Relegated to the shadows
By Khalid Mohamed
Friday, January 20, 2012

B-town actresses who died young, many under mysterious circumstances, have almost been obliterated from public memory. Surely these women deserved better

It’s been seven years since she passed away — at the age of 55 — on January 20. Yet the curious case of Parveen Babi continues to be emblematic of the fatal toll taken by show business. Aggravated by a series of broken relationships and arch competition from her peers, her fragile mental condition had deteriorated to a point of no return.

Although cheered as the show-stopper of the Amitabh Bachchan-Shashi Kapoor hit Namak Halal (1982), the Jawan jaaneman girl did not receive an award of any stature during her decade-long career. Instead her infamous mood swings became fodder for Arth (1982), written and directed by Mahesh Bhatt, with whom she had a brief liaison. The role of a neurotic actress, modelled after la Babi, was portrayed brilliantly by Smita Patil. Consequently, Bhatt was ensconced on the film map but it was at the expense of a mentally troubled woman who suddenly quit the film industry.

She vanished to the US, led a reclusive life and returned after a hiatus of over a decade to her home in Mumbai, and shocked the journalists who had assembled for a press conference organised by her. The drop-dead-beautiful actress was unrecognisable. She had put on oodles of weight and spoke gobbledygook, levelling absurd charges against Amitabh Bachchan. When some leading newspapers did not print her statements, she phoned the editors to threaten that she would drag them to court for blanking her out. Derisively, she was immediately dismissed as “cuckoo”.

After her death, Bhatt remade the Parveen Babi story as Woh Lamhe (2006), scoring a hit again. But have Bhatt or any of the names connected to her during her glory days — Kabir Bedi and Danny Denzongpa — ever done anything to commemorate her memory? Perhaps too much to ask for in a business where memories are extremely short and friendships are purely need-based. Indeed, the complete Babi story is lost since very little is known about her except that she came from Junagadh to be introduced by the iconoclastic director BR Ishara in the scarcely-remembered Charitra (1973) pairing her with cricketer Salim Durrani. Her private and professional lives went through the endemic troughs and peaks, and that’s it. The property and money she left behind were contested by her relatives.

So ends her case study. The uneasy life and times of Hollywood’s Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe are on constant recall but not Parveen Babi’s. Clearly whatever is unpleasant in Bollywood is sought to be quickly swept under the carpet. Similarly, the mysterious death of the 19-year-old Divya Bharati 18 years ago is rarely remembered. Investigations into the events which led to her fatal fall from the fifth storey of an apartment building have been officially closed. Her husband, Sajid Nadiadwala, has become one of the most successful producers on the scene today but again, no attempts have been made to chronicle the true story of a teenaged girl who went through an incredibly hurricane-speed career.

Similarly, there are no clues to the lives of many legendary film personalities. Neither written material exists nor are surviving veterans or family members willing to speak, in detail, about the weak heart condition of Madhubala who passed away at the age of 39, as many as 42 years ago. Suraiya lived till the age of 74 but remains an enigma. Apart from Dev Anand confessing she had rejected his proposal of marriage, precious little is known about the last years of the songstress-actress who sought refuge from the limelight by closeting herself in the hilltown of Lonavala.

The material available on Kuku, the dancer who mentored Helen into films, is at best sketchy. Kuldeep Kaur, one of the most formidable vamps of the black-and-white era, as well as the tubby comedian Gope, have been long forgotten.

A year ago, a section of technicians had initiated a project to create video profiles of senior cinematographers. VK Murthy, the genius photographer of Guru Dutt’s films, had agreed to be filmed. But the project did not take off. Lamentably, the film industry leaders are far too preoccupied with the present to the extent of ignoring its past cavalierly. Surely Parveen Babi, Divya Bharti, Madhubala and so many more personalities who contributed their best years to cinema should be remembered.

Instead the have been buried as faint, forgotten memories.

(The writer has been reviewing Bollywood for decades, has scripted three films and directed three others. Currently, he is working on a documentary and just finished a book of short stories.)







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