‘Three men who had known and loved her—Mahesh [Bhatt], Danny [Denzongpa] and I—came for her funeral at the Muslim cemetery in Juhu. We carried her body with relatives to a dimly-lit grave. I felt for all she had suffered with a sorrow that came from my depths. Each of us had known her in ways not many knew. Each of us had loved her as only each knew.’
That’s Kabir Bedi writing of one of the greatest loves of his life and one of the most beautiful women to have graced Bollywood movies, Parveen Babi, who died uncelebrated in 2005. In Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of an Actor (Westland), we relive the 1970s, when she was the picture of bohemian bliss, playing Anita in Deewar (1975), smoking a daring post-coital cigarette with her boyfriend Vijay, and off screen, being written about for her live-in relationship with real-life boyfriend Kabir Bedi. Part of the Juhu gang, she seemed to have it all, a boyfriend who was a star in Europe, thanks to the hit Italian series Sandokan (1976), a rising career as the glamour gal in movies such as Majboor (1974) and in 1976, a cover of Time International for a story headlined ‘Asia’s Frenetic Film Scene’.
Yet despite roles in major movies such as Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977) and an offer to co-star in an Italian TV series with Bedi, by 1983 she had been written off by the film industry.
Life for Zeenat Aman, the woman who inaugurated the chic chick in Indian cinema, didn’t pan out much better. As she said in an interview in 1985 to a news magazine: “It was what sold. My body. All of them (the directors) did it to me, every single one of them. There was nothing I could do about it. It was part of the game. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame myself. It was business.” She had no less than Dev Anand, her one-time mentor, and Raj Kapoor, who promised to make her an actress with Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), squabbling over her. But she also had Raj Kapoor, saying cruelly and crudely, about her in regard to Satyam Shivam Sundaram: “Let them come to see her tits, but they’ll go back remembering the movie.”
A SERIES OF NEW books and scholarly articles is now attempting to decode what these two women—the Queens of the Come-on, as one magazine called them—meant to Bollywood. These range from Bedi’s memoir to Karishma Upadhyay’s deeply researched biography, Parveen Babi: A Life (Hachette, 2020); from Sanjay Khan’s The Best Mistakes of My Life (Penguin, 2018) which outrageously omits mentioning Aman, whom he was married to for a year and whom he assaulted infamously in the Neptune suite of Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, to Pujarinee Mitra’s seminal paper on female stardom and mysterious deaths in Bollywood in Global Media Journal.
In the 1970s one saw a constant conflict between the on-screen requirement of physical desirability and the off-screen demand for social respectability among female stars
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Bedi, whom Babi met while he was still married to Protima Bedi, has devoted some time and space in his Stories I Must Tell to dispel the notion, popularised by Mumbai’s once-powerful film magazines, that he was the cause of Babi’s psychological problems. He writes: ‘Terrible things were written about me. It wasn’t a fair perception. Truth is, she was the one who left me and refused to let me help her. I chose to keep silent at the time. What the Indian magazines said didn’t affect me. I was living abroad and I knew she needed the sympathy.’ He reiterated this to Open magazine saying even when he met her last, she was convinced he was part of the conspiracy she had created in her own mind that intended to destroy her. “You’re one of them,” she told me accusingly, he recounts.
Bedi, at least, has been honest about their relationship and generous about the heights to which her career climbed. The same cannot be said about Sanjay Khan, the actor-director-producer, who chose not to mention Aman in his book. His assault on her practically ended her stardom, and the woman who defined hippie cool for a socialist, 1970s India with her characterisation of Jasbir/Janice in Hare Rama Hare Krishna in 1971, was never the same again. Her eye damaged and her confidence in ruins, Aman only made occasional appearances onscreen after that.
But few can doubt Aman’s contribution to a new 1970s femininity. As film scholar Ajay Gehlawat has written, she helped inaugurate new forms of sexuality by removing the binary between the vamp and the heroine. ‘Along with redefining the rules of a screen heroine’s identity, Aman also created a range of grey characters, such as Sheetal in Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974) and Sheela in Feroz Khan’s Qurbani (1980),’ he writes in a paper for South Asian Popular Culture. And she is usually made to suffer for it with death, in Hare Rama Hare Krishna and Roti Kapada Aur Makaan. In Qurbani, the ‘other man’ has to sacrifice himself so the new woman’s liberation cannot be challenged. In reality though Aman chose unremarkable domesticity with second husband, actor Mazhar Khan, whom she has accused of depriving her of her career.
