On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti this year, NDTV had hosted a live programme to spread awareness about the importance of good health. This was for the development of the nation. Among the invited celebrities was Dr. Harish Shetty the eminent psychiatrist.
Dr. Shetty spoke emphatically about the crying need to spread awareness about depression which, he said, was as common among all classes and age groups of people as dengue, malaria, typhoid and other illnesses. He gave the alarming information that the speed and urgency with which the awareness should be created, is sadly, wanting in our country. Nine out of every ten individuals reaching out for medical help have no clue as to why they are seized with the blues. This goes on for days together with no let up as they continue to suffer from depression. Hence the increase in suicides every year, he noted. There are only ten thousand psychiatrists in the country, he further noted. He went on to exhort the government to create a separate ministry for mental health which is as vital as general health.
As Dr. Shetty spoke, my mind raced back to the sad case of Parveen Babi. Her death, in a pathetic state of voluntary isolation, in her flat in Mumbai shocked her fans.
For most people who knew Parveen Babi it was difficult to accept the truth that she possessed a disturbed mind. This was because she showed no signs of it when she was working two shifts a day with top actors and directors at the peak of her career. On the contrary, she was the star who got along famously with her colleagues and evoked admiration from the heroes for her sporting nature. She spoke well and with much substance.
I met her frequently and we hit it off from our very first interaction on the sets of 36 Ghante. I was an upcoming journalist who had studied English literature and had just emerged from the university. I was bursting with admiration for English writers such as Thomas Hardy. Parveen shared my admiration for those authors.
After giving me an interview she requested me not to draw a comparison with Zeenat Aman. This was because, “There is nothing I have in common with her, except may be the way I carry off western clothes and the sophistication that those clothes demand in the person wearing them.” I agreed. She was also very sure that she would go far in her profession and she would be noticed in 36 Ghante, even though she had nothing significant to do in the script.
She was right. She moved very quickly to the top rung and co-starred with popular actors like Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor. If she met me in the studios during lunch break she would whisk me away to her make up room where we chatted informally. She never failed to ask me if I was carrying idlis in my tiffin box. If I was, it gave her great pleasure to offer the lunch sent to her room, to me, in exchange for the idlis in my lunch box. By the time “Deewar” became a super hit, she was counted among the top leading ladies of Hindi Cinema.
It was Director S. Ramanathan who directed her starrer Rangeela Ratan, who first mentioned to me that all was not really well with Parveen. The educated and worldly wise director noticed that she was not quite herself at times. He found her hallucinating at times and lost in a world of her own. He knew I was rather friendly with her and he politely tried to find out from me if I had also noticed vagaries in her behavior. “I think she is schizophrenic”, he confided and requested me to keep the conversation to myself.
It disturbed me but I gave little importance to Ramanathan’s observation because I always found her warm, friendly and affectionate. Moreover, I had little awareness about schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
I remember meeting her one late evening at a studio when I was expecting my daughter. I was ambling around the studio with a prominent baby bump. Parveen rebuked me for working in that condition and insisted that her driver would drive me home in her car. She had brushed aside all my excuses and said firmly, “If you really wish to be my friend do as I say.”
Indeed I had no reason to suspect that something was not right with her. Sometime in 1983, I spent a week with her and other star delegates at the Tashkent International Film Festival, where her starrer Ashanti was an entry.
She was enjoying great popularity then and she was mobbed wherever she went. It amused her to no end when some of the media delegates from the Latin American countries referred to her as Zeenat Aman. She often sat with Rekha at the screenings and the Western media went berserk photographing the two beauties- Rekha, ever so elegant in her Kanjeevaram saris and Parveen, ever so chic in her Western outfits. The festival opened with Umrao Jaan .While conservative Rekha had a tough time finding vegetarian food at the buffets, Parveen joined me in tasting all the meats in the spread, not to mention the wines and vodkas, of course.
In many ways, Parveen was the apt choice by Time magazine for its cover when it did a story on Indian Cinema in 1976. She symbolized the new image of the heroine in Hindi Cinema—liberated to an extent, but not cheap or exhibitionistic. Her contemporaries were amazed that she had made it to the cover of the magazine without any PR exercise. Parveen was unruffled and quietly happy about it.
Subsequently, more colleagues from the industry began to whisper that she was not quite herself at times.
It came as a rude shock to me when rumours of her deteriorating mental condition were confirmed, by her seeking solitude and her unwillingness to talk to even those who cared for her. When she went away to the US I could only hope that she came back well and happy. Sadly, she did not. She came back with just her beautiful smile intact. Her shapely body had gone completely out of shape with obesity. Her immaculate dressing sense had also gone haywire with the outrageous clothes she now dressed up in.
I had to tearfully accept the truth that she was mentally unhealthy. There were umpteen dissections of her mental state at the time, when she returned to Mumbai. She occupied her flat in Juhu in complete isolation from the world outside. If only she had received expert psychiatric diagnosis, treatment and counseling at the right time…!