Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi: The trailblazing pathbreakers

Zeenat Aman with Parveen Babi Photo: Instagram / Zeenat Aman 

On April 4, Zeenat Aman, on her Instagram, where she has 186k followers, graciously recalled memories of her late co-star Parveen Babi. The two were projected as rivals by the media in their 1970s-early 1980s heyday, but Zeenat, in her post, has presented a real, compassionate and considered view of her one-time colleague. A vintage black-and-white photo is the base of the post. Here is the post:

“I’d like to remember and honor Parveen today, on her birthday (April 4). Parveen was gorgeous, glamorous and talented. Back in the ‘70s, we wore our hair in a similar manner and enjoyed Western fashion. Though neither of us saw it, we were told we had an uncanny resemblance. It must have been true, because as recently as last year, I was approached in Dubai as “Parveen ma’am”.”

She goes on, “Naturally the media at the time spun tales of competition and rivalry between us, but in reality we were always warm towards each other. Not best friends, but contemporaries, colleagues and well-wishers. We worked together on Ashanti and Mahaan.”

(Zeenat omits Ameer Aadmi Gareeb Aadmi directed by Amjad Khan, which had Parveen in a cameo and no frame shared with her. In reality, Parveen had disappeared after shooting 60 percent of the film and it was reshot with Zeenat in her role, with just a song filmed on Parveen retained, showing her as a dancer!)

The post goes on, “Parveen’s struggle with mental health illness came at a time when the country was still so insensitive and ignorant on these matters. After her death, I often ruminated on how she was remembered. The tabloids focused on her romantic relationships and “episodes”, but Parveen was much more than who she dated or what she said when she was unwell. I feel she never truly got the chance to say her piece.” (Nothing can be truer that that about Parveen).

Zeenat adds, “She was intelligent and hardworking and creative. She loved reading, and I remember her curled up with a book in between shots on set. She achieved incredible success as an actor, even featuring on the cover of Time magazine. Later, she took up various creative pursuits, embarked on a spiritual journey, and started designing interiors. We stayed in touch on and off for years, before ultimately drifting apart.”

Her conclusion: “Parveen was remarkable in many ways, and I hope she will be remembered for the effervescent person she was.”

The beginnings

Much like Shammi Kapoor revolutionized the Hindi film hero for good, Zeenat Aman did the same for the heroine of our movies. The time was right, as it always should be for a change to happen—and we had entered the smart, rebellious 1970s. Her first two films, Hulchul and Hungama in 1971 barely connected. But it was thanks to Dev Anand and Hare Rama Hare Krishna that Zeenat sashayed as the swinger drug-addict to the beats of Dum maro dum straight into the hearts of countless women as well besides men.

Zeenat Aman in Yaadon Ki Baraat. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

Followed two more back-to-back successes in 1973—the hit Dhund and the blockbuster Yaadon Ki Baraat, and with the second of these, now as a young objet d’amor to Vijay Arora, she completed her conquest—as a star, as the symbol of modernity and as a woman who must not necessarily wear a saree or salwar-kameez to demonstrate her youthful Indianness. Western outfits, including skirts and with trendy hairstyles were now associated with the quintessential Hindi film heroine! She could gyrate to her own guitar and tinkle wine-glasses as well, without being typecast as a vamp or bar dancer!

In the same year, in a low-key debut, Parveen Babi started out with B.R. Chopra’s Charitra, which also marked the only on-screen appearance of the just-deceased cricketer Salim Durrani.

The basic common point was that both came from the glamorous world of modeling, though Zeenat had the edge here as she had won both the Femina Miss India pageant and the Miss Asia-Pacific International pageant in 1970.

And here is where Providence gave Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi two more common points.

While Salim Durrani was no star, Zeenat’s first co-star was also no big name as a leading man—it was the legendary Prem Chopra in Hulchul (1971)! And secondly, Hulchul, like Charitra, was a song-less film! (in that phase, Reena Roy was the third top-star-to-be to start out with a song-less film—Zaroorat, in-between them in 1972!)

Parveen too, like Zeenat, had to wait for the following year to get her first hit, Majboor (three flops came in-between), but it was really with Deewaar, in which she essayed a high-class call-girl with a va-va-voom image, who sleeps with the anti-hero without marriage, has a live-in relationship with him, breaking another filmi convention, that determined her stardom.

