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Parveen Babi: How the glamorous star started out as the girl next door

In this excerpt from Karishma Upadhyay's 'Parveen Babi: A Life', we learn how the actor first found fame on stage and as a model, and how Amol Palekar introduced her to one of her heroes

Parveen Babi's career began on the stage and in modelling. Photo credit: Xerxes Bathena
Parveen Babi's career began on the stage and in modelling. Photo credit: Xerxes Bathena

It was during this period that the bohemian girl who would drop into Bollywood a few years later and become a sensation was born. A significant contributing factor to those learning years was Parveen’s own resolve to open herself up to new experiences and it was the same determination that led to her first exposure to acting.

DRAMSOC, the dramatic society of IIM Ahmedabad, was informally started in 1970. That year, the plays were primarily performed for the students on campus. The following year, three students and theatre enthusiasts—Anshul Balbir, Achyut Vaze and Siddharth Bhattacharjee—formally registered the society and that’s when they started staging public performances.

Balbir, who was originally from Delhi, met both Parveen and Mallika Sarabhai at a common friend’s party. They instantly connected.

‘We started hanging out occasionally—we’d do drinks, go for plays and dance recitals in Ahmedabad,’ Balbir recalls.

He suggested to the girls that they act in a play for DRAMSOC and they agreed. Apart from Parveen and Mallika, the only other female member of the cast was Balbir’s classmate Parvin Makhija.

In September 1971, DRAMSOC presented two iconic plays—Night of January 16th by Ayn Rand in English and Badal Sarkar’s Evam Indrajit (And Indrajit) in Hindi. On two consecutive days, there were two shows of each play. Tagore Hall, where the plays were staged, was Ahmedabad’s largest indoor venue and it was packed to capacity on both days. Both productions called for substantial audience participation and the crowds didn’t disappoint.

In Night of January 16th, Mallika Sarabhai played the lead role of Karen Andre, the stenographer accused of killing her boss and lover Bjorn Faulkner, while Parveen played his prim and proper wife Nancy Lee Faulkner. Sarkar’s abstract, absurdist play which explores the writing process and the search for inspiration had Parveen playing Manasi, one of the only two characters.

‘She did a phenomenal job playing Manasi,’ Balbir remembers. ‘Like Indrajit’s three split personalities, Parveen’s character also changes. In one scene, she could be a modern, confident girl wearing a tank top, and in the next be demure and submissive, clad in a saree. Parveen’s performance in Evam Indrajit really got noticed.’

After every performance, there were hordes waiting to meet her backstage. She had never experienced adulation like this before. She was used to a boy or two mooning over her in the college canteen or on a friend’s terrace. To be surrounded by crowds asking for autographs and complimenting her was even more exhilarating than the rush of performing to an auditorium full of people.

Sarkar’s angst-ridden play made such a profound impression on Parveen that she’d talk about it even years later. Long before being cast opposite her in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Rang Birangi, actor-director Amol Palekar remembers meeting Parveen on a movie set in Film City.

‘Our meeting left an unforgettable impression on me,’ Palekar recalls. ‘Badal Sarkar, the legendary theatre personality from Bengal, was visiting me in Mumbai. On a Sunday, Badal da said he wished to see a film shoot.’

Palekar drove the playwright to Film City, confident that there would be some crew filming there. He wasn’t wrong.

After introducing Sarkar to Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty on their respective sets, he drove to the sets of The Burning Train.

‘Before I could even introduce her, Parveen came rushing [down] to speak to us,’ says Palekar. ‘She touched Badal da’s feet and said, “It’s such an honour to meet you, sir." She went on to tell him how his play Evam Indrajit had completely changed her life. She shyly mentioned that she had begun her career by playing Manasi, the central character in Evam Indrajit.’

Parveen spent the next two hours chatting with Badal Sarkar and Palekar about literature and theatre.

‘Far away from her Bollywood image of a sexy seductress, this was a completely different and fascinating Parveen. It’s sad that her fans were never exposed to this learned side of her,’ Palekar says ruefully.

Having tried her hand at acting, Parveen stepped out of her comfort zone yet again when she was offered an opportunity to be a ramp model.

Before designer Ritu Kumar set up Ritu’s Boutique in Delhi in late 1969 and the words ‘prêt’ and ‘couture’ became a part of our vocabulary, the Indian fashion scene revolved around textile companies exhibiting new blends and prints. There was only one name these companies relied on to show off their products—Jeannie Nowroji. The Bombay-based catwalk tsarina organized fashion shows for them in the hubs of the textile business—Ahmedabad, Coimbatore, Ludhiana and, of course, Bombay itself.

Nowroji, along with her partner Hilla Divecha, established the country’s first modelling agency and event management company rolled into one. Their troupe, which included models from Bombay, would travel to a city for a week or ten days, where they’d showcase a textile mill’s latest prints and patterns on the catwalk. Credited with the ‘discovery’ of women like Rosita Mendonca, Mamta Sahu (later known by her married name Landerman) and Esther Daswani – who were subsequently recognized as India’s first supermodels—Nowroji would design the outfits and choreograph the show, while Divecha looked after the logistics of the business. During their stay in a city, they would organize daily fashion shows inside a tent that was open to the public. It wasn’t uncommon for the troupe to be on tour for two or three months at a stretch, with models travelling from city to city by train.

In 1971, Nowroji and her troupe landed in Ahmedabad for a week-long fashion show for Calico Mills. The venue for the show was the famous Calico Dome that housed the company’s administrative offices and showroom. Inspired by master architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, this Gautam Sarabhai-designed building was one of the city’s modern landmarks. As they did in other cities, Nowroji hired a few locals to model in the show, in addition to those who had travelled down with her.

Among the new recruits was Parveen Babi. And she was everything Nowroji was looking for—naturally slim and willowy, with straight, shiny hair, glowing skin and loads of energy.

‘She was beautiful, but without make-up, she looked like a really young girl-next-door. I liked Parveen when she came to meet me,’ the nonagenarian remembers.

Excerpted from 'Parveen Babi: A Life' by Karishma Upadhyay with permission of Hachette India.

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