Two strong women: Mother-daughter duo, Neena and Masaba Gupta, reset rules of strength and character

Ananya Ghosh

The hashtag #RelationshipGoals must have been made for Neena, 62, and Masaba Gupta, 30. The fiercely individualistic mother and daughter are incredibly cute together: Neena disapproves of Masaba’s Insta video skills; Masaba is embarrassed by Neena’s social media shenanigans. Neena gives instructions veiled as suggestions to her dear Masu, and Masaba ignores them. They fight over the trivial, but always have each other’s back. And they can read each other’s mind. At least that’s how it seems when you catch them completing each other’s sentences – even when they’re arguing. The only word that comes to mind is ‘awww!’

The bold act

That’s how it should be, given that these two have endured more than most mother-daughter duos. Masaba is Neena’s love child with West Indies cricket legend Vivian Richards. Having a child out of wedlock is considered ‘brave’ even today. And the word ‘brave’ makes Neena laugh out loud. “I am very much aware that I am considered a ‘strong woman’. And I am also aware that that is only because I had a child outside wedlock,” she chuckles. “Aur koi bhi cheez mujhmein aisi nahi hai ke mujhe strong kaha jaye! (There’s no other quality in me other than this that makes me strong!) I did that early on and then Ganga naha li! It was like, now I have nothing else to prove. My life is complete!”

Masaba says that although now beauty has become more inclusive, it was really hard while growing up and she was bodyshamed for her unconventional looks; (On Masaba) Shirt, Deme by Gabriella; neckpiece, Amrapali Jewels; cuff, Amrapali Jewels; (On Neena): Outfit, Masaba (Prabhat Shetty)

She finds this attitude ridiculous, “The condition of women in our country is so bad that compared to them I have been through nothing,” she says. “I have just had a child out of wedlock, but I get to be the face of the independent modern woman. I don’t think it is fair.”

“I got screwed in school because I was a love child!” –Masaba Gupta

Still, you can’t deny that it does take mental strength not to conform. “Many people had advised me not to go ahead with the decision,” says Neena. “But love is a kind of a nasha…. It is not your head taking the decisions, but your heart.”

Once made up, however, Neena’s mind began to go around in circles, wondering how the world would treat her baby when born, whether a school would grant admission to a love child, and so on. Fortunately, Neena was part of a community that did not let her down. That community was Bollywood.

The Bollywood bulwark

“Bollywood is criticised for many things,” muses Neena. “There is always a backlash from the media, especially these days with the #MeToo movement. But it is a very united industry. The way it rallied around me and became a shield for Masu is something I will always be grateful for. Everyone became protective about her. Everyone wanted to make sure that the kid is brought up right!”

Being a part of Bollywood insulated Neena and Masaba from the hate and negativity to a great extent; (On Masaba) Jacket, Curato; Earrings, Misho; (Neena and Masaba) Outfit, Masaba (Prabhat Shetty)

Nothing in Neena’s background had prepared her for such open-mindedness on such a scale. The daughter of a government officer and a teacher, she’d grown up in an orthodox home in Delhi. “My mom was so strict that even during my college days I wasn’t allowed to go for a movie with my girl friends. It was that bad. I just had to revolt,” she says.

“I never compromised. I never slept with anybody to get a role!” –Neena Gupta

But without that background, Neena muses, she probably would not have been equipped to rebel correctly. “The fact that my parents were both educated and held certain values very dearly, like honesty, self-respect and integrity, meant that I could steer clear of many pitfalls,” she says. “I never compromised. I never slept with anybody to get a role. My upbringing saved me.”

And it helped that by the time Masaba was in the making, her father (she had already lost her mother by then) came out in her support.

The pretty ugly truth

Despite all this, Masaba did not have life easy. Kids who don’t fit the mould often get bullied in school, but for Masaba it was a double whammy. “First it was famous parents and then looking the way I do!” says Masaba. “There were boys in my class who would stick pencils in my curls, and say ‘oh it’s like a cushion’ and laugh at me. Even my body type was very different from the other girls in my school. So I grew up thinking that I don’t look good enough. I was miserable and had low self-esteem. Those are things that stick with you for a very long time.”

