Sepia Stories: How we Failed Parveen Babi, both Alive and Dead

mysterious celebrity deaths, Parveen Babi book review

I was still in middle school when Parveen Babi was found dead in her apartment on a January morning in 2005. 24×7 news channels were already on their path to sensationalise every piece of news and Parveen Babi’s death was just what the channels were looking for to set their TRPs rolling. I don’t remember much from the coverage except pity for a former star who despite being hugely successful lived a life marred by controversies and loneliness. Parveen Babi had already retreated into her private shell by the time I was born but I had seen her in movies like Namak Halal, Amar Akbar Anthony and Shaan. Why would somebody so successful and talented end up dead in their apartment for more than 72 hours before being discovered? ‘She was an alcoholic!’, ‘She had multiple affairs and everybody broke her heart’ , ’She had some mental problems’; everyone seemed to know yet nobody really understood what happened to Parveen Babi.

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Karishma Upadhyay’s recently released biography of Parveen Babi tries to delve into the inner world of the actor through accounts of people who knew and worked with her. I was a bit sceptical to pick up the book because in absence of Babi to confirm or deny her story, it is easy for any writer to take liberty of making up their own truth. However, a few pages into the book, my suspicions were laid to rest as Karishma Upadhyay begins piecing together Parveen’s childhood in Junagadh, Gujarat. For every claim Upadhyay makes in the book, she makes sure to corroborate it with accounts of friends and family who were close to the actor in the early part of her life. Upadhyay approaches the biography with restraint and caution which paints a humanised portrait of the actor who was mostly in news for her bold image on screen, the men she dated and the mental breakdowns she had.

While I devoured the pages of the biography, I find it hard to believe that I was reading about a woman who lived such an unapologetic life almost four decades ago.

She moved to Mumbai to pursue a career in films all by herself, was a chain smoker, and almost never hid her romantic relationships. Live-in relationships are still such a taboo in this country and it is hard to imagine how Babi lived with the men she loved without marrying any of them. The characters Parveen Babi played were also in sync with her off-screen persona, playing independent and free spirited women who were in charge of their lives.

As the book progresses, it becomes amply clear that Parveen Babi suffered from an apparent mental illness. However, the exact nature of the illness remains shrouded in mystery, perhaps to both Babi and the people around her too – and it seems that she was never properly diagnosed and wanted to keep it hidden with the fear that it might break apart her career. There are some disturbing incidents in the book which makes you deeply uncomfortable and most of them are graphic depictions of Parveen Babi at her most vulnerable in the grip of her illness and the inability of anyone around her to offer help. She did go to various doctors who prescribed her medicines which would seem to work but she would always discontinue them.

Unlike other physical illnesses, any form of mental disorder comes with the fear of being shamed and ostracised by the society.

The support and care that is available to a patient who is suffering from a disease like cancer is not usually available to someone who is suffering from a mental illness. And even when people want to reach out and care about those who are suffering, they just don’t know where to start and what might be the right thing to do because of the culture of silence which when broken becomes sensationalism, that we are guilty of promoting.

Reading through the last few pages of the book that narrated Parveen Babi’s death, I wondered if she would have a better chance at dealing with her illness if she was born a few decades later.

I would have answered in affirmative a few months ago but as we all know what transpired in our collective psyche when a young talented actor died by suicide in June this year, I doubt if Babi’s life would have played out any differently even in these days, or perhaps specially in these times. Instead of trying to cultivate an understanding of mental illness through an empathetic lens, we all participated with rigour in making a national mockery of a deceased person’s misery and suffering.

The recent events have proved that instead of working towards creating safe and accepting space for people dealing with mental health issues, we have made matters worse by legitimising hostility and paranoia towards the sufferers. It is a disgrace to the legacy of Parveen Babi and many others like her we continue to fail and ostracise. [Image Credit: Film grabs]

Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer, and activist-in-making. Views expressed are the author’s own