Masaba Gupta knows exactly what she wants
I have got a lot of praise and suddenly there’s been this ‘Masaba, Masaba’ (chant)… Instagram, Twitter, magazine editorials.” Masaba Gupta to The Telegraph, 2014
This statement can very well fit into Masaba’s life right here, right now as well, what with that chant only getting deafening post the release of her web show which is also called, believe it or not, Masaba Masaba! A startling coincidence. The runaway 2020 Netflix hit where she plays herself and also stars mother and powerhouse actor Neena Gupta, has got her heaps of compliments for her natural turn in front of the camera. Always poking fun at herself and never taking herself too seriously. A difficult quality to imbibe but one that guarantees abundant joy.
That exuberance is reflected in her Instagram feed, which has the sparkle of a new spunk. You, of course, stop and stare at a resplendent Masaba in Sabyasachi Mukherjee. Enigmatic and totally bewitching. Carefree confidence has been her middle name and she’s seen sky-high success ever since she captured the imagination of a whole generation with her signature prints and straight talk. A thorough achiever who became the fashion director of Satya Paul at 23, Masaba mirrors a young India. A go-getter and uninhibited.
In a candid chat with The Telegraph, Masaba revisits her acting debut, Sabyasachi lighting a “fire” within her and her “legacy” plans for her brand.
You’ve taken over the world. 2020 was a boom of a year for you...
I mean, I don’t know what happened! I am not even joking. It was March 19 when I drove to Goa for two days to spend the weekend and then the big lockdown happened on March 21. I will never forget... I had one suitcase with three pieces of clothing in it and my basics like moisturiser.... We were stuck there indefinitely. And at that time, Goa was absolutely fine. We just stayed put. And, there were obviously restrictions. There were no flights and you needed permission to drive back. I was literally on the phone every one hour and in tears. And in tears for maybe the next three, four, five months after that, until things got better because I didn’t know what to do with anything. It’s like you have all these stores and you have all of these people working for you. And then August happened and all of a sudden I was told that Masaba Masaba will be releasing. I was like, if people don’t like this show, it’ll be the end of everything. People loved it. It was an instant success. That just made me believe that you have to trust the timing of the universe. It is such a cliche, but you have to trust it because this show was never meant to come out in August (it was filmed in September, 2019). It was meant to come out way before the pandemic, but it wasn’t ready for whatever reason.
Suddenly it had a massive impact on the brand. It became more recognised because the Netflix show reaches out to a lot of new people. We had a new wave of consumers come in. Our online shopping became a massive thing all of a sudden. For an outsider, it was such a peak, but it was so bittersweet because I couldn’t celebrate the success of Masaba Masaba fully. The label was going through what it was because of the pandemic and fashion was going through what it was going through. The entrepreneur in me was not happy, but the person Masaba was thril
Who convinced you to do it?
Me completely! I just heard the concept. I didn’t hear the script or know who the director was. I told the producer that as long as it is not a reality show, like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, where you are being followed around with a camera, I am okay. I am a private person whether or not people believe that. I don’t want that kind of an intrusion. I was told it’ll be partly scripted. We are kind of doing the storytelling while being ourselves. I thought it was great. More than anything, I thought what a great opportunity for me to do something that I like. It’s like a platter being handed out to you. I think the failure of the show was the last thing I was thinking of at any point. I just knew that between mum and me, playing ourselves, we should just be convincing and honest and that’s it.
You love acting, is it?
Of course I love it! I think I did one random Prithvi Theatre play but that’s about it and even in that I was a tree because of my hair! I didn’t have much to do. I think I shot 20-30 commercials in the lockdown and I had a blast. I find it such a relief to be in front of the camera that it actually helps me in my design work. I am so relaxed whenever I am acting and the trickle-down effect on the label is great for me as an individual.
You have always made fun of yourself and Masaba Masaba was hilarious. Acting is in your genes and it all came naturally to you...
I used to ask my mum what it takes to be a good actor. She said if you are not listening, you will never be a good actor. You have to listen and react. It’s the basics and the second is, you have to be relaxed. She said if you are tense or stiff or in a space where you are thinking constantly or you have rehearsed it so many times that you don’t even know what else to do, then you won’t be relaxed and you will give a bad performance. I just remember these two things when I am in front of the camera. I love it so much that it allows me to be in a completely Zen state of mind.
