At 60, Neena Gupta is the busiest she has ever been. From a slew of unreleased projects to an exciting one she has set out to Punjab for, she is making the most of Neena Gupta 2.0 after the success of her family drama from last year, Badhaai Ho.
Since we were in the same town, Varanasi, at the same time, I contacted her for an interview by the ghats. She was audibly excited about the idea, but could not spare time from the shooting schedule of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, the sequel of the 2017 romantic comedy, that will see her reunite with her Badhaai Ho co-stars Gajraj Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana. A few days later, the crew was compelled to return to Mumbai, owing to unsuitable weather conditions in Varanasi. They put up their set in Goregaon, where Neena invites me for a meeting right before one of her night schedules.
From the looks of it, a life-sized wedding (or some other event) set was erected on the ground. Over the course of our conversation in her vanity van, Neena proves how confident yet self-aware, passionate yet practical she is at this stage of her life.
"It's a business. The film industry is interested in you only if you're saleable. They don't care about your relationships or talent. The fact that I've been getting so many offers at this age is only because Badhaai Ho was a hit. If it wasn't, I would've remained without work like I was a few years ago," says Neena, her trademark candour on display.
This honesty defines her social media accounts too, particularly Instagram where she does a video series titled 'Sach Bolu Toh' (If I'm to be honest). Here, she talks about a range of social issues like being financially dependent on one's husband, dressing for one's age, and incorporating physical fitness into one's daily schedule.
Though her straightforward manner is applauded by her followers, she claims it has cost her a lot of film offers and resulted in bad press in the earlier phase of her career.
"It is still not good to be too honest. My social media posts may give my fans an impression about how sweet and relatable I am, but they don't fetch me work. That boils down to my success. My desire to put my life out on social media comes from my frustration at the media depicting me as someone who I was not. I still choose my words; I don't say everything. But I say most of the things I wish to, because I don't care about how I'm perceived outside of my work," the actress adds.
It was this innate frankness that prompted Neena to post a clarification/reminder on Twitter three years ago: that she was a working actor in Mumbai, actively looking for film scripts. "That was because people thought I'm not interested. I was doing TV a decade ago, but look at what TV turned into... And the role I was offered, I wasn't too happy about taking it up. So I didn't work for seven to eight years. Also, people assumed I moved to Delhi after my marriage (to chartered accountant Vivek Mehra). One day, someone asked me " yet again " if I still live in Mumbai, so I decided to tweet my answer once and for all. Haha!"
Gradually, four offers came her way after her declaration, she recounts. The first was from Anubhav Sinha to play a Varanasi-based woman opposite Rishi Kapoor in his 2018 film Mulk. A scene where her character narrates an anecdote from her childhood to her daughter-in-law (Taapsee Pannu) is etched in the audience's minds. Sinha has great regard for Neena: "You don't direct an actor of her calibre, you just tell her the scene. She's such a wonderful listener. All she needs to do is understand what you want through the character. I'm so happy Jashoda, my publicist on the film, saw that post from Neena ji, and sent me a screenshot. I'm so happy I called her. Not only did I get to work with a talent like her, but I also found a great friend in her."
The second offer she got was from Dibakar Banerjee for his film Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, produced by Yash Raj Films. Starring Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor in the lead roles, the film is yet to see the light of the day. The third offer came from Amit Sharma for Badhaai Ho, in which she played a middle-aged mother who undergoes an unplanned pregnancy " a lead role that won her several awards. The fourth offer that came her way was from celebrity chef Vikas Khanna for his directorial debut The Last Colour, in which she plays a Varanasi-based woman again. After a successful international film festival run, the film is currently in the running for Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards. The Indian release of the film, however, has not been announced yet.
Unsurprisingly, she didn't have to make any declarations after the success of Badhaai Ho.
The offers came organically from a range of filmmakers, including her next release, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari's sports drama Panga (24 January). Neena will be seen as the mother of the protagonist, essayed by Kangana Ranaut. "It's a very small role, but a nice one. Also, I loved the subject [of a female Kabaddi player's quest to enter the circle again at 30]. I'm also very fond of Ashwiny."
Ashwiny reciprocates this fondness: "Neena ma'am is a great inspiration. When the whole world says they can't, she says she can. She's also the epitome of simplicity. She's an amazing actor and an even more special human. Her energy and passion reflect in the way she carries herself. I'm looking forward to working with her on more films, and want her to be the guiding light in my life."
Neena asserts that Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and the character she plays in it are very different from Badhaai Ho. "Unlike in Badhaai Ho, my character won't be as quiet. But obviously, like in every middle class family, the woman is suppressed by her husband and relatives " that will be there. But it's an entirely new world. It's not a slice-of-life dramedy; rather a farce, at a slightly exaggerated note."
