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Opinion | Neena Gupta: an appreciation

Neena Gupta has always been an outstanding performer, from 'Mandi' and 'Saans' to the recent 'Panchayat' and 'Masaba Masaba'

Neena Gupta in stills from ‘Mandi’ (left) and ‘Masaba Masaba’.
Neena Gupta in stills from ‘Mandi’ (left) and ‘Masaba Masaba’.

The recent Netflix series Masaba Masaba—a thinly-veiled caricaturization of the life of fashion designer Masaba Gupta—has polarized viewers: There are those who consider it too superficial and childish, others who believe that playful lens (or Instagram filter) is the whole point. All differences in opinion, however, are brushed away whenever Masaba’s mother appears on screen, the great Neena Gupta effortlessly capturing her character’s skittishness, frustration and pent-up ambition. Playing a version of herself in a show that feels like a spoof, she nevertheless comes across as all too real. It’s rather special.

In one fantastic scene, Gupta, having shot an anti-ageist music video, sits surrounded by Masaba’s friends watching the video on TV. She’s proud but bashful, reluctant to shine but keen to be goaded on, a mother trying to pretend a big deal is not a big deal, but unmistakably glad that everyone notices how big a deal it is. She is—unanimously—terrific.

Earlier this year, Gupta shone in Panchayat (Amazon Prime Video), where she played an elected leader of a village with little interest in politics itself. Manju Devi holds her position purely because villages are now mandated to reserve a third of their seats for women in panchayat elections. She works at home and is happy to allow her husband to officiate in her name, but one standout episode sees her forced to “perform" the national anthem in the village square. A woman who doesn’t know Jana Gana Mana, but one who would like very much to put on an impressive show, Gupta is tremendous as she grapples with the words, rendering the most familiar of lyrics into an entirely new struggle.

With us looking to streaming shows for the edgiest and most original content, it is entirely fitting that Gupta occupy a prime position. More than 20 years ago, she made a series called Saans. A mature drama about a family torn apart by the straying of a husband, Saans—written and directed by Gupta, playing the lead as the wife—was a realistic, adult show unlike anything being aired around it. The show explored the flaws a marriage papers over, giving us characters we felt conflicted by. The stakes were real, the aches were real. Our mothers were hooked. Our fathers squirmed.

Infidelity was television fodder at the time, to the extent that even sitcoms featured lecherous neighbours—shows like Shrimaan Shrimati originated the Bhabiji Ghar Par Hain brand of vaguely illicit comedy still around today—but no soap opera treated it with much depth. To illustrate with context, Saans premiered in 1998, the same time the endlessly investigative CID and the laughable Captain Vyom made their way to TV sets. In that landscape arrived Saans, better suited to HBO than to Star Plus, where it originally aired. Here was a prestige drama before prestige dramas became a thing.

Gupta has always been an outstanding performer. She is electrifying in Shyam Benegal’s 1983 classic, Mandi, where she plays the dancing girl Vasanti, pirouetting as she nonchalantly steals scenes from the more revered actors around her. That same year, she proved unforgettable in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro as Priya, a personal secretary who bats her eyelashes at municipal commissioners and contemptuously swats away sidekicks.

A decade later, she stunned the nation with the iconic Choli Ke Peechhe song in Subhash Ghai’s 1993 hit, Khalnayak—this is referenced in Masaba Masaba, with a smitten young man telling Gupta that song “made him a man". Next came Subhankar Ghosh’s underwatched but acclaimed Woh Chhokri, where she won a National Award for her performance as Geeta Devi, a young widow entering into an extramarital affair.

Neena Gupta always did her own thing. In the late 1980s, as reported by Vimla Patil in The Tribune, “mediapersons stood aghast as she gave birth to a baby girl—boldly and unrepentantly—without marriage and without even announcing the name of the child’s father." There were rumours about a cricketer that Gupta refused to confirm or deny, and she may have managed to keep her child’s parentage a secret were it not for a tabloid that literally stole a copy of young Masaba’s birth certificate and published it, leading to deafening gossip and scandal.

In a 1999 piece on Gupta written by Ashok Banker in, she speaks matter-of-factly of how she considered leaving acting to become a hospitality executive, someone who would greet guests at a Taj hotel. The highly qualified performer—an MPhil in Sanskrit as well as a graduate of the National School of Drama—was set to throw in the towel when Saans was picked up, and she was rightfully regarded a serious storyteller. “There’s not enough good television on the air," she says in that interview. “The state is very bad." Ah, Neenaji, the more things change…

It may feel like a sitcom contrivance on Masaba Masaba but Gupta’s 2017 Instagram post asking for work—as “a good actor looking for good parts to play"—was a real and striking move, one that shone a light on talented veterans being neglected by the film industry. Gupta promptly received several acting offers, including one for Amit Sharma’s 2018 hit, Badhaai Ho, where she plays Priyamvada Kaushik, a middle-aged woman who, after a night of poetry and moonlight, finds herself pregnant.

In other words, unexpected magic. That phrase may well bracket Neena Gupta’s life and career. She has perpetually excelled in the most unpredictable ways, and as she traverses new genres with streaming shows, one hopes she will find ever more ways to surprise us, ideally even as a creator. Over the years, she has made us sigh, gasp, whistle, and knocked the wind out of us. The lady behind Saans can still take our breath away.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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