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Neena Gupta: 'I have never been a nobody'

In an excerpt from her autobiography, Neena Gupta recalls how an Instagram post changed the film industry's perception of her

Masaba Gupta and (right) Neena Gupta. Image courtesy Penguin Random House
Masaba Gupta and (right) Neena Gupta. Image courtesy Penguin Random House

Neena Gupta acted in some of the great parallel films of the 1980s: Mandi, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Utsav. Yet she was rarely the lead—so she reinvented herself on TV. Now 62, she’s found her second wind, with author-backed roles in films like Badhaai Ho and series like Panchayat and Masaba Masaba (alongside her daughter, Masaba Gupta). In this edited excerpt from her autobiography, Sach Kahun Toh, she recalls how an Instagram post changed the course of her career.

I am not a nobody. I have never been a nobody. I am Neena Gupta and since my TV break in Khandaan, I have always been a name. It helped that I kept myself on the silver and small screens through sheer grit and hard work. I know now that while I may never have been as famous as Bachchan Sahib or SRK, I have always been a household name in my own right.

Also read: Sai Paranjpye tells it like it is

Unfortunately, I never became a superstar because I was never offered the main roles in films and the most iconic characters I played on television, barring Khandaan, were all produced and directed by me.

My low self-confidence, which I have discussed at length through this book, never even let me fight for what I wanted and thought I truly deserved.

After I married Vivek (Mehra, who she married in 2008), still in a slump and completely unmotivated to do any kind of work, it seemed as if I had gone into hiding.

For many years, I made this man the centre of my existence and didn’t bother to actively network or seek roles. I did a few film and television roles during this time. Small, insignificant roles, honestly, because I just had different priorities then.

I so badly wanted to have a husband and an extended family that it didn’t matter that my situation was less than ideal. I was more focused on proving to a different set of people that I was a good and honest person and it was a toxic period in my life, except that the press didn’t care for a change and I actually liked that.

Work wasn’t a priority, but I did keep myself on top of what was happening in the industry. I played small parts in films like Hello Zindagi and Issaq. I also played small parts in television shows like Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin and Saath Phere.

'Sach Kahun Toh' by Neena Gupta, Penguin Random House, 295 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
'Sach Kahun Toh' by Neena Gupta, Penguin Random House, 295 pages, 599

But while I was trying to build a family, I ignored an important aspect of my work—networking and attending parties and events. I also lost touch with old contacts through whom I would always get some work. Instead, I filled my months and years with birthdays, parties, functions and weddings from Vivek’s side of the family.

It should have come as no surprise to me then that whenever I met anyone from the industry, they always asked, ‘How’s Delhi treating you?’ or ‘How’s married life? You have retired now?’

I didn’t think much of it and just went about my business because I had too much drama in my personal life.

But then one day in 2017, I went to meet Zoya Akhtar for a small part in a television series called Made in Heaven. It wasn’t a significant part, but I really wanted to do the show.

I was just walking in when I ran into her assistant who greeted me warmly and asked when I had returned to Bombay.

‘I never left Bombay . . .’ I said, suddenly feeling the weight of that statement fully. The rest of the meeting went well, and I did a small role in the series. But that was later.

I remember feeling so angry and upset after that meeting.

Is this what people think? That I am married now and live in Delhi?

Is this why I am not getting any work?

I was seething by the time I reached home and did something that was extremely impulsive without running it past anybody.

To my 11,000 followers (at the time) on Instagram, I wrote: ‘I live in mumbai and working am a good actor looking fr good parts to play’

Please excuse the grammar and spellings. I know I made some errors there. I wrote it out of passion and fury. Do bear in mind that I am from the older generation, so texting and social media are things I still work very hard at.

But this is what I posted along with a picture of myself that I thought did justice to how well I had aged over the years.

The post went viral. Two minutes after posting it, I knew it was too late to delete it.

I received a barrage of comments and many of them seemed good. But I suddenly felt choked with guilt and shame because I realized I didn’t really know what I had just done. I was scared that the media would pick it up, and the next day, the headlines would state that this actor was in such dire straits that she took to Instagram, a medium she barely knew, and begged for work.

The media I could handle; my friends asking me if I was okay, if my life and marriage were okay, I could handle.

Also read: I was the first Bollywood actor to make a career in Hollywood

What was scaring me was what my daughter, a widely recognized and famous fashion designer and public figure, Masaba Gupta would say. ‘I can’t believe you did this, Mom,’ I imagined her saying. ‘At least think about what you’re saying before making it public. If you still have doubts, ask me before posting something embarrassing like this.’

Social media can be so daunting and some of us who are still learning the ropes often make mistakes. Those who think they don’t falter clearly don’t have grown-up children who care about them enough to tell them how such things are perceived or what a social persona is supposed to look like.

I braced myself for a lashing from my daughter. I kept staring at the phone, waiting for it to ring with her voice on the other end of the line.

Instead, I kept getting likes and appreciate comments from people—both fans and veteran actors—calling me an inspiration.

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