The title of Neena Gupta's new memoir, Sach Kahun Toh, translates to 'If I may speak the truth'. The expression holds myriad interpretations. It could be an innocent admission, a brutal confession, or a trigger to utter the truth.
While Neena may come across as the one with brutal confessions and the power to damage you with her frank demeanour thanks to her media-fed perception, her book firmly suggests that the woman behind the words is an innocently introspective individual trying to assess life so far in her 60s.
If there is any sign of brutality, it is directed towards herself. She does not skim over but deeps dive into her regrets. But that comes inseparably attached with the pride she harbours for how far she has come, as an actor, a mother, and a woman.
In an exclusive interview, Neena discusses grievances with her acting career, how different her relationship with daughter (actor and designer) Masaba Gupta is from the one Neena had with her late mother, and how the only thing stopping her from directing again is contentment as an actor.
If there is one aspect that has been consistent in your tumultuous life, it is your honesty. You have been honest in the way you have led life, on screen in the roles you have perfected, on social media, and in past media interactions. How was the book different? Was it therapeutic to be honest all over again?
Sach kahu toh aisa kuchh therapeutic nahi tha. I was just concerned whether people would like it or not. That was my main anxiety. I hope they don't get bored reading about my childhood. I was just happy to have been able to finish it because I'd been trying for 20 years but could never go beyond a page or two. That felt great above everything.
You have dedicated half a dozen chapters to your childhood and the relationships you share with immediate family members, including your mother, father, and brother who are no more. You tell the readers that you are aware they have opened the book to jump straight to the controversial phase of your life. But you urge they give your childhood accounts a chance because that was instrumental in you making the choices you did later in life. Do you think that will help portray a more well-rounded picture of you?
The way you live with your parents is the neev (foundation) of what you become. But the building that comes up on that neev, that's what you make of life. I had some good and bad experiences and DNAs from my parents. But the building I've made is all me, and I think I've done well [chuckles].
Sorry, I'm praising myself. But I've grown with the times. I have some friends from school and college who are still there, and not grown at all. When I see them, I give myself a pat on the back that I've changed so much for good.
I couldn't imagine when I was living in Karol Bagh (Delhi) that I'd be so comfortable in my lifestyle today.
In the chapter Behenji, you have said you lived a dual life of being a Sanskrit student and donning Western attire and having a modern outlook. In our last interaction, you called yourself as a person somewhere between "shorts and saris." Do you feel that has deterred you from fitting in in either of the spaces?
No. It's not like that. In our society, there's a thing that if you know Sanskrit, you can't wear modern clothes. Why yaar? It has nothing to do with my brains. If I wear a short dress, then people ask, "Kahan gaye sanskar?" If I wear tight or torn jeans, toh mere sanskar kharab nahi hote. Mere ma-baap ne jo sanskar diye hain, wo rahenge.
In my MA class in Delhi University, there were students who wore salwar kameez, but it was their wish, their upbringing, their parents. I had nothing against them so why have anything against me? Yes, if I'm badly behaved, didn't speak to anyone, or didn't get up when my teacher entered the classroom, you could say I have no sanskar. But I was good! So what if I wore shorts? And all the girls who didn't like it, felt so because they wanted to wear what I did. But that would've meant going against their parents. Nonetheless, one shouldn't wear judgements if what the other wears doesn't fall in line with one's moral code.
You said in the book you kept waiting for Shyam Benegal to cast you in the lead role but that opportunity never knocked at your door. Were you just another victim of the actors' hierarchy in parallel cinema?
I don't know. I still don't know. It could be that. He also got finance from outside so maybe they wanted more saleable actors like Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel. I was just hopeful that maybe in the next one, he casts me as the lead. It wasn't just me but a whole lot of actors who hoped so. But that 'next one' never came. Someone should ask Shyam Benegal why Neena Gupta wasn't cast as a lead in any of his films.
Have you ever asked him?
No, I was very scared of him. I had great respect and regard for him so I never asked. I was happy being hopeful.
With Om Puri in Mandi
Your directorial career began with Bazaar Sitaram, for which you won a National Award for Best First Non-Feature Film. It continued on TV with shows like Saans, considered ahead of their time. Your show was unceremoniously removed from the programming with the advent of Ekta Kapoor's daily soaps and a more TRP-based TV industry. Do you feel your voice would be more heard now if you choose to return as a director?
