Neena Gupta has spent much of the year in Mukteshwar in Uttarakhand, leaving only for shoots – of which there have been quite a few.
We have seen a lot of the 61-year-old actor over the past few months and we can expect even more in 2021. We will also read what she has to say about her unconventional life: Gupta’s memoir will be published by Penguin Random House India next year.
Sach Kahun Toh “will chronicle her childhood days in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, through her time at the National School of Drama, moving to Bombay in the 1980s and dealing with the struggles to find work”, a press release promised. “It will detail the big milestones in her life, her unconventional pregnancy and single parenthood, and a successful second innings in Bollywood.”
Gupta told Scroll.in that she would write whenever a thought or a memory came into her head. “If I got stuck, I would leave it for a few days,” she said. “I am not a disciplined writer, I am a free spirit. It was very interesting for me to write this. I was remembering things, everything came back to me. I had also forgotten a few things, the names of a few people. Sometimes, I had to call people to ask, who all were there in my class? Let’s hope people will like it.”
Why wouldn’t they? Gupta is in the midst of a purple patch. After the comedy Badhaai Ho (2018) – a role she famously got after she posted a please-hire-me notice on Instagram in 2017 – she is the newest fun mum in town. This year alone, Gupta has been in a bunch of comedies – the films Panga and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Pinni in Flipkart Video’s anthology project Zindagi InShort, the Amazon Prime Video web series Panchayat and the Netflix mockumentary series Masaba Masaba. In Vikas Khanna’s The Last Color, made in 2018 but released only recently, Gupta played a different kind of maternal figure: a widow who strikes up a friendship with an orphan in Varanasi.
Gupta’s Noor in The Last Color is a gentle soul, given to long silences and pensive gazes. “It was a fantastic screenplay and a fantastic role for me,” Gupta observed. “This film was written with great sensitivity. There was the added attraction of shooting in Benares. It is a place where you go and something happens. It can’t be explained in words. It makes you peaceful and ask questions. Shooting at the ghats in my white sari was something else. That helped me a lot with my character.”
Khanna’s unit was small but close-knit and dedicated. The Michelin chef-turned-filmmaker threw himself into his first feature, pitching in whenever required, Gupta recalled.
“He would wash the ghats, he was doing the art direction,” she said. “He would spread saris in the background. He knew what he wanted and was very open to suggestion.”
Gupta is no stranger to modestly budgeted productions. In the 1980s and 1990s, she appeared in a string of arthouse films, including Shyam Benegal’s Mandi, Trikal and Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. In Girish Karnad’s picaresque period drama Utsav, Gupta was cast as a courtesan whose dalliances with her lover inspire Vatsyayana to write the Kama Sutra. In Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Gupta played a venal builder’s secretary.
Parallel cinema, as this scene is also known, did indeed run alongside the Hindi film industry. “It was difficult to meet big commercial filmmakers in those days, we wouldn’t get an audience with them,” Gupta recalled. Arthouse filmmakers like Benegal were more welcoming of the talent emerging from the Film and Television Institute of India and the National School of Drama, of which Gupta is an alumna.
Gupta describes herself as “very young” when she was making films that have endured for their piercing examination of India’s social and political currents. “If I had to do Trikal today, I would do it very differently,” she said about Benegal’s period drama about a Goan aristocrat grappling with liberation from Portuguese colonial rule. “I learnt a lot from the other actors too – Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Sometimes I would keep watching them. It was also fun working with Shyam, you learn so many things about other things too.”
The difference between these films and the mainstream-yet-offbeat productions in which Gupta is now appearing is simple. “The difference is me,” she said. “Now, I am not scared to ask questions. You didn’t dare ask anything earlier. You would whatever you were told to do. These youngsters [young filmmakers] are so open, so easy. They know their jobs. This is more personal, I think. The change is me, not them.”
Her upcoming projects include the films Sardar and Grandson and Dial 100. She will also appear in the second seasons of Panchayat and Masaba Masaba. She will be travelling to London over the next few months for the movie Goldfish. But Gupta’s most important release in 2021 is likely to be her memoir, which promises to reveal unknown facets of a life that has been anything but ordinary.