India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Cover Story
December 31, 2018

My Friend, Neena

Photographed by Sushant Chhabria. Styling by Nidhi Jacob. Assisted by Divya Bavalia. Hair by Deepa Bambhaniya. Make-up by Savleen Manchanda. Location courtesy: Waterstones Hotel & Club, Mumbai

She has danced with her on stage, performed with her in plays and shared many of her life-changing moments, both professional and personal. And now, as her compatriot continues to earn accolades for a game-changing role in a record-smashing film, author and editor Sathya Saran rewinds to some of her friend’s most meaningful turning points

Scene 1. The first meeting.
Neena Gupta is teaching me chhau. Her fluid, balanced movements translate into puppet-like actions through my limbs, but her patience will finally melt the stiffness and ensure me my place in the play. Later, as Andromache, one of the most tragic figures of The Trojan Women, the play by Euripides that we are rehearsing for Veenapani Chawla, I watch the dancer give way to the actor, her face a study in suppressed pain as she looks at her dead child.

Over the years I have spotted her in films where she always bagged the offbeat role. The one that stood out, even when she was not the main player. Vasanti in Mandi (1983), Milagrenia in Trikal (1985), Mandira in Susman (1987)…. Shyam Benegal knew how best to exploit her multilayered talent. Contrast her role as Madanika in Utsav (1984), simmering with sensuality, or as Champa Didi in Khal Nayak (1993) with Abha in Gandhi (1982) and I rest my case.

Scene 2. Neena, as Durga.
She storms into my office where I am working as the editor of a magazine, asking if all journalists are “like this!” She plans to sue another editor of the group, she tells me; he has broken trust, bribed hospital officials and got hold of the birth certificate that names Viv Richards as her daughter’s father. I ask her how she will cope with being a single, unwed mother in an industry which, at least then, holds women to ransom for stepping off the beaten path. I remember her saying, she doesn’t give a damn!

Never one to hide her thoughts, Neena is among the first actors to speak up and own up to her mistakes in life, in an interview-based column I am writing for another magazine of which I am the editor then. Her open admission about wishing she had studied harder, never smoked and not been so “wayward” by small-town standards inspires a huge positive response from young people.

Scene 3. Neena, as a mother.
We are a trio, Neena, a common journo friend and I, who meet for the occasional lunch or dinner, and this time it is a lunch. Neena has been in monologue mode. Anxious, worried, nervous. Masaba is in London, studying. And the mother in her cannot sleep, worrying over the girl being on her own in the big, bad world. We tell her Masaba is a sensible girl, she will be fine…. Neena finally ends her worry marathon only when her daughter throws up the course and returns home.

When Masaba takes up the challenge of trying to be part of the Gen Next show at Lakmé Fashion Week, Neena calls me for advice. And to ask me, as a member of the panel, to look out for her. I tell her that the selection group is a large one, but discerning enough to spot real talent. But nonetheless her nervousness rubs off on me. I need not have worried anyway…Masaba proves she is a star with the first garment she shows. A lot of Neena’s sense of colour and offbeat compositions, evident in her style and home decor, have rubbed off on her daughter and she has taken it all to a different level. And right through the early years of her daughter’s career as designer, Neena puts aside her own and works with ant-like precision behind the scenes; sourcing fabric, organising cutters and tailors, and ensuring orders are sent out in time.

Scene 4. Neena, as a woman in love.
Of course, he (Vivek Mehra) is not the first, but this time she wants it for keeps. And so does he, except that he is married, even though unhappily, and has two daughters whom he shares his heart with. I have never seen her so vulnerable and helpless. She veers between the pride that makes her want to walk away and the love that does not quite let her do so. It is a see-saw of emotions that wears down her endurance, draws lines under her eyes; the suffering and tension are relentless enemies of her peace of mind. In the end, love prevails.

Watching Neena, the married woman, in her new-found security is delightful. The lines have vanished; she glows with a quiet joy that sometimes bubbles with vitality. She puts on weight, her dress sense changes and becomes more daring; she adds a new flourish to her gestures. When the three of them are together and Neena watches her husband (a word she uses with a special emphasis), with Masaba, her contentment makes my heart overflow. Neena has found her home.

Scene 5. Neena, as an actor.
It is her calling. And she pursues it. Regardless of the rules the industry lays down for female actors, which are so different from those for its ‘eternally young’ heroes.

I am watching The Threshold (2015) at G5A in Mahalaxmi. Neena plays a deglamourised role, a woman at the edge of her marriage, waiting to jump out. It is a two-actor film, tense, terse, immersive. Neena matches co-star Rajit Kapoor line for line, never giving an inch, holding her role so close to reality, that when the lights come on and she walks up to the stage to answer questions, looking slim, glamourous and years younger, it is a bit of a shock!

Who else, I wonder, would have had the gumption to take on the Badhaai Ho role of a 50-year-old who gets pregnant? By turns bashful, downright embarrassed, coy and stern, Neena is a natural, playing the role as only a thinking actor can. Which, of course, is why she must have signed on! For the challenge of going where no actor her age has gone before…exploring social taboos.

On stage too, Neena can match her co-star every single time. It is as if she has gone back in time, is a student putting to good use the lessons learnt at NSD (National School of Drama). It may be that watching her father through the years he lived with her has given her insights into the ways of an older generation. The Rakesh Bedi-directed Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha tours the US after many shows in India, and with each successful curtain call, Neena looks happier and younger in her FB posts.

And when it comes to social media, Neena wields it like a weapon. Using it to speak about her views on motherhood, having a married daughter, or an out-of -work actor seeking roles.

In fact, it is strange that I should be writing this about her in New York. But for the fact that her shooting dates have intervened, Neena and I would have been together in New York right now, to receive awards — given as part of a fundraiser by an organisation working to spread awareness on autistic women. Well, we are both working, I think. She on her film, and me, writing about her, despite the fact that I am on holiday!

No wonder, we stayed friends!

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