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.