You have been candid about your life forever, but was there any part of you that didn’t go on screen? What was the process of baring yourselves like?
It is very strange but both mum and I never spoke about this... ‘let’s keep this out’. The process is such that I narrate some incidents and then the writers develop that and then we add fiction to it. A lot of it is fiction and we just have to make sure that the fiction isn’t so fictionalised that it disconnects from the reality. That was the harder part, but with respect to what we didn’t want to say, it was just an understanding between my mum and me... we just knew that this is a line we will not cross. I have those boundaries in my life anyway. Even though people think that I share more and more of my life, as of my mother, they don’t even know half of it yet.
When you are telling your own story, you control the narrative and you control what you want to share. At no point did I think that let’s put this in the show because it is masala. It was solely focused on my journey and my mum’s journey, everybody else was incidental. We were also careful of making sure that people who are in our real lives do not feel shafted. We kept everything light, fun and easy.
And, you have started filming Masaba Masaba part 2...
We are not fully filming yet, we start in April properly. We are so happy to go into the new season. It’s going to be much fresher, a lot more laughs and it will be a bit more visual.
What was Neena Gupta’s feedback on your performance?
She said she was pleasantly surprised. She was nervous about what I would do and she said she was so proud because it was such a natural performance. My mother is like that parent who will never allow you to celebrate your success beyond a point... ‘don’t think this is going to be your crowning glory and people will line up outside your door for work after this’. I am glad she is like this. She is not someone who will call up six directors and ask if they saw the show or liked me. That is such a great quality and I can be grounded because of that. I was like, fine, people loved Season One... what’s it like in part 2, I was thinking about it six months back.
I celebrated and ate a ton of Chinese food and watched my own show and I was very happy with it, but I also made notes of what was wrong with it. I never take my success for granted.
You have seen immense success very early on in your life. How are you treating success at this point in your life? All of us get stuck in a rut at some point, but this has given you a springboard and your work has a fresh perspective. How will this impact how you build your brand from here?
I just think for me everything is about your core. My core is my brand, whether it is House of Masaba or my personal brand. What I do to keep my core intact is everything and I think for me, since it’s been 10 years that I have been designing, I was in a rut. I was finding that I was not doing anything new or growing. Pretty much everything runs on an autopilot now, but whether or not this show did well, I knew that I wanted to shake things up.
I was in this place where I felt that every once in a while, you as a person and as a brand, you have to shed your skin. You have to face life like a chameleon. I read it somewhere. That’s the mantra for living. You have to constantly keep changing and evolving and I think for me that was the turning point. I will push the bar and the limit for myself and for the brand. That’s what success is to me. But if the core shakes then everything shakes.
Forget about me being a natural, somebody who looks like me was never meant to be a leading star of a show named after her. I think that change is so much for the country and the girls in our country. I did that more to prove a point. I am very clear about it and I don’t even hide it. With the body I am in, the face I am in and with the life I have lived so far, I will do this and I will be my own version of a heroine.
We are no longer just the design label that makes clothes. I personally stand up for racism, colour bias and body shaming. The label is just a by-product of that. That’s what has changed. It is no longer where do we find Masaba’s store... it’s like let’s find her first.
Is it pressure though and how do you deal with the pressure of performance?
Something has also changed in me in the last two years where I am very aware of my mental health and whenever you think of pressure, you can jeopardise your own mental health. I am that person today where if a deal comes to my table, I consider if I am in the mindspace to do it, is it going to make a big difference monetarily for the brand and is it going to achieve all the objectives we wanted to achieve? The first thing always is whether it is good for my mind and peace. Once you answer that question, it takes care of a lot of that pressure. I don’t think we became a brand by doing new things each time. We became a brand because we repeated ourselves but with a fresh twist every time. The best brands are built on repeatability.
