Neena Gupta has never done what was expected of her. The postgraduate in philosophy and Sanskrit who was in the same class at National School of Drama as Anupam Kher, Satish Kaushik and Anu Kapoor, should have been an instant leading lady with her firecracker looks and superlative talent.
But Neena Gupta began with a comic role in Raman Kumar’s Saath Saath (1982) starring the Chashme Buddoor pair Farooq Sheikh and Deepti Naval. The very urbane Ketaki of the corporate Doordarshan drama Khaandan (1985) could also be the folksy twin to Madhuri Dixit’s Ganga in the very naughty Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai, channeling Ila Arun’s husky, eroticised questions in Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak (1993). The art house favourite of the ’80s cinema such as Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983) and Aruna Raje’s Rihaee (1988) became a one-woman army producing and directing Saans (1999), Star Plus’ saga of the dignified abandoned wife remaking her life after divorce, which riveted viewers in the days before all sense and sensibility on television was obliterated by the arrival of Kaun Banega Crorepati and Balaji soaps Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii (2000).
Neena Gupta, the independent, free thinking and free speaking icon of the art cinema movement held out a tantalising possibility for young women back then. It was possible to choose to have a child and not be locked in a marriage or not appear heartbroken. It was a heady idea for young women and a threatening one for frowning parents at that time.
That possibility has aged well in the 21st century. Her career revival, blissed out Instagram avatar make her look like someone who has figured out all the answers and has unknotted all the dilemmas.
The seemingly conservative young woman brought up in a Gandhian environment in Delhi was at one point India’s most celebrated single mother, with her daughter’s birth certificate, establishing West Indian cricketer Vivian Richards as the father, such a prized possession that it became one of the defining scandalous stories of a magazine editor who liked to walk on the edge of ethics.
Also read: Badhaai Ho exposes our prudishness about sex
Return of a lifetime
In most cases, these actions in themselves would be enough to define a career. But the 60-year-old Gupta has had a late career renaissance with a fuzzy warm role in a cozy blanket of a movie, Badhaai Ho (2018), as Priyamvada who has a late blooming baby, thus embarrassing her adult son, Ayushmaan Khurrana; inconveniencing her younger son Shardul Rana; and shocking her querulous mother in law, Surekha Sikri. A result of going on Instagram and asking for work, Badhaai Ho has sparked a busy return to the big screen for the actress who is now an essential first option for anyone looking for a mum with a difference.
And when she is overlooked for ‘hamari umar ke role’, she is not afraid to speak her mind on Twitter and point out that the forthcoming Saand ki Aankh could have had actual 60-year-olds to play the grandma shooters.
Yes i was just thinking about this hamari umar ke role toe kamsekam humse kara lo bhai https://t.co/6Fmrxn0HbE
— Neena Gupta (@Neenagupta001) September 24, 2019
Besides being active on Twitter, where she wishes Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his birthday, Neena Gupta has also acquired a loyal fan following for her Instagram videos, SachKahoonToe, where she speaks of everyday concerns from loneliness to being a slave to fashion. To this persona she adds occasional posts of her dressed in stunning outfits, throwback pictures with her daughter, fashion designer Masaba Gupta, and party hearty videos where she can be found swinging through a celebration wearing a sassy white shirt and denim mini skirt and carrying a whisky glass.
Is it a surprise then that Netflix has ordered a series based on the real life escapades of the mother/daughter duo, called Masaba Masaba. Vinta Nanda, who directed the groundbreaking story of single women in Mumbai, Tara (1993), on Zee TV, told The Print that Gupta is a very fine actor who lights fire to whatever she does in her personal and professional life. Says the writer-director who now produces The Daily Eye Show for the web: “Ever since I’ve known Neena, which is from the time I started working in the industry in the mid ’80s, I’ve seen her as a woman pushing boundaries and holding the door open for other women to walk into places which are believed to be uncharted territory. She is a terrific writer, perceptive director and a pathfinding actor.”
Let talent speak
She has also shown that talent does eventually triumph. Gupta always felt her image as an independent woman in the film industry worked against her casting on the big screen. As she said in an interview last year: “I lost a lot of work, because a strong woman meant a negative woman in my time.” This realisation of her own power was a running theme in almost all her interviews in the 1990s, at the height of her success in television, as a woman of a certain age grappling with love and life in Dard (Doordarshan, 1993), Saans (Star Plus, 1999) and Siski (Star Plus, 2000). “Men see me as an independent, sexy woman, And some are afraid of me,” she once said. Indeed, accesorised with with a Black Contessa and a pack of State Express cigarettes, in the same article, India Today gushes about her being a thinking man’s actress among an array of “has-beens, bimbos and wannabes of television”.
Once destined for blissful singlehood, Neena Gupta has been married to a Delhi-based chartered accountant Vivek Mehra since 2008, though they choose to live in different cities. Her friends are delighted for her, personally and professionally. Soni Razdan, who is enjoying something of a welcome revival herself with a leading role in Zee5’s Yours Truly and a role in the well received Channel 4 comedy This Way Up, has been friends with Gupta ever since they shared a room while shooting for Mandi. Razdan told The Print: “Neena has really come into her own and that’s wonderful”. Has it created opportunities for women of a certain age to be themselves and not aunties and mummies? No idea, she responds quickly. “Time will tell.” And when it does, it will mean a lot more diversity of stories and characters on screens, big and small.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.