Parveen Babi

Glamorous actress who transformed the image of the Bollywood heroine

One of Bollywood's earliest pin-up girls, Parveen Babi captured the Bohemian essence of the 1970s. She transformed the Bollywood heroine's image from an ethnic, sari-clad ascetic to that of an enchantress, casually flaunting her Westernised good looks and upbringing, drinking, blowing smoke rings and seeking and actually enjoying men.

Parveen Moammed Ali (Parveen Babi), actress: born Junagadh, India 1955; died Bombay 22 January 2005.

One of Bollywood's earliest pin-up girls, Parveen Babi captured the Bohemian essence of the 1970s. She transformed the Bollywood heroine's image from an ethnic, sari-clad ascetic to that of an enchantress, casually flaunting her Westernised good looks and upbringing, drinking, blowing smoke rings and seeking and actually enjoying men.

At a time when buxom Bollywood leading ladies were expected to sob, bob and sing, the slim leggy beauty from a Muslim royal family made her début in Charitra ("Character") in 1973 as the "new" Indian woman - modern, sensitive, intelligent and independent.

Babi's chiselled good looks, hourglass figure and forthrightness were a pleasing departure from the over- endowed and simpering Bollywood sex symbols. Her husky voice, sardonic smile and almost deprecating treatment of her leading men merely added to her irresistible aura.

Through the Seventies and Eighties, during which she acted in some 50 films, Babi was simply "cool", the toast of Bollywood. Her avant-garde private life included living with several film celebrities, like the actor Kabir Bedi and Bollywood's leading director Mahesh Bhatt.

Her crowning glory came in the late 1970s when, much to the chagrin of longer established heroines, Babi was featured on the cover of Time magazine's Asia edition as the bold and glamorous emerging face not only of Hindi film but of Indian womanhood.

But, in the late 1980s, her acting career came to an abrupt end amongst reports of alcohol and drug abuse. In the early 1990s, she departed suddenly for the US, reportedly for treatment and also to find solace with an Indian spiritual guru. On returning home to Bombay some five years later, a barely recognisable and bloated Babi claimed to be the target of an international murder conspiracy.

She accused several prominent Bollywood stars of plotting to kill her and spent the last decade of her life as a recluse in a filthy flat in one of Bombay's smart neighbourhoods. Police only discovered her body three days after she died, when they broke into her apartment following complaints by the building's janitor that newspapers and milk packets had been piling up outside her door.

Born Parveen Moammed Ali in 1955 into a noble family in the former Muslim kingdom of Junagadh in western India, she graduated from St Xavier's College in nearby Ahmedabad and, lured by the cinema, moved at the age of 18 to Bollywood, where she took the name Parveen Babi.

Her drop-dead good looks led to the Bollywood director B.R. Ishara almost immediately casting her in Charitra opposite the former Test cricketer Salim Durrani. The film flopped, but Babi's Westernised looks and haughty demeanour set her apart and resulted a year later in a lead role for her in Majboor ("Obligated") with Bollywood's emerging icon Amitabh Bachchan.

Over the next few years Babi became Bollywood's leading lady and glamour goddess in 10 further films with Bachchan, most of them hits like Deewar ("The Wall", 1975), Namak Halal ("The Treacherous", 1982), Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977), Shaan ("Pride", 1980) and Do Aur Do Paanch ("Two and Two Equal Five", 1980).

"She represented the Bohemian Indian woman in films, unafraid to smoke or drink on screen at a time when this was considered taboo," said Jeetendra, the Bollywood action hero and Babi's co-star in Meri Aawaz Suno ("Listen to My Voice"). Other co-stars claimed that Babi's smouldering sensuality, tempered with a certain regal aloofness, contrasted sharply with the mawkishness of other heroines. She was nicknamed "Babi Doll" and had audiences across the country drooling, especially when she enticingly wore bikinis at a time when no one else in Bollywood dared.

At the zenith of her career Babi disappeared, following traumatic love affairs that had ended in chaotic break-ups, causing much consternation. She reappeared around 1995 amid rumours that she had spent the intervening years suffering from schizophrenia. She tried working as an interior designer but soon abandoned that pursuit, blaming secret agents for sabotaging her career.

She also claimed to be in possession of hundreds of film cassettes that included "incriminating" evidence against people like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, the Prince of Wales, Robert Redford, Bachchan and others.

Kuldip Singh



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