In the last three-four years, I don’t even care about the runway. I pander to my retail set-up, my clients. I don’t care who is writing what review for me on the runway because I am not here for that. This (FDCI x Lakme Fashion Week) was the first time in 10 years that I have done a show with clothes that will actually go into the store. Can you believe that? I have never done a show where I have picked up the retail collection and put in on models. There was always this thought that what critics and magazines say. It’s not fresh and dramatic enough for the runway. I said, does not matter. I have a business to run. It’s probably my last show on the runway ever. I think today we have so many avenues to showcase our work, mainly digital. I find it less expensive and stressful and more impactful. Either my runway shows should be so spectacular that even my mind is blown or not do it at all. I am not in that space where I call up people and say come for my show. I am just not that person any more. I only want to create and not have any pressure and I want to focus on my business.
You look super fit...
I think I have lost about seven-eight kilos. All last year. I was locked down in another city and without a cook. So, I was at the mercy of my own terrible cooking. My mind was going haywire with too much stress but I made a decision to do some form of physical activity every day and no matter how I am feeling, I will still do that. I will never forget that one day I was doing squats and I was crying because I had to take a tough call of shutting a store.
There is a new ‘I will take over the world’ kind of confidence...
I have always been confident. I think I have come into my own in a way I am at a place right now where I don’t have anything to prove personally. Professionally yes, I am ambitious and I want to do much more with the label. I never used to be able to say ‘no’, but when you get that kind of confidence to say ‘no’, you become a different person. Coming in front of the camera and loving it gives you a new kind of confidence.
And then of course Sabyasachi Mukherjee happened. You look stunning in the campaign...
Thank you! The only thing I want to say about it is that I had made a decision in 2020 that I will only ever work with a person or a brand if that person or brand ignites a fire within me to become better at what I do or if that brand or person makes me extremely jealous. In Sabya’s case, it is both, right? I am so jealous of the brand that he has created and the aesthetic and I am so inspired with every single chat we’ve had or just by interacting with him or his team. When I went on that set to shoot, I felt I would never leave the set the same person again because it was just a different world. I have always believed in India-proud brands and somebody like Sabyasachi who not only took India global, who took India global on his terms. He didn’t become a watered-down version of Sabyasachi Kolkata. He went as Sabyasachi Kolkata. I would never do this for any other designer... in India... for sure. He ignites a fire within me and that fire keeps burning for a long time.
He is so inspirational...
The one thing I learnt from him was clarity of thought. The clarity with which he explains a brief to you or the clarity with which he explains the lehnga to you, is amazing. I have not second-guessed anything I have done ever since I have left that shoot because that’s how clear I was in my head. The other thing that I have decided thanks to Sabya is that I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to sit in my house and I want to create and I want to work 16 hours a day.
You spoke about clarity of thought. What is your clarity on wellness, health, career and relationships at this point?
I am in a good place with wellness and health. I am regimented and a bit of a recluse in my own way. I do live in Bombay, in the middle of everything, but I am tucked away in my small apartment and live on my own. I sleep at 10pm and am up at 6am, every day. Work starts at 7am and I work well into the night, till I go to bed. My mantra is to do more work, to make use of my good health, to make it better so that I can last longer and do more things. But I am clear about not putting unnecessary pressure on myself because in this pandemic, I have also seen a lot of loss, not personally, but via other people. I find people take stress so lightly. They snowball into something bigger. I want to have peace when I am working.
With respect to relationships, I am in a happy place. I think everyone is thinking that something big will happen to them and a relationship will sweep them off their feet. It’s not happening. Take care of yourself. Do good work and the rest will follow. That’s my motto.
With the brand, I have grand plans. We will keep evolving and doing more things, but no collaborations, not unless it lights a fire or it has to be so important financially or have a such a big effect monetarily, that allows me to do something I want to do. The plan is to make the brand at least three-four times bigger than what it is in the next two years. I am so proud of the fact that the brand has not just stayed afloat in the pandemic but also thrived. We are one of the few brands who have a strong online set-up. I think I am going to do things which will change my thinking completely or change the brand... nothing that’s just a spark in the dark. I don’t want to be a flash in the pan, but create a legacy brand, one that will live irrespective of me behind it. I am setting up for the brand to be a lifestyle.
Sabyasachi campaign pictures: Tarun Vishwa
Masaba collection pictures: Sandip Das and Masaba Gupta