When Neena decided to keep her love child with West Indian cricketing legend Vivian Richards, it was her dad who came out in her support; (On Masaba) Earrings, Azotiique; (On Neena) Rings, Amrapali Jewels (Prabhat Shetty)

As a victim of body-shaming, Masaba has thought long and hard about the phenomenon and how it stems from a social system that puts women in certain stereotypes and certain boxes. “You never really run out of those boxes,” she says. “And trust me, you will be shamed even if you manage to fit yourself into these boxes.”

“There were boys who would stick pencils in my curls… My body type was different. So I grew up thinking that I don’t look good enough” –Masaba Gupta

In fact, she adds, the #MeToo movement is creating even more boxes for women. “First you must be sanskari and abide by all rules, now suddenly you must be independent and vocal about your rights. You might not be inherently that person, but you have no option. And since being single is suddenly the hip thing, your dream of having a sweet little family must be shunned, so you can be part of the bandwagon of ‘woke’ women. It is so pointless,” says Masaba.

Success speaks

Neena had no idea that Masaba had been body-shamed and bullied so much. She’s just learning about it today, from Masaba’s Instagram account, where she is inspiring young women with the same problem.

“Now that I have made a name for myself, I have the confidence to speak out,” says Masaba. “Also, I think you can never talk about these things when they are actually happening. It is only when the tide settles that you can gather your thoughts and articulate. Then you also realise maybe it was never that big a deal.”

In any case, Masaba never allowed herself to be made a victim. “She was no saint,” says Neena. “She was a very angry child.”

“I used to be angry all the time and at everybody. I would get really violent,” agrees Masaba. “I used to have a Milton steel water bottle that I would wield like a hammer, almost! My answer to all my bullies was to take out my bottle and hit them. Then I got majorly into sports to exhaust some of my energy.”

But she is quick to add: “If boys can hit, why can’t girls hit? What is so feminine about standing there and taking all the s**t?”

“I used to have a Milton steel water bottle that I would wield like a hammer. My answer to all my bullies was to take my bottle and hit them!” –Masaba Gupta

Bodyshaming was just one part of the torment Masaba faced while growing up. “I got screwed in school because I was a love child,” she says. “I vividly remember being called a bastard child by one of my classmates. I was in Class 7 then. I also remember his name. I think I will call him up one of these days. I need to find my Milton bottle before that!”

When Masaba complained to her teacher, the boy was punished. Looking back as an adult, she now thinks all the boy did was paint a harsher picture of her reality than she was used to at the time. “My childhood had much clarity,” Masaba says. “I didn’t see abuse. I didn’t see my parents bickering. I didn’t live in a dysfunctional family. I saw mutual respect, and yes there was distance. It was an unfortunate situation. People are so obsessed with the idea of my having a troubled relationship with my dad that I often feel almost a tad bad to tell them, no, that’s not how it is! He is my dad and he doesn’t live with us, but he is still very much my dad. There is absolutely no discomfort or friction!”

The best policy

Masaba’s mature attitude to her circumstances comes from her mother’s honesty. Neena never hid the facts from her daughter. “That was the only way I knew to prepare her for what I anticipated the world might throw at her,” says Neena. “I told her what was what the very day she asked me. I told her what my situation was, how I fell in love and how that went, and everything. What option did she have after knowing this? She had to deal with it. Honesty is the best preparation.”

“Bollywood is criticised for many things, but it is a very united industry. [When I became a mother outside wedlock] everyone became a shield for Masu [Masaba]” –Neena Gupta

To which Masaba adds: “When something is placed in front of you, you have the option to see it as it is. Or be in denial and create your own alternate reality. I saw the situation as it is, I saw my mother as she is, and as I grew up I only had a better understanding of the situation. It never got any worse. It was never like I have such a sad life that I will go and do drugs. Maximum I would do was have a maharaja burger – IF I was really that frustrated!”

Today, Masaba is one of India’s most influential and experimental fashion designers, while Neena Gupta, a National Award winner (Best Supporting Actress for Woh Chokri in 1994), is basking in the success of her new film, Badhaai Ho (2018).

They are both strong women.

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From HT Brunch, March 3, 2019

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