Not just a pretty face

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 12.12.04
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Will the real Deepti Naval stand up, please? Two decades ago, she was the poster-girl of art-house cinema. Ten years later, as the market banished her kind of cinema, she went back to an old passion ? painting. Then, as her marriage crumbled, she roamed the valleys of Ladakh as a photographer. And now, after rediscovering and losing love again, she has turned to poetry.

Deepti Naval, clearly, is a woman of many faces. And nothing, perhaps, says it better than the painting that adorns the cover of her latest book of poems ? Black Wind and Other Poems (Mapin Publishing). The painting is a self-portrait showing a contemplative Naval holding a bouquet of wilting flowers, with the left half of her face a blur. This is possibly how she sees herself ? which could be the reason why at least two copies of the self-portrait dominate her spacious sea-facing apartment in suburban Versova, the new hub of Bollywood?s wannabes and established stars.

The image reverberates within, but outside the house, there is nothing ? not even a nameplate ? to indicate that Deepti Naval, once a popular heroine, lives on the sixth floor of the Oceanic Apartment. As you press the buzzer to the only accessible flat on the floor, you notice that unlike most security-conscious Mumbai doors, there is no keyhole there. The door opens a crack, and Naval ? initially apprehensive ? breaks into a smile. That?s the smile that gave her the girl-next-door image in Hindi cinema. Poet-director Gulzar, who wrote the foreword to Black Wind, calls it the ?the heartwarming smile?.

But Black Wind and Other Poems is not really about smiles. The collection of 50 poems dates back to an emotionally turbulent period of her life from 1990 to 1995. Her poetry revolves around themes such as broken relationships, abortions, communal riots and suicides. ?Now that the time has gone by and I have moved away from it, I am able to look back and say, ?Yes, I lived that? I went through this,?? Naval writes in her preface.

?She has her brains in her heart or the heart in her head,? says Gulzar in his introduction. ?She lives the experience twice. First, when she actually lands in a situation, and takes the full experience of life. The second, when she filters it, takes the essence of a poem and relives it. That is why for an actress her first take is always her second take. So too with her poems.?

The collection also includes 24 poems in a section titled The Silent Scream based on her experience at homes for the mentally disturbed to prepare her for her roles in Amol Palekar?s Ankahi and Sudhir Mishra?s Main Zinda Hoon .

?It was such a different experience. I would say these women made a lot of sense,? she says, chatting in her bright, spacious apartment tastefully decorated with antique furniture. But Naval refuses to give geographical details of the homes she spent time in. ?It?s not fair to the women there,? she says.

She was just 12 when she first visited a mental home to meet a close friend admitted there. In 1983, she visited another home to understand the nuances of her role in Ankahi. But her real interaction with women with mental disabilities happened in 1993. Naval wrote a script about an actress playing a disturbed woman, and how the role starts to affect her real life. For this she stayed in a home for the mentally ill for two weeks.

?The script never materialised into a film, but the experience changed my life completely,? says Naval, who adds that for several days after that, she found the so-called sane world shallow and superficial.

Naval also found some perfectly sane women dumped in asylums by relatives who did not want them back. ?I wanted to convey and share my experience through these poems, and want people to think about a section of women shunned from life,? she says.

During her visits, a patient once looked at her with accusing eyes after realising that Naval was not an inmate there. Her poem ? The Stench of Sanity ? is written from the perspective of the woman.

There is something rotten ? inside of/ You, in your flesh, the stench of/ Sanity. It breathes in your/ Eyes, this thing?/ This thing that sleeps with you/ Night after night, like/ An ageing wanton woman,/ Spent, but not quite spent.

T he poems in Black Wind are deeply personal. ?I was worried that the often highly personal nature of my poems would disconcert anyone unfamiliar with the details of my personal life. But I believe in what D.H. Lawrence once said ? ?Even the best poetry, when it is at all personal, needs the penumbra of its own time and place and circumstance to make it full and whole,?? says Naval, who separated from her filmmaker husband Prakash Jha in the early 1990s and lived with her companion, vocalist Vinod Pandit, who succumbed to cancer three years ago.

Some of her works are dedicated to her friends such as the late Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi. ?I had met Smita in New York much before I landed in Mumbai. We came from non-glamorous backgrounds and shared an unspoken understanding. Smita?s loss at the peak of her career was a great personal loss,? she says, pointing to Smita & I ? the largest painting hanging in her flat.

Naval?s wide canvas of activities ? poetry, painting, photography and acting ? merge into each other. For instance, her painting of a pregnant nun, up on the wall, inspired the poem, Virgin, about the dilemma of an expecting nun on whether or not to give birth to her unborn child. ?The look in her eyes in the painting conveys her dilemma ? whether to embrace life or renounce it,? she says, walking up to the full-size painting.

Naval had studied art when she wandered into Indian cinema from New York, chasing her dream to be an actress. Originally from Amritsar, her father worked as the head of the English department at Hindu College there and her mother had a gift for painting. The family migrated to the US after her father got a teaching assignment at the City University of New York. Naval studied at the same university before finishing her bachelors in fine arts from Hunter College, Manhattan.

Her passion for photography grew during her travels with Vinod Pandit to Ladakh. Then last year ? two years after his death ? she travelled alone to Ladakh to complete the Frozen River Trek in the Zanskar Valley.

River Poems ? poetry that she wrote in the freezing cold ? is slated to be published next year. The verse that she wrote when Pandit was battling cancer ? ?the most painful period in my life? ? is also ready for publication.

Black Wind will be launched at Prithvi Theatre on December 20. Naval will be in Calcutta in January for a reading from the book.

And then, there is cinema. After Pandit?s death, Naval decided to return to acting. Her career ? spanning 40 films starting with Junoon in 1978 and including the critically-acclaimed Ek Baar Phir and Chashm-e-Buddoor ? is taking off again. She starred as a single mother in Somnath Sen?s 2002 film, Leela, which had Dimple Kapadia in the lead role. A year later, she followed it up with another offbeat role in V.S. Prakash?s Freaky Chakra where she plays a middle-aged loner who finds herself in a relationship with a younger man. She also directed Thoda Sa Aasman, a serial about women, and produced a travel show, A Path Less Travelled.

But Naval, clearly, has a world beyond cinema. If a role is not challenging enough, she is not interested in taking it up, she says. ?I am not ?just? an actress any longer,? says Deepti Naval.