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Frankly, 'Badhaai Ho' was my first big break in films: Neena Gupta

The actor, who feels fame and success came late to her in life, is enjoying a glorious run in films and streaming shows with author-backed roles and chart-topping performances

Neena Gupta in 'Masaba Masaba'
Neena Gupta in 'Masaba Masaba'

The woman who embraced single motherhood with courage and candour. Who espoused the cause of the taken-for-granted wife through 400 episodes when extra marital affairs were only spoken about in whispers. Who dared to post a demand saying she was not too old to work. Who took on a role no other glamourous star would have touched with a barge pole, and turned it into a winning streak.

Die-hard actress. A producer many times over. Show host. National Award winner. Director and writer. Singer. Soon to be author. Reinventing herself every time she hit a dead end.

At 61, she embodies the spirit of the catchy, sassy song from the latest Netflix no. 1, Masaba Masaba, in which she plays herself: Aunty kisko bola be?

So you see, she isn’t just Masaba’s mother. She’s Neena Gupta.

How does it feel have Masaba Masaba rated number 1 on Netflix?

Neena: Udh rahi hoon!

That is a feeling you must have experienced often. Through the three-plus decades since your role in Gandhi, you have set many milestones.

Neena: Hmmm...Gandhi was the reason I came to Bombay. A lot of actors from NSD were cast in the film, and all of us shifted from Delhi to Bombay. But I knew even then that a break in films would not be easy.

But you were sure you wanted to act in films; not theatre.

Neena: I continued to act in stage plays. But soon after passing out from NSD, in 1980, I acted in a film by Ashok Ahuja, called Adharshila. It had a lot of NSD actors in it, Satish Kaushik, Anita Kanwar, Naseeruddin was about the character being played by Naseer shooting a film. Well, I saw myself on screen, and the decision was immediate. I knew I wanted to be in films.

So the intitial years were tough. When did you get your big break?

Neena: If you ask me, frankly, my big break was Badhai Ho! Two years ago, in 2018.

But you have a great filmography. With directors like Shyam Benegal and Gulzar, among many others. I think you were in every Benegal film.

Neena: That is true, but I was never the lead in any of them. In Mandi, it was Shabana and Smita, in Susman it was Shabana, in Kalyug it was a host of others. So I was there, but never in focus. I had a good role in Suraj Ka Saatvan Ghoda, but so did all the other women in the film; the heroine’s part was clearly Rajeshwari’s.

Yet, anyone who has watched these films knows that you had a standout role. You remained in the memory despite it being a cameo role.

Neena: Perhaps. But that did not get me any major breaks.

What changed with your shift to television?

Neena: Khandaan offered me a role where I could act; it was a meaty role, well drawn out. As Ketaki, people noticed me. It brought me real success, in that it made me famous.

So your trials were over... with offers pouring in.

Neena: Yes, There were many offers. But they were terrible roles. All of them were negative. Just because I had played this bad ass spoilt daughter who wants to take over her father’s business and shuns the idea of marriage, everyone wanted me to continue playing the bad woman. And you know, in those days, everything was black and white. To show the heroine as being perfect and an epitome of womanhood, the ‘villain’ had to be a vamp... dressed in a deep-neck gown, smoking, drinking, seducing...I had no problem with playing a negative character, but not a cardboard one. I did not want that stereotyping.

But you stayed afloat. Kept acting in films

Neena: I did, I had to earn. I did some really terrible roles, I have played a bhikari, begging on the streets, a servant. But at least I resisted being typecast.

Did Khandan not lay the world of the small screen at your feet?

Neena: I wish... there was only one tv channel, and slots were full. But when DD Metro was launched, I took my chance and decided the best way to find a good role was to produce a series myself that had good roles in it.

That was brave. How did that work?

Neena: I produced and acted in Dard, with Manohar Singh in the lead opposite me. Anupam Kalidhar was my business partner; he looked after all the business angles and let me concentrate on the creative aspects.

And the response...

Neena: The series was well received . It was good; but some political upheavals intervened. We ended up with a disaster on our hands. But I would not give up.

You produced another series. Gumrah. With Irfan starring in it.

Neena: Yes, Ratikant Basu, who headed the channel was very supportive. He is among the most fair-minded and incorruptible people I have met. But there were people above him; and he was powerless against interference. We were paupers again.

But it is as the director and lead actor in Saans that people remember as your real foray into television...

