ‘Amitabh’s woman’ would, she felt, empower her in the eyes of the industry, in addition to helping her in her pursuit of perfection as an actor. The bonus, of course, would be to bask in his love and occupy the centre of his world.” But that wasn’t to happen.

“What had triggered the actress’s breakdown? Who was responsible for pushing her over the edge? Both the industry and the media were looking for a scapegoat. Depending on whom one interacted with at the time, it was either Amitabh Bachchan’s fault or Mahesh Bhatt’s,” Upadhyay writes in the book.

“From what I have learned about Parveen’s life, the biggest disrupter/villain in her life was her mental illness,” Upadhyay maintains.

The final phase of Parveen’s life, was her twilight years where she accused everyone from Bachchan to Bill Clinton to the KGB et al of trying to kill her -- and even accused Sanjay Dutt in the 1993 Mumbai blasts but refused to appear in court to substantiate the charges.

“When a person is going through a breakdown, it’s possible for them to believe that everyone is out to get them. This is how it was with Parveen as well. She believed that there were people conspiring to kill her,” she said.

Be that as it may, the circumstances of Parveen’s death -- the date’s been recorded as January 20, 2005 -- were tragic. The secretary of her housing society alerted the police that she had not collected milk and newspapers from her doorstep for three days. The police suspected that she may have been dead for up to 72 hours before her body was found. An autopsy concluded that she had not consumed anything for more than three days and starved to death, ruling that she succumbed to total organ failure and the diabetes she had contracted in her later life. It was a quiet end to a stormy life. The one constant being loneliness.


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