Force Of Nature: Neena Gupta
In July last year, Neena Gupta posted a fetching picture of herself on Instagram, with the caption: ‘I live in Mumbai and am working. I’m a good actor looking for good parts to play.’
It was startling to some that a National Award-winning actor with a career of 30-odd years would need to ask for work publicly, pitiful even. But few recognised it for what it was, a rather healthy and modern approach to life — and Instagram.
Sometimes the most refreshing take on social media can come from a 62-year-old. Though the tech age presents her with challenges (she’s currently learning how to buy books on Audible) her Instagram account is a delightful display of jaunty acuity and a casual disregard for some of the carefully curated, unspoken rules upheld by members of the social club.
A recent post shows her clutching a trolley at an airport, sporting a self-styled look with sunnies, captioned: ‘Socha apni airport look khud hi daal doon.’ A good-natured laugh at her own dwindling celebrity while simultaneously parodying the growing pap culture and the advent of the meticulously styled airport look.
‘It’s OK to wear a dress, even if your legs are fat’ reads an Instagram post she’s authored, signing off her quote with NG. ‘It’s OK to dream about Ranbir Kapoor’ reads another. On a platform that celebrates perfection her social media presence sticks out — just like her choices in films.
Gupta is surprisingly delicate in person. Unadorned, accoutred in khaki shorts and thick black glasses, revealing unexpectedly skinny legs, she walks towards me almost shyly, in the lounge of a Mumbai airport hotel, clutching a small crumpled parcel of foil, containing within it an omelette sandwich, her home-cooked lunch.
She gives a waiter polite instructions to heat the sandwich and sits down next to me on the sofa with a bright, decidedly unintimidating demeanour. She’s basking in the success of her sleeper hit Badhaai Ho (2018), which presents a nuanced case for elderly romance. She portrays a middle-aged housewife with two grown boys who becomes unexpectedly pregnant. The rest of the tale is a situational comedy that highlights how difficult it is for middle-class India to accept an unfamiliar situation. As the embarrassed yet radiant Babli, Gupta talks mostly with her eyes and even with a younger generation of actors portraying the more traditional ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’, the film belongs to her. But she tells me that she doesn’t always feel like she’s got her due in her career.
“I made some wrong moves. I didn’t know the business. I didn’t have anybody to help me out with my decisions. I did my first film called Saath Saath (1982) with Deepti Naval, Farooq Shaikh, and Rakesh Bedi. I played the comedic role of a silly girl. The character became a great hit, but at the premiere, I met Girish Karnad and he told me, “Now your career is over, now you’ll never get a heroine’s part.” She shrugs, maintaining a wry smile, as though her own life amuses her. “I was so naive, I used to think, I’m from drama school, I’m a good actor; people will come to my house and give me offers. But a young girl doing comedy means she’s finished.”
So, she’s been perfecting the delicate balance she has found as a star with character-actor range — high profile enough to carry films like Badhaai Ho and TV series like Saans, which made her a cultural touchstone in the ’90s, yet low profile enough for audiences to believe her as everything from a vamp to a sidekick. She has over the years slid through a kaleidoscope of mesmerising characters, most notably, a loyal secretary to Pankaj Kapoor in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), an idealistic niece to Ben Kingsley’s Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi (1982), the gyrating seductress with Madhuri Dixit in Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hain (Khal Nayak, 1993) and the nagging mom in the recent genre-bending, all-female film Veere Di Wedding (2018). Hers is the sort of talent that transcends genre, beauty and age.
“You have to create an image in your personal life that you want reflected in your professional life,” she says in between mouthfuls of bread. Because I had a child out of wedlock, I became a strong woman. And in our industry a strong woman implies a negative woman. And that’s never a heroine.”
Her decision to have a child as a single parent is still one she routinely questions. Although her relationship with daughter Masaba is “a fantastic one” (in spite of the “screaming matches”) she says she regrets her decision. “I’m telling it like it is. It was a very lonely time for me. I don’t want women to take my example. It’s very tough in our society. You have to think about the financials and know that your child is always going to be devoid of the father and his family. You lose so much of life.” She says this matter-of-factly, like she’s finished dealing with the demons, but speaks with a wisdom that only comes to someone who has known pain. “I had nobody to support me financially or emotionally. Masaba was born by a caesarean delivery. I had to pay 10,000 rupees for the operation. I had 2000 rupees in the bank, and 9,000 came back that year as an income tax refund. That’s how I managed.”
