Sunday, February 15, 2009

Parveen Babi: A star is dead

When police broke into her Juhu home in January they discovered something altogether very different: the rotting corpse of a bloated, gangrene-infected 55-year-old recluse. Ali Rasheed looks back at enigmatic seventies star Parveen Babi, one of the most beautiful actresses to ever have graced Bollywood cinema

Parveen Babi won her first screen role when she was still a student at Ahmedabad University, in an unremarkable film called Charitra (B R Ishara, 1973). The film bombed at the box-office, but Babi’s screen presence did not go unnoticed. Coming from the old royal family of Junagadh, her unconventional looks and aristocratic poise caught the attention of both audiences and producers.

Bollywood saw in Parveen Babi the raw materials that could be transformed into a marketable product. Producers offered her a certain type of role, manipulated media coverage to their advantage, and successfully constructed out of her looks, glamour, and charisma a star image that could be bought and sold at will.

Stars, according to film theory, are found in both the roles they play in films and the media exposure they receive as a consequence, which in turn contributes to the meaning they bring to their next role.

Within the next few years, a string of films were constructing and cashing in on Parveen Babi’s star image. One film in particular presented what would arguably become her most remembered role. The 70s blockbuster Deewar (Yash Chopra) showed Babi lying in bed with the then emerging superstar Amitabh Bachchan, smoking a post-coital cigarette. In a country where female smokers and sex before marriage are still considered taboo the image sent shock waves down its conservative sensibilities.

But there was also an unmistakable fascination with what Parveen Babi was representing. Babi’s co-star Amitabh Bachchan noted: “I did the maximum number of films with Parveen after Jaya. The audience liked us as a pair. She brought in a new, bohemian kind of leading lady to the screen.”

Parveen Babi clearly destabilised established notions about respectable femininity in conservative India. Yet many of her films were phenomenally successful. Babi’s star image thus invites many different meanings, and its study could well lead to a broader exploration of the culture in which it circulated.

It is important that bold and bohemian as Parveen Babi was, she never transgressed the category of femininity itself. For most part, she allowed herself to be displayed as an object of desire for the voyeuristic gaze of a largely male audience. She was certainly different, but not threatening to established patriarchal norms in mainstream cinema. In contrast, Babi’s fellow contemporary Zeenat Aman habitually transgressed gender boundaries in films such as Don (Chandra Barot, 1978).

Star images are also said to embody the fantasies, desires and myths often otherwise repressed in ordinary people.

Parveen Babi may have allowed male audiences to temporarily suspend traditional values, and to project their secret desires onto the bold, sexually-liberated woman she was representing. By the same token, female audiences could identify with her image as what they really wanted to be.

We may never fully understand our fascination with star images. Indeed we may be reluctant to, for the deeper we delve into the voyeuristic pleasure or identification processes at work, the closer we are to uncovering the darker side to our own selves.

In Deewar, Parveen Babi is killed off by the bad guys once she has fulfilled her function as the object of desire. This can be read as the reflection of an unconscious and, should I say, patriarchal desire and willingness to enjoy the forbidden fruit, as long as we can annihilate it afterwards and, by definition, our own guilt. In real life too it appears that the Bollywood that adored Babi at the height of her fame and beauty, left her to die on her own.

Parveen Babi acted in more than 50 films, including Amar Akbar Anthony, Kalia, and Khuddar. She quit films in the 1980s to experiment with alternative philosophies and lifestyles, in India and overseas. In the 90s she returned home, but became a recluse, rarely venturing out of the house. Some people speculated that she also suffered from schizophrenia.

Amitabh Bachchan in an interview after her death sounded almost apologetic: “The nature of her illness was such that she was terrified of people. We felt by associating ourselves with her we were causing her more grief.”

Despite her tragic end, Parveen Babi will go down in history as a cultural icon and someone who paved the way for a new generation of stars like Aishwarya Rai. Rai was recently featured on the cover of Time, three decades after Babi enjoyed the same privilege.

(This article was published in The Evening Weekly on 7 March 2005)

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