Neena Gupta’s ability to do movies as diverse as Gandhi and Khalnayak with enviable ease would make viewers nostalgic till a few months ago. Her big return with Badhaai Ho and Mulk has worked up the audience’s appetite for more from the Indian phoenix, writes UMANG AGGARWAL
The year that will come to a close in about two weeks has seen the release of a rather unique set of movies — Andhadun, Mulk, Badhaai Ho, Raazi, Stree, and Pad Man being some of them. Mulk, a movie about the post-Partition prejudice against Muslims, and Badhaai Ho, a movie about three generations of a family coming to terms with the idea of a woman in her late 40s having a sex life, getting pregnant, and deciding to keep the baby, were two of the most recent ones. And what stood out in both films, apart from good storylines and compelling portrayals, was the performance of 62-year-old Neena Gupta whom the camera, the audience, and even mainstream cinema and television missed dearly in the past few years.
Best known for her work in the 1998 show Saans, her 2000 show Siski, and several commercial as well as art films like Gandhi, Mandi, and Khalnayak, Gupta had been somewhat missing from TV as well as movies since 2006. Kamzor Kadi Kaun and Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin were two of her last widely watched shows around that time. And her response to why that happened is so unpretentious that one feels unnerved and is filled with awe at the same time. “I was not being offered many good roles. I have been doing only one play — Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha. It’s with Anupam Kher and has been written and directed by Rakesh Bedi. Of the play, I have done many shows in the past two years,” she says. The play shows Kher and Gupta as estranged lovers who meet when they are older, reminisce and talk about what had made them drift apart. Clearly, Gupta, who is an alumna of NSD (National School of Drama) found the meat in theatre when cinema failed to provide it to her. But thankfully for the audience, cinema, too, came around eventually. “Of course, I have changed a lot since the NSD days,” the actress says. But what seems to have remained constant is the willingness to fearlessly and unapologetically put oneself out there to find work, “good work”.
A glimpse of her straightforward, dignified, and adorably hungry approach to work got a lot of hits on Instagram recently when she put: “I live in Mumbai and working; am a good actor and looking for good parts to play,” as her status. The status was appreciated by many including actor Priyanka Chopra who said it “inspired” her, and Gupta and Sir Vivian Richards’ daughter, Masaba, who said this kind of uninhibitedness to ask for work has been passed on to her “genetic(ally)” from her mother. Masaba wrote, “Just the other day, I was telling someone... how I am never afraid/shy to ask for work. It’s obviously genetic. My mother put up this post on her Instagram today. I mean, my 62-year-old National Award-winning mother. She told me I must always work, no matter what. It keeps you from getting old. She told me they don’t write for women her age anymore. I don’t think anyone can replicate what she did for TV anymore; she complains that she can’t do PR, but says ‘I do good work, that’s my PR’”.
It’s not surprising then that when we called Gupta for this interview, the phone was answered by not an assistant or a secretary, but the actor herself. During the conversation, Gupta told us that she picked her most recent roles because of the highly relevant social issue that Mulk dealt with and the strength of the character of the mother and uniqueness of the story in Badhaai Ho. In the Indian society, older women, even the ones in their late 40s, are often looked down upon if they pay attention to their looks or sex life. Even for her character in Badhaai Ho, her mother-in-law is shown to be getting angry at the fact that Gupta still wears bright lipstick and pays attention to her appearance. The expectation from women in this particular age group is that they will resign from desire and focus on being a good mother or mother-in-law. Gupta has never conformed to that expectation. In the 1980s, news reports regularly talked about her relationship with West Indian cricketer, Viv Richards, with whom she had a daughter out of wedlock. While Gupta and Richards parted ways, she and her daughter Masaba are actively a part of each other’s lives. In 2008, the actress married Vivek Mehra, a chartered accountant and partner with PwC India.