Her third film of the month would have been Rohit Shetty's cop drama Sooryavanshi, in which she was signed on to play the protagonist Akshay Kumar's mother. She reveals she is no longer a part of the film, but this setback has not bogged her down. Currently, she's shooting for a lighthearted film in Punjab, which stars Rakul Preet and Arjun Kapoor in the lead roles. It will reunite her onscreen with her best friend Soni Razdan, 37 years after they starred in Shyam Benegal's Mandi. "We're happy to work together again, but that has nothing to do with our professional space. What has sustained our friendship for over 30 years now is the fact that we're honest with each other. When I learnt she's also coming to Punjab to work on the film, my instant reaction was, "Chalo, mazze aayenge!" (we will have fun). It was never about being happy that the other has got a role. She told me she'll bring her house-help along, to prepare home-made food. I was glad that I'll be able to eat it during the shoot. Haha!"
The realm of streaming services has also opened its doors to her. While she has only been seen in the short film Khujli (opposite Jackie Shroff) three years ago so far, she has a variety of projects lined up now. She has shot for Panchayat, a show for The Viral Fever, slated to premiere on Amazon Prime Video India this year. She has also filmed for a Netflix Original show Masaba Masaba, a real-life take on her relationship with her designer-daughter Masaba Gupta. "I want to do all kinds of roles, whether in films or on the web. I don't care about the platform. As long as my role is good, I'll do it.
I want to be offered different kinds of roles, not just the mother-mother ones," says Neena, with a hint of exasperation in her voice.
Along with these two shows, she will also be seen in Tahira Kashyap's short film, produced by Guneet Monga's Sikhya Entertainment, that reportedly has an all-female cast and crew. "Women are all over film sets these days, whether in front of the camera or behind it. It's a heartening improvement from my earlier days. But the roles for women, particular for those at my age, are few and far between. That's why we feel bad when a potential role of a character of our age isn't offered to us," says Neena. She's offering a cue of what she will address next.
Last year, veteran actresses like Soni and Neena lamented the fact that the promising lead roles of two 60-plus rural award-winning sharpshooters, Chandro and Prakashi Tomar, in Tushar Hiranandani's coming-of-age sports film Saand Ki Aankh were offered to much younger actresses " Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar. This was made possible because of prosthetics. "I never asked why the roles went to them; they are great actresses, no doubt. I just asked mujhe kyun nahi mila (why I was not offered the role)? There's a difference there. It comes from my greed as an actor who wants to do good roles at this age. Anyway, there are very limited roles that come our way."
She narrates an anecdote featuring Anupam Kher, her co-star in the play Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha, who asked her why young actors cannot play the parts of the elderly, like he did in his debut Saaransh by Mahesh Bhatt. "I told him not to tell me this, because I've done all kinds of roles. Thirty years ago, I played my National School of Drama (NSD) batchmate Annu Kapoor's mother. I painted my hair with a whitener. I've played elderly women when these actresses weren't even born! Go and tell them that. Perhaps at that time, some senior actresses may have objected to my casting too." She reached out to co-producer Anurag Kashyap when news about Saand Ki Aankh first surfaced. "He told me he wanted to cast me, but the (co-)producers wanted someone young. So it's obvious, no! They want someone more saleable."
Such incidents have not, however, deterred her from reaching out to the filmmakers she wants to work with. "I didn't make myself available back then, which is why I missed out on a lot of good offers. But today I feel more confident, as I have some recent success to back me up. Of course, it's a business so they will end up taking who they think sells, but it's important to keep yourself in the loop. What if they forget you during the casting process?"
At this age and with her young heart, Neena believes her choices " in films, fashion and otherwise " reside in the long stretch between convention and modernity.
As she puts it, she is a person "between a saree and shorts". Despite living with a designer, she often chooses to express her own style statement in public. "Masaba has a keen eye for what the youth likes. I don't have that knowledge. She's more aware about fashion, but we both are acutely aware of our own styles. We buy other designer brands too, and I don't hesitate in telling her if I don't want to wear something she has designed. I like wearing Indian outfits like sarees. But in Mumbai, I prefer to wear shorts and dresses, because of the weather. That's also because I have good legs. With age I've realised that I don't want to flaunt those body parts which aren't 'perfect'. If I have a tummy, I won't wear tucked-in shirts, though I love them. If I have chubby arms, I won't wear sleeveless outfits. That's just a choice one makes. The idea is to show your strengths, parde par ho ya kapdon par" (whether on screen or in wardrobe). Haha!"
Neena often takes to Hindi in order to convey her deepest feelings. She switches back to English, probably when she realises she is not chatting with a friend in her living room. But she cannot help drop her guard again within a few minutes. She smiles more when she gives her honesty a chance " and this writer will not be surprised if this is how she will be all her life.
Photographs by Rahul Sharda
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