In Search of Lost Time

A blogger’s search for Parveen Babi’s fabled magazine cover

Parveen Babi quit Bollywood and moved to the United States in 1983. When she returned, in 1989, her own secretary reportedly couldn’t recognise her AP PHOTO
01 December, 2015

Ten years ago, in his last year at college in Nagpur, Vinayak Razdan opened his local newspaper and learned that the actor Parveen Babi had died at the age of 55. Growing up, Razdan had idolised her. He was troubled by the manner of her death. The Times of India headline that day read: “Parveen Babi dies, alone in death as in life.” In her final years, Babi, battling mental illness, had confined herself within her home in the Mumbai suburb of Juhu. She suffered fatal organ failure in her apartment one day, but no one had realised this for a while. Milk deliveries piled up at her doorstep for days before her housing society had the police check up on her.

The young Razdan had had a rough year himself, wracked with anxiety about what career he would choose after graduation. He was, like Babi, living alone. “I had no clue about the future,” he wrote to me in an e-mail this October. “Her lonely death didn’t help.”

Of the many mysteries of Babi’s life, one relatively minor one captured Razdan’s imagination: the famous Time issue. He knew Babi as the first Bollywood star to have appeared on the cover of the American magazine, although he had never actually seen that cover. Upon her death, each obituary mentioned it. Frustratingly, however, none of them ran an image of it. So, in 2005, Razdan began to look for it himself. He may not have imagined, at the time, that the quest would take him over five years.

Some aspects of Babi’s rise and fall are well documented. She was born in 1949, in Junagadh, Gujarat, into a family with connections to the royal clan of that former princely state. She began a modelling career in 1972, and quickly moved on to films, gaining immediate success. Delivering a spate of massive hits in quick succession in the 1970s—including Majboor, Deewar and Kala Sona—she became, for a brief period, one of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars, so glamorous and high-profile that even the best-known American magazine of the time put her on its cover. She ushered in a new kind of female star, one whom some contemporaries described as bohemian—a woman who gave up saris for bell bottoms, who was unafraid to chain-smoke on screen, and whose characters traded more freely on sex appeal than those of previous generations of Indian heroines.

Babi’s private life, however, was fraught with struggle. In 1979, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Her partner at the time, the filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, came home one night to find her curled up in a corner holding a knife. Bhatt has alleged that she was muttering incoherently to herself about someone wanting to kill her.

Her star continued to rise for a while, nonetheless. Over the next few years, she starred in hits such as Do aur Do Paanch, Kranti and Namak Halaal. In 1983, she abruptly quit Bollywood, moved to the United States, and became a devotee of the spiritual leader UG Krishnamurthy. Some movies she had worked in prior to her departure were released over the next few years.

The last of these appeared in 1991. When she returned to India, in 1989, she had gained weight. Reportedly, her own secretary couldn’t recognise her. In 2002, she re-emerged in the public eye when she filed an affidavit claiming she had evidence of the actor Sanjay Dutt’s involvement in the 1993 bombings in Mumbai. In court, according to India Today, she made the bizarre claim that a number of Hollywood actors—from Mel Gibson to Robert Redford—were intelligence agents conspiring to kill her. The judge threw her case out, citing lack of evidence.

By the time Babi died, she was a recluse. Her postmortem report stated that doctors found no traces of food in her stomach, only some alcohol. One of them said that Babi, who was diabetic, had not eaten for three days, and had “possibly starved to death.”

Other Hindi movie legends had led lives marked by suffering and untimely death, but Babi’s tragedy, Razdan thought, was uniquely relatable. “I think people remember Babi because of the drastic ‘before’ and ‘after,’” he told me. “People see their own insecurities and worries in her story. An indication of what can go wrong, and how badly.”

The Time cover became Razdan’s great link to her life and history. He began his search operating on a basic assumption that also stood behind all the obituaries—that she had appeared on the cover of the weekly magazine, in 1976. Razdan started combing through the digitised archives of the American edition of Time. He found one issue, dated 28 June, with a feature titled “Asia’s Bouncing World of Movies.” The story mentioned Babi, but the cover of that issue featured a biker and a blonde woman. He searched the magazine’s Asian archives, but those records had no cover images from that year.

Between 2005 and 2010, Razdan made a hobby out of his search. Whenever Babi crossed his mind, he popped over to Google and rattled off a few searches, trying hundreds of combinations of keywords and dates. Over time, he got craftier with searches. His biggest clue came from a snippet on Google Books a scholarly article on Asian mass media which referenced the actual cover story by headline, “Asia’s Frenetic Film Scene.” It had appeared on 19 July 1976.


The making of the cover is itself shrouded in mystery, and chasing that story turned up no results, for Razdan or myself. From old press clips from 1976, it’s possible to stitch together a frayed narrative. Babi told India Today in October of that year that Jehangir Gazdar, a photographer, took pictures of Zeenat Aman, Shabana Azmi, Shashi Kapoor, and Babi on set one day. Babi herself wasn’t interviewed for the cover story, which was mostly about Kapoor. Little else is known. Many of the people involved in the cover’s making have, like Babi, died—James Shepherd, Time’s Delhi correspondent, who wrote the story; Manohar Lai Bharadwaj, a film distributor quoted in it; Gazdar, the photographer.

Five years ago, Razdan became a video-game designer, settled in Gurgaon, and started a blog about popular Indian cinema. One night in October 2010, he watched Babi in Kala Sona again, and resolved to give his favourite internet search another shotHe entered the title of the cover story, “Asia’s Frenetic Film Scene”; its exact date, arranged as 19/07/1976; and the phrase “India’s Parveen Babi,” in quotes. He didn’t think he had a fighting chance. But, to his joyous bewilderment, this time, he found it.

A French website that sold vintage magazines had put that issue on sale for €15. It was a European edition of Time. Razdan started dancing in his chair, giddy and euphoric. Within a day, he posted news of his discovery on his blog. “It was something most people had just heard about and here I was, looking at it,” he remembered. “And she looked great.”

On the cover, Babi is wearing a black bustier strung with pearl beads. Her hair is parted in the middle. There’s a stud in her nose. She has a shy, expectant half-smile, as if she has taken a deep breath and is waiting to let it out after the camera flashes. Thanks to Razdan’s blog, the image can now be found with a simple Google search, in which his post is one of the first hits.