Seemingly organically, both the girls defined the trailblazers of Hindi cinema from the early 1970s. And interestingly, both had Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor as common frequent co-stars. Of course, there were other big names too—Dev Anand, Manoj Kumar, Dharmendra, Rishi Kapoor, Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha, Mithun Chakraborty and more!)

Zeenat Aman, with the lead she had taken, always had the upper hand in directors and assignments, with generally meatier roles and many more solo leads, while Parveen, with her image being comparable, took full advantage of the multi-star trends of the time to bag several prestigious films and score some hits as well.

And so, while Zeenat had blockbusters like Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, Dharam-Veer, Hum Kisise Kum Naheen and Don and other hits like Ajnabee, Chori Mera Kaam, Chhaila Babu and Paapi, Parveen managed to have the mega-hit Amar Akbar Anthony and hits like Kaala Sona, Chor Sipahee and Suhaag.

When the 1970s ended, the die was weighted heavily towards Zeenat, who had also done Raj Kapoor’s dream project, Satyam Shivam Sundaram apart from the Indo-American co-production, Shalimar, and had signed Feroz Khan’s magnum opus, Qurbani and the Indo-Russian collaboration, Alibaba Aur Chalis Chor.

And while top names like Shakti Samanta and Nasir Husain preferred Zeenat, equally illustrious box-office monarchs like Manmohan Desai, Yash Chopra and Prakash Mehra preferred Parveen Babi. Desai, in fact, had directed Zeenat in Dharam-Veer and Parveen in Amar Akbar Anthony, but soon, for unknown reasons, Parveen replaced Zeenat in his Suhaag and then also signed his Desh Premee. Prakash Mehra, too, had signed Parveen for Laawaris, Jawalamukhi and Namak Halaal, all big films.

The 1980s and beyond

Zeenat began the decade with a bang—with super-hits Qurbani, Dostana and Insaf Ka Tarazu, in which she had one of her meatiest roles as well. She also was the scene-stealer as Fatima in Ali Baba Aur Chalis Chor, and also did Takkar and Abdullah, three more successes, and two biggies that turned turtle—Ram Balram and Bombay 405 Miles. Parveen had to be satisfied with the mediocre Do Aur Do Paanch and Shaan, the ensemble-cast film, which, like Ram Balram, could not recover its investment.

But Parveen’s first deviant behavior was seen here: she was thrown out of both Prakash Mehra’s Laawaris and Jwalamukhi and replaced by Zeenat Aman and Reena Roy respectively, for reasons more speculated than revealed. In 1981, Laawaris was the second-biggest of the year, while her Kaatilon Ke Kaatil was an average success. Parveen, however, did manage to hold her box-office own with the multi-star Kranti, Kaalia and the second heroine’s role in Meri Awaaz Suno.

Parveen Babi with Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in Namak Halaa. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

The year 1982 saw Parveen get her first edge over Zeenat, albeit with multi-star films Namak Halaal and Khud-daar. Zeenat’s big-ticket movies crashed, but for their first film as co-stars, the average success, Ashanti, said to be a rip-off of Charlie’s Angels. 1983 saw them come together again in Mahaan, but at best, the film was break-even due to its high cost. Individually, they had nothing to boast about either. The rest of the decade saw both the actresses flounder as a barrage of new names had come in as well, and the novelty of their images was beginning to wear off in the video era.

While Zeenat still does the occasional role as a character artiste, and has also featured on stage, TV as well as on the web, Parveen’s last film was the 1991 Iraada. She had disappeared from the film scene minus explanation in the early 1980s, and it is said that she had even became an interior decorator! She later went into depression and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, while Zeenat married Mazhar Khan but lost her husband fairly early, and is now mother to sons Azhan and Zahaan.

Personal life

The two Muslim girls had more common points: flings and bad relationships as well. Zeenat Aman had a long-standing affair reportedly with Dev Anand, and later with Sanjay Khan, whom she even married and later divorced. She also claimed that her marriage to Mazhar was “never happy” as he just wanted her to be a homemaker.

Praveen had relationships with Danny Denzongpa, Mahesh Bhatt and Kabir Bedi, but none ended happily or fruitfully.  She was found dead in 2005 at her apartment.

However, together, the two confident and cool women, both head-turners in their time, remain pioneers for the great major change they ushered into the conventional realms of Hindi cinema: of unshackling heroines from conservative tradition.











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