Part of the revival for these actors has to do with the huge nostalgia factor. Upadhyay says 1970s Bollywood was more fun and liberated. “Actors lived their lives how they wanted to and Parveen definitely embodied this. The template for the modern Bollywood heroine was set in the 1970s with Zeenat and Parveen whether it was the kind of clothes they wore or the roles they did,” adds Upadhyay. Kabir Bedi echoes the spirit of the 1970s when he writes of the Juhu gang he was part of which believed in the ‘free sex’ teachings of Osho. “Parveen living openly with Danny, wearing jeans and smoking in public gave her a bohemian image in India. But morally she was a conservative Gujarati girl who believed in sexual fidelity,” he added.
Sadly it is not her movies and her charming screen presence—including a role with homo-erotic shades with Hema Malini in Razia Sultan (1983)—but the relationships in her life which defined her. Mahesh Bhatt, who also reveals the contradiction between the free love narrative and the inbred conservatism, has talked about the relationship, written about it, even made it into a movie—twice, Arth (1982) which he directed and Woh Lamhe (2006) which he produced. Somewhere the real Babi has been forgotten in so many iterations.
Pujarinee Mitra references Babi again in her 2020 paper which analyses the role of Shantipriya, a versatile and gorgeous fictional star, in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007), the ultimate homage to 1970s Bollywood. Shantipriya’s mysterious death sets in motion a story that acquires supernatural elements borrowed from the 1958 Bimal Roy classic Madhumati. Mitra refers to the constant conflict between the on-screen requirement of physical desirability and the off-screen demand for social respectability among female stars for whom being recognised as an object of desire seems as important as ‘settling down’. Shantipriya’s desirability is set to decline when it is clear that she is pregnant and secretly married—her death acquires the status of an urban legend much like Babi’s mental health.
Aman and Babi were regrettably seen as interchangeable by most Bollywood filmmakers and would often end up playing roles that had been intended for the other.
Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi were championing a different kind of politics, one where the woman had agency over herself and her sexuality
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Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil were their contemporaries in the more artsy movies of the 1970s, though the former managed more than a foothold in commercial cinema. In fact, Ashanti (1982), where Azmi stars with Aman and Babi as desi Charlie’s Angels is still worth a watch. Smita Patil, ironically, took on the role of Babi in Prakash Mehra’s Namak Halaal (1982), opposite Amitabh Bachchan. It was a role she despised and the rain dance performed with Amitabh Bachchan made her so uncomfortable that she wept copiously.
AZMI AND PATIL were almost as unconventional in their personal lives as Aman and Babi. Azmi’s relationships with Benjamin Gilani and Shekhar Kapur were well known, as was her eventual marriage in 1984 to Javed Akhtar, then already married to Honey Irani. Patil was also involved with Raj Babbar, who too was already married to Nadira Babbar. Both chose love over convention. Azmi battled on, expanding her range, working in different genres and different cultures. Patil died due to childbirth complications, putting a sudden end to a career that had seen smouldering performances, ranging from Bhumika (1977) to Mirch Masala (1987). Both starred in Nishant (1975) and Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, with Patil playing a version of Babi with chilling authenticity.
Both Azmi and Patil were vocal about their politics, and indeed came from politically inclined families. But Aman and Babi were championing a different kind of politics, one where the woman had agency over herself and her sexuality. They may not have fully articulated their views, but they were very young at the time. Aman was 19 when Hare Rama Hare Krishna was made and objectification by the camera became her gilded cage. Babi was 19 when she was cast by the maverick director Babu Ram Ishara as a pregnant, unmarried woman in Charitra (1973).
In later years, despite quitting the film industry twice, Babi also managed to sink her teeth into more meaningful roles, such as Vinod Pande’s Yeh Nazdeekiyan (1982). Aman believed Satyam Shivam Sundraman would be her ticket to immortality—it wasn’t. The movie flopped. The two embodied the confusion of that era, where sexual liberation and cultural freedom went hand in hand with more conservative family ideals and straitlaced women. Hindi cinema, after briefly celebrating their sexuality and totally exploiting it, decided to reduce the actresses to song and dance routines in the mid-1980s.
It would take another awesome twosome, Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit, to restore women to their rightful place at the top with an unselfconscious and uninhibited interpretation of Saroj Khan’s sensuality that would bring crowds back to the theatres and set the stage for a more equal representation.
But make no mistake, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, with their sensuous disco movies, figure-hugging gowns and often kickass action, were there first.