Actually, I'm at a stage in my career when I've got good acting roles after many years. So I'm not thinking of anything else. I just want to enjoy acting for now. There are no directorial plans as of now. But if I feel dil se that I've to direct something like the Bazaar Sitaram documentary, then I wouldn't worry about what people want to see. If you make something from the heart, then people do end up liking it. It's not that sabko naach-gana hi pasand aata hai. If you calculate, then you'd be like let's insert a joke here. That won't work. Jo banana hai banao na. If it doesn't work, then you won't get finance next time. Ussey bura kya hoga. When I won the National Award, inaam mila par kaam nahi. There were no roles for me. But that's how life is. I've no complaints.
With Kanwaljit Singh in Saans
There are a couple of chapters in the book, like Lallu Ladki and Aap Ja Sakte Hain, where your real life and onscreen life reflect each other. Does this real-reel parallel not feel eerie?
Haha, it does. But my real life is actually very different. Yes, I did play a lallu ladki in Saath Saath (1982), after which I got stuck in the dim, comic girl stereotype. So I became a lallu ladki in real life too. But I didn't remain one. And Aap Ja Sakte Hain refers to the time when I anchored a TV reality show Kamzor Kadi Kaun for Star. I used to say, "Aap ja sakte hain" to inform a contestant about their elimination. But little did I know that I would get the same treatment after Star ended my years-long association with them. It was a professional setback. I used to speak so much while shooting for Kamzor Kadi Kaun that I had to get an MRI. Nothing came out of it so my doctors thought the symptoms must be because I was speaking for days at length for this show.
Your first tryst with autobiographical elements was the Netflix India show Masaba Masaba from last year, again a parallel between your real and real lives. Did that give you the nudge required to finally finish your memoir?
No. There I was just an actor playing the role, nothing more than that. It's a show that has both fact and fiction but my book is 100 percent facts. It was the lockdown, and I was here at Mukteshwar (hill station in Uttarakhand) for months. I had the time, and mountains around me. So I thought, chalo likhti hu. And then it just happened.
With Mila in Mukteshwar
Speaking of Masaba, how different is her relationship with you than the one you had with your mother?
It's very different. My mother and I used to rarely talk. We weren't really friends. I couldn't say so many things to her, that even harmed me eventually. I'm very honest about Masaba. My mother couldn't be as honest with me because she was ashamed of certain things about herself. Masaba can talk to me about anything. Of course there's a line where I'm the mother and she's the daughter. But beyond that, we have a lot to share. Masaba can also crack jokes at herself, which I'm glad has come from me. We even have the same shoe size [laughs].
When you looked back at your childhood while writing this book, did you feel that you are still the Karol Bagh girl you thought you left behind? Do you yearn to go back there?
No way! I don't want to go back ever. I've grown by miles. God is very gracious today. Whatever my journey has been, I don't want to go back. I'm enjoying myself today. Touchwood.
In the chapter If I Could Turn Back Time, you wish to go back in time and make some adjustments. But given how proud you are of where you stand today, won't those adjustments change this?
I feel the recognition I've got today has come very late. If I had a mentor, I could've reached this stage maybe 30 years ago. I'm very happy and grateful but when I see the young actresses of today get good parts, somewhere you feel kash ye time tab aaya hota jab main jawan thi.
But you narrate multiple instances in the book of when you trusted the wrong people. Would that not have been the case with a mentor if there was ever one?
You're right. Maybe aur gadbad ho jata. Today, there are still many casting agencies doing good work. At that time, there were only secretaries for getting your money on time from the producers. They couldn't get you work. I wish there were somebody who could guide me but maybe you're right! Maybe I would've gone to a wrong mentor, and aaj jo hai shayad wo bhi nahi hota.
I loved how you talked about smell as a memory trigger. That the smell of khas reminds you of afternoon naps because you used it to cool your room in Karol Bagh. And how the saline smell of the Mumbai sea reminds you of new beginnings. What is the current set of smells that describe the phase of life you are in right now?
It's interesting you mentioned that. I'm very impressed you've read the book so carefully. Even now, every January, that smell still comes to me. It reminds me of when I moved to Mumbai to look for work as an actor. I was so scared and anxious. Actually, I relate a lot to smell. If the nariyal ki chutney is a day old, I can tell. A lot of people say they can't. My sense of smell is very dictatorial.
Does this sense of smell also help you with acting " identifying characters with a particular odour?
Nahi nahi, wo sab nahi karti main [laughs].
When that saline smell comes to you every January, does it still make you feel excited about new beginnings?
No, on the contrary, the smell pains me a lot. I faced a lot of difficulties in my early days here. When anyone goes through a problem, you don't realise the hurt or the ache. It's only afterwards that you do. That time, you're going through the drill. But it's only when a trigger like this smell hits you that you realise, main kahan kahan se ho k guzari hu. So I sense only pain in that smell.
Sach Kaun Toh is being published by Penguin Random House.