In Sach Kahun Toh: An Autobiography (Penguin Random House India), Neena Gupta provides a candid and affecting appraisal of her professional and personal journeys. The 62-year-old actor is honest without being self-pitying about her career choices. She describes herself as “flawed”, “chipped” and “broken”, a celebrity with low-self esteem who has frequently grappled with the consequences of her life choices.
Gupta’s most important role came her way when she was pushing 60, and after she had advertised herself on her Instagram account as a “good actor looking fr good parts to play”. In Amit Sharma’s Badhaai Ho (2018), Gupta played to acclaim a middle-aged housewife who gets pregnant. Several noteworthy roles followed Badhaai Ho, including in the films Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and The Last Color and the web series Panchayat.
Apart from anecdotes about some of her key roles and bruising encounters with predatory producers and actors, Gupta writes about her parents and brother, the cricketer Vivian Richards, with whom she had Masaba Gupta, her failed first marriage, an engagement that went nowhere, various relationships, and her second marriage. Here are a few things we learnt about the National School of Drama-trained actor through her own words.
Mum and Dad
Neena Gupta’s mother, Shakuntala Gupta, was a school teacher with two master’s degrees in Sanskrit and political science. (Neena Gupta herself has an MPhil in Sanskrit.)
Gupta describes her mother as strict but caring, a woman of “firm principles” and “strong, Gandhian ideals”. Shakuntala Gupta quit her job and devoted herself to raising Neena and her brother Pankaj at their home in Karol Bagh in Delhi.
The mystery of why Neena Gupta’s father, Roop Narain Gupta, is largely absent from her childhood memories is revealed in a later chapter. The independence and resolve that Shakuntala Gupta displayed in raising her children appears to have been a strong influence on Neena Gupta’s own brave decision years later to be an unwed mother.
Shakuntala Gupta died from cancer in 1985. About her father, with whom she was eventually reconciled, Neena Gupta writes, “He always peeled two oranges, tasted them both and then let me have the sweeter one.”
Satish Kaushik, BFF
Neena Gupta has been friends with actor and filmmaker Satish Kaushik since their college days. He cast Gupta in a college play and later encouraged her to enrol in the National School of Drama.
“He was kind, humble and had this self-deprecating sense of humour that really made me laugh,” Gupta writes about Kaushik. He was part of the ensemble cast of her first film, Ashok Ahuja’s Aadharshila (1982).
Kaushik looked out for Gupta after she moved to Mumbai in the 1980s. When she was pregnant, he chivalrously offered to marry her so that her child would have a father’s name in her birth certificate. “The fact that he was ready to sacrifice his own chance at true love and happiness for me was very touching,” Gupta writes.
Gupta describes her pregnancy as “sad and lonely”. Having decided to ignore advice to opt for an abortion or enter into a false marriage, Gupta braved it out. “Raising a child without a father … is one of the hardest things you can do,” she writes.
Gupta hid her pregnancy as best as she could with the help of friends and a helpful aunt. “Whenever I am faced with adversity… I become the strongest person I know,” she writes.
She resumed work when Masaba was three months old. She credits her daughter with having saved her life. Cast in a small role in Sanjay Khan’s television show The Sword of Tipu Sultan, Gupta was on the sets when a major fire broke out. Khan was horribly disfigured in the fire, and 62 people lost their lives.
Gupta was saved because Masaba was unwell, she writes. The actor slipped away from the sets to check on her daughter, and escaped the moment when the fire broke out.
In 2020, the mother-daughter pair appeared as fictionalised versions of themselves in the Netflix show Masaba Masaba.
The ‘Lallu Ladki’ syndrome
Despite being a National School of Drama alumnus, Gupta struggled to be taken seriously by filmmakers, she writes. There were several opportunities – a hugely popular commercial for the pressure cooker Hawkins, small parts in films, television shows – that paid the bills but didn’t translate into leading roles.
“I was young and I lacked guidance,” she says about her acting career. “I kept making the wrong decisions. I also needed the money, so I couldn’t afford to be picky about the roles I played.”
One of the reasons Gupta feels she never entered the big league was an early role in Saath Saath (1982). Raman Kumar’s marital drama starred Deepti Naval and Farooque Shaikh. Gupta played a young bespectacled woman who had a habit of saying, “Main na kehti thi.”
In her memoir, Gupta describes the character as a “Lallu Ladki”, someone who is “cute, endearing, but also slightly annoying in a know-it-all way”. Although the part got Gupta good notices and a fan following, she came to regret it. Filmmaker Girish Karnad told her that she would get typecast and would never be offered the heroine’s role. And that’s just what happened.
‘Utsav’ and getting to know Shankar Nag
Karnad cast Gupta a couple of years later in his period dram Utsav (1984). Gupta played one of the women working in the pleasure palace run by Rekha’s courtesan. The role included a lovemaking scene with co-star Shankar Nag. Sensing that Gupta was nervous, Karnad got Nag to befriend her, she writes.
The sequence was tastefully shot and went off without a hitch, Gupta recalls. Nag was added to Gupta’s wider social circle. “There’s nothing like an actual sex scene on camera to forge a lifelong friendship,” Gupta observes.
‘Trikal’ and Shyam Benegal
The arthouse filmmaker with whom Gupta has worked the longest is Shyam Benegal. He cast her in his films Mandi (1983), Trikal (1985), Susmaan (1987) and Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1993) and his television series Yatra (1986).
Gupta hoped that she would get her big break with Trikal, set in pre-Liberation Goa. Gupta wanted to play Anna, a part for which Sushma Prakash was eventually cast. “It wasn’t a challenging role but was about being the heroine,” Gupta writes. Benegal persuaded Gupta to play the more complex character Milagrinia, the maid to Leela Naidu’s aristocrat.
Thanks to Trikal, Gupta made her first foreign trip, to a film festival in Brazil. When Benegal found out that Gupta didn’t have money for shopping, he told her, open my locker and take as much as you want. Benegal is “a wonderful man, and also a very curious and learned one”, Gupta writes.
In the 1980s, television gave Neena Gupta the prominence she felt she was being denied by the movies. She was a major character in the first Indian soap, Khandaan. As Ketaki, the hardnosed woman who refuses to have children because it will affect her career, Gupta was so effective that a man walked up to her at an airport and earnestly told her, “Madam, please have a child.” A flabbergasted Gupta replied, “Ok bhaiya, I will think about it.”
Gupta appeared in several popular television shows, some of which she directed and produced, such as Saans and Siski.
What’s inside the choli?
Alongside television serials, Gupta appeared in stage shows, performing a set of three songs: her version of the Punjabi tune Peeche Peeche Aunda, Shayarana Si Hai from Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi (1993) and her most popular film song, Choli Ke Peeche from Khal Nayak (1993).
Gupta didn’t want to appear in the song, whose loaded lyrics caused a stir before its release. When Khal Nayak’s director Subhash Ghai approached her, she refused since she would only feature in the song and a single scene afterwards. Ghai persuaded her by pointing out that the song would be a sensation, which it was.
Choli Ke Peeche was shot over nine days at a studio in Mumbai, Gupta recalls. Although the song is centred on lead actors Madhuri Dixit and Sanjay Dutt, Gupta earned her place in Hindi film history as the dancer who kicks off the proceedings. But her initial costume test didn’t meet Ghai’s approval.
Gupta writes: ‘“No! No! No!’ he shouted. ‘Kuch bharo!’” She wore another outfit, this time with a heavily padded bra.