Neena: Saans was a huge success. Yes.

Tell us how you took it up.

Neena: I was on a trip to Delhi. Ratikant Basu had moved from TV to some other portfolio, but I dropped in on him on a courtesy visit. I remember telling him that satellite TV was opening up and he should shift to Bombay and take charge of a channel. Believe it or not, that was what he did. He took on Star Plus. Then he called me asking if I had any ideas to offer for the channel.

How did you hit on the idea of the theme for Saans?

Neena: I wanted to create a focus on the lives of educated women, who by 35 or 36 feel they belong to the dead generation. They have lost their passion for love, sex and joy and live in limbo. Their husbands are climbing the rungs of their career, interacting with attractive young women and venture into a sexual or bigamous relationship. It often leads to the wife being dumped. I felt their story had to be told.

But you went beyond just narration...Saans reached out to the women who needed help.

Neena: I think it did. I played the wife, and many women empathised with my case; felt they were going through the same things my character was going through but had not realised it. They felt I could help them. And that is what the series did; showed a way.

Why made you direct it?

Neena: I wanted to tell it my way. Often I had felt while acting in a film or serial, if I were directing it, I would have done it differently. I wanted my vision for Saans to come through. Though there were two writers, I sat in on every session, and steered the script. Of course, I took on a capable, senior associate director, who was professional enough to listen to what I wanted and capable enough to ensure it translated on screen. There were times I was scared; but it kept coming right; so we went on.

Saans ran for ever...

Neena: Not by today’s standards. I think we did 400 episodes, once a week for three years. Our idea was to go on till the story was told in full. But when we wanted to close, the TRPs were very high so the channel told us to continue. It was a bit of a disaster, so we shut it down.

Will you say Saans changed how the industry perceived you?

Neena: I was now an ‘entrepreneur’. Saans won me respect. It also got me the job of hosting Kamzor Kadi Kaun.

I hated you in that, sorry.

Neena: It was an international series, and I had to be rude and strident. Everyone hated me in it. And it set me back.

What happened?

Neena: Saans bandh ho gayi. I was back to square one.

You said earlier that your real commercial break came with Badhaai Ho. Want to elaborate on that?

Neena: It’s common knowledge now, how I ‘advertised’ my availability as an actress, and took up the challenging role. Personally, I think, breaking the norm made the big difference. And all the awards added their bit. I had entire cover stories written on me. I have won the national award earlier for Woh Chokri, but no one had even noticed that!

Let’s come back to television. You have an interesting role in Panchayat. And have managed to look the part. Does it not worry you that you may again get only such roles?

Neena (laughing): Masaba Masaba should take care of that worry. But talking of Panchayat, it was a role I enjoyed. I am a desi person; not convent school bred or westernised. And in Delhi I lived in Karol Bagh where there were rich and poor, and I have interacted with them all, listened to them talk, heard the different ways they speak. The role came easy to play.

And the deglamorisation?

Neena: You know, when the work is good, you look beautiful; people do not see faults. Yes, sometimes the lighting makes me look terrible, but I know that lighting is for the entire scene, and can not be changed only to flatter me. Anyway, I am not young, and have to accept my age... (laughs)

Just a little about Masaba Masaba. Was it your idea?

Neena: No, no. Ashvini (Yardi; showrunner) came to me with the idea; she enjoyed reading Masaba’s insta posts, loved that she laughed at herself in them. When she said Netflix would produce it, we were at first confused how to go about it. But we told the writers our stories, and they shaped it all. When we got Sonam Nair on board, we were ready to roll.

How has it been acting with your daughter?

Neena: I thought we would be stiff, awkward. But our scenes came out smoothly, very natural. In fact I am surprised at the ease with which she is handling the role. I have not helped her much; not at all, except in the initial reading sessions, when I told her to slow her pace down. Then, when she had problems worrying about looking fresh after a night schedule, I shared some advice. She has done the rest herself. I am not even present in her scenes.

It runs in the blood, you think?

Neena (laughing): I just think, like me, she is very professional and dedicated in whatever she does. And it shows.

So, will she continue acting now that she has tasted blood?

Neena: That has been her dream, since she was 16. I stopped her. But now she will fly. Though she wants to continue her designing work too. But knowing my daughter, she will get exactly what she wants, on her terms.

Sathya Saran is a journalist, author and former editor of Femina

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