So, as far as meeting the expectations of society is concerned, obviously it’s been difficult. Just like it was for her character in the movie. “But the blame lies with the women, too,” she believes, “As they themselves start resigning to these expectations — be it their children’s or their elders’. They make a habit of compromising — be it food, clothes, or lifestyle. You must ask for what you want and deserve. My mother never conformed to such stereotypes. She was a self-reliant woman and did what made sense to her. That’s what she taught me, so my way of life only came naturally to me. And yes, I think that’s what I have tried to teach my daughter, too.” The lesson seems to have been imparted well as Gupta’s daughter once reacted to Internet trolls by saying, “I’m a proud Indo-Caribbean girl, who does not know how to shrink and crumble in the shame of something you and your society cannot handle. It’s just in my ‘illegitimate genes’.”
The actress says that while her character in Badhaai Ho was quite different from her personally, it was a character full of strength in its own right who might not shut down her temperamental mother-in-law but still knew right from wrong. Her own pregnancy was quite different from her character’s in the movie, she says, as unlike the mother in Badhaai Ho, who eventually has the whole family taking care of her, Gupta had to do it all alone. But she has “absolutely no regrets” as it all turned out well for both her and her daughter.
As the mother of a famous fashion designer, Gupta believes she tries to be involved but not controlling. “Masaba would often ask me what kind of look I want and design clothes specifically for me,” she shares. And like any mother and daughter, they have “our share and more” of disagreements and fights. “There are so many disagreements between us about so many things,” she says. But like any mother and daughter, they, too, soon get over it. Masaba and Gupta have both praised and defended each other publicly on several occasions. On a personal level, when in doubt about something, Gupta turns only either to her daughter or her circle of close friends. But as opposed to speculation about a friendly relationship with her ex, Sir Vivian Richards, she says, “No, Vivian Richards is past. I just like to confide in my husband.”
Luckily for her fans, Gupta is working on a series of new films. One of them is titled Meetha Paan and is about the lives and desires of older people. While she has also directed in the past, for now, she says, “I am happy doing the different kind of roles that are coming my way. So, no directing for now.” Gupta says that she thoroughly enjoyed working with Ayushmann Khurrana and would “definitely want to” work with some of the other newer actors and even try her hand at digital content as and when the right opportunity presents itself.
Television, however, she says “is going through a phase” where the kind of quality shows that were being made once are not being made anymore. “But I think it will pass. Just like our movies have changed, television will too.” As someone who stayed away from the camera simply because of lack of good parts to play in the past few years, Gupta says that she feels extremely happy that Indian cinema has finally opened up to newer topics where there is no distinction between an artsy movie and a commercial success. It has been worth the wait as she now has not one but several parts that are different, relevant, and have been written for women her age. These are not limited to what our society would have usually liked to see these women as — doting mothers or conniving mothers-in-law. Instead, they are realistic characters that have depth and can both inspire and reassure the audiences in equal measure.
It’s only fitting then that at this time, our society, too, has finally become a little more receptive towards women who have #MeToo stories to share. “Irrespective of what happens now or how long they took to talk, I think it’s a very big deal that they have spoken — so many of them and so confidently. It just could not have happened earlier.” While there have always been women who have been able to shut down predatory men then and there, it’s commendable that all women can talk about it now, she says. Talking about one of the cases that has come up — Alok Nath’s — Gupta says, “I have not done many shows or movies with him. There was this show called Maryada but even in it there were not many scenes that we did together. Moreover, I have always had this image due to which such people would not try anything with me. But I am just happy that women are finally speaking up,” she says.
It’s an accurate and moving portrayal of varied characters that makes Neena Gupta an actor worth watching, particularly after a wait of around nine or 10 years. While natural talent has obviously had a role to play, her performances probably also have a lot to do with the kind of person she is. Her fundamentals about work go way beyond notions about fame, age, and general expectation. She keeps it simple — do only good work; gracefully ask for it if it doesn’t come to you on its own. And just like work, Gupta makes no bones while talking about her personal life either. She is very clear about the people she wants in her life. Unlike most people, she doesn’t flinch at any question about her former relationships or her second attempt at marriage. She speaks about almost each aspect of her life with an enviable ease and manages to keep it direct and relevant at any point of time. So, what hits one when talking to Neena Gupta is not just her humility but also the sense of peace that she has with herself and her journey. She leaves no space for regret or unfulfillment hanging. This rare sense of clarity reflects in her work and inevitably leaves the audiences satiated with one performance and waiting for the next, no matter how long Gupta takes to find a part that is worth her time.