I ask her what made her decide to have the baby, and she pauses, thinking for a moment. “I think I was ready for it,” she says slowly. “I was in that phase where I wanted to have a child. I was engaged to somebody (she doesn’t mention his name, but newspapers at that time had splashed stories of her relationship with Shaarangdev, the son of Pandit Jasraj). He had given me a ring and I went to Delhi to buy my trousseau. The date was fixed. But one day I got a call from my fiancé wanting to call off the wedding, stating that he needed to get a sinus operation. It made no sense, and he never told me the real reason, even though I begged him.” Her voice goes soft every time she speaks of heartache, but her chin continues to face upwards. “I met Vivian (Richards, the West Indies cricketer) in that phase and it was instant love. When I found out, I called him and asked him if he was okay with me having the child and he said, “Yeah, sure.” He is no longer a part of my life in any way,” she clarifies strongly, “But Masaba makes her own decisions about his presence in her life.”
Gupta has a rather fragile quality, in appearance and in demeanour, a sort of innocence and rawness that make you want to protect her, implore her to be less honest, less open. She also seems entirely devoid of ego or neurosis, a particularly rare trait for her generation of star. “I had to accept a lot of roles that weren’t great, just to pay the bills. And the ones that were good didn’t always get seen. I got two National Awards, one for my documentary Bazaar Sitaram (1993) in the Best First Non-Feature Film category. And the other for my performance in Woh Chhokhri (1994), which no one saw because it never got released, even though it had Pallavi Joshi, Paresh Rawal, and me. But it was a small-budget film and releasing films costs a lot of money. It was later shown on TV. A lot of my films, Naseeruddin Shah’s films, in those days weren’t released. I‘ve also done a wonderful film called The Threshold three years ago and the other day it was premiered quietly on some TV channel. Kaun dekhega?”
Gupta takes her celebrity lightly, but the weight of her talent looms heavy over her thoughts. “I used to feel very low and think I could have done better than that actor. Sometimes I would say the dialogue to myself and wonder why I was never offered this role.”
Her star has risen and dipped and then risen again with alarming frequency and she blames a lot of it on her mixed-up priorities: namely getting distracted with various men and relationships. “I came to Bombay because I was in love with a guy from drama school. Both of us came here together; I wouldn’t have come alone. He ditched me. I went back to him and again he broke my heart. I needed support in Bombay. My parents were in Delhi and I could have gone back but then this city doesn’t let you go….” Her sentence trails off, leaving behind wells of ennui. “Every time I failed to get work, I used to seek support in some man. That’s why I’ve had some useless relationships. Waste-of-time relationships,” she snorts with derision. “I didn’t have the strength or maturity to take my failure and work hard and have one goal — to get work. Instead, I spent half my energy on work and the other half on men.”
At the age of 52 she got married to Vivek Mehra, whom she met on a flight and flirted with through its duration. But even though she had finally found the sort of relationship she’d been craving, her marriage is still an unconventional one. While he lives in Delhi, Gupta continues to stay in Mumbai. “His children were very bitter and still are, so he came with a lot of baggage. It isn’t possible for us to live together in Delhi, because his children are there. But I’ve come to terms with it now. I don’t want to please anybody. If you don’t like me, don’t like me,” she shrugs. “Earlier, I was like a doormat. I had no self-esteem. But now I want to be happy. I’m going to please myself. I don’t need validation.”
She speaks deliberately, often closing her eyes as she enunciates, in what I come to recognise as her meticulous, clear, and thoughtful manner, as though each word is put through a process of inspection. I ask her if she’s a feminist and she stares at me blankly and informs me that she has no idea what that means. But she’s very glad that the #MeToo movement has reached our shores. “I find it ridiculous when people wonder why a woman has decided to speak up now instead of back when it happened. When I wanted work, I knew that someone was taking advantage of me. I agree. But I had no other alternative,” she intones.
“Some woman recently told me, ‘That means you were using that man, na?’ At that time even if a man touched me wrongly, I went and cried in my house but I needed work otherwise how would I feed my family? So it wasn’t possible to speak up. She then said, ‘Why did you go and get used if you knew that guy’s character; why did you go in the night?’ So my alternative was either I sit at home or take the shit!” She sweeps her hand in the air like swatting away an imaginary bug tiredly.
“You know,” she says leaning forward, “the younger generation is not like this, they’re very clean. I have also been very unlucky when I was young and faced many unsavoury experiences. And I’ve come to realise, I’m not strong. I just have a great capacity to move on.”
I ask her if she believes that her nonconformity, her seductive nonchalance towards societal rules and her uncanny and impossible ability to always land on her feet has been inspiring to other women. “I don’t want people to make the same mistakes that I made, but yes I do know that I have influenced women, their minds and lives. I know because they tell me and I can see the response on social media. It’s real.” And it’s her extraordinary ability to know her weakness, not her strength, which makes me believe her.