Actress Neena Gupta’s journey has been no mean feat, be it her personal or professional life. She is known to be an open book and a candid conversationalist. YFLO Kolkata recently hosted an evening talk session called ‘Be Candid, Be You’, with the actress, at ITC Royal Bengal’s Bengal Stateroom. Gupta, who visited Kolkata for a shoot schedule of her upcoming film Metro…In Dino, took an evening off from the schedule to have a heart-to-heart with the ladies of YFLO. If it’s Neena Gupta in the house, there’s got to be humour in the conversation. With her usual humorous and straightforward disposition, the actress talked to a packed audience about her challenges, learnings and memories of different chapters of her journey so far. And, the audience listened mesmerised. The event concluded with a questionand-answer session with the audience members. Excerpts:
KOLKATA, CHILDHOOD AND PARENTS
My childhood spent in Kolkata was very happy. I was born in a Marwari samaj. That is what my mother told me. I have some Bengali connection, too. I went to a Bengali school called Bidya Bhaban. So, don’t say anything to me in Bengali because I understand everything! (Laughs) I was an infant when my parents moved to Delhi. We used to stay in Karol Bagh. It was a nice, normal and happy childhood.
My relationship with my mother was very strict. I don’t know how to swim because she wouldn’t let me go to a pool as boys go there! She put me in a college near my house so that “ladki bigar nahi jaye”, and I joke about that now. I have a chapter in my book where it says, ‘ladki toh bigar gayi no matter what you did!’ (Laughs).
When I had Masaba, my father shifted with me and I always say that he was the man in my life. God had not given me a man in my life around that time... he compensated for that by sending my father to me. He looked after the whole household and everything. It is difficult to run a house when you are working. But he was there like a rock for me. He spoke up if somebody told me anything. We became very close back then...
I am actually a shy person. In college, they used to give me very small parts to play. So, I used to come home and say dialogues of the main characters in front of the mirror. And I would tell myself, I do it so much better than them. But I didn’t have the courage to go and say, try me. I feel we don’t know in what profession or what area we are good at. At times we spend our whole life doing something and then realise that we were better at something else.
My friend Satish Kaushik from the National School of Drama had asked me to go and see rehearsals. It was being directed by E. Alkazi. I wanted to act but my mother disagreed, she asked me to do my M.A. I am a M.A. and M.Phil in Sanskrit. I had started PhD, but had to stop because my guide and I didn’t get along. After passing out I got a film to do, which is called Aadharshila, where Ashok Ahuja took all theatre actors and when I saw myself on the big screen, I knew I wanted to act. Then I came to Bombay...
People think whoever is not good at anything else gets into acting. When I used to go back home from Bombay, my aunts used to tell me about someone or the other who isn’t doing anything in life and would ask me to make them an actor...(Laughs) But that’s not how it works!
My biggest learning is don’t be shy. Modesty is not a good policy. You have to say, ‘I am good and I am the best’. In today’s world, if you feel shy, you will reach nowhere. No one cares.
I can share an example. Shekhar Kapur’s wife Medha was my friend. One day Shekhar told me that he saw my picture and he was doing this film where he wanted to push my name for one of the important roles. Nobody knew me then. I told him that I am going to Delhi for a week and he told me that he will talk to the producers and call me. And I, like a fool, was waiting for him to call me because I thought he said he will call, so I shouldn’t. But many years later when I met him, he said, ‘You should have called me because I forgot’. There were so many people in the line to do that role. So, you have to ask. I thought that people would say, “Oh, she is after me”. But now I think, yes, go after people. If you want something, go after people without being shy. It is important to be shameless.
THE BADHAAI HO BREAK
The writer of Badhaai Ho came to my house and narrated it to me after the social media post (Neena Gupta’s social media post asking for work had become viral). I loved it because it was a substantial role. But he said ad filmmaker Amit Sharma would like to meet me. And I had to wait for 10 days impatiently. I thought I should go dressed like my character. I had all fancy salwars but I was playing a middleclass person, so I took my maid’s salwar. Ayushmann (Khurrana) also did not know me personally. They told Ayushmann they are taking me as his mother but he declined and said, ‘She looks so hot! How can she play my mother?’ So, they thought of not taking me and this happened before I went to meet Amit Sharma. I think Tabu had suggested my name. Somebody showed him a short film I did with Jackie Shroff called Khujli and he showed Ayushmann that I can look like this. And that’s how they took me. There is another lesson in this — nothing you do goes to waste. It always comes of use.
It was very tough. I had to do a mother’s and father’s work. Till now I feel guilty that I couldn’t give her the time that I would have been able to give her if she was born in a normal marriage. My father was there, but I had to work very hard. If you want a comfortable life plus you are known, you can’t move around in an auto-rickshaw. There was nothing in my life. It would be months before I could visit a parlour. I used to go for the shoot in the morning and come back home at night, talk to Masaba and my father and then go off to sleep. If someone asks me I would say don’t do it because it is very tough.
The producer had this idea. I thought, the idea is amazing but how will she make it? And long time back, since my friends are also from the industry, Masaba also wanted to become an actor because she used to see the glamour and fame. I told her ‘no’. She wanted to know why and I told her that the way she looks, she would never get a Hindi film’s heroine role, she will only get character roles if she is very good. She understood and agreed and became a fashion designer.
I was very worried when MasabaMasaba happened. I didn’t know whether she would be able to act or not but in the rough cut I was surprised at how good she was. And I am her biggest critique. Just the way mothers are. I came home and called her and said sorry for asking her not to act. But now she needs more work. Nothing else has come yet. (Laughs).
First I thought about how we would do it because we had to play ourselves. But I was very happy that I could wear nice clothes. Because otherwise, I only get bad clothes to wear in films. How people loved the series is amazing.
Some parts of it were scripted. Because we started shooting after she got divorced, and nothing much happened after that about which we could talk about. So we had to fictionalise it.
It is a bad thing when you are candid because you have to suffer for that. Now I control it. (Laughs) I thought of writing my autobiography (Sach Kahun Toh) for the last 20 years but I couldn’t. I used to think about what to write. I couldn’t figure it out. But when the pandemic happened and my shooting got cancelled, my husband and I went to our house, which is far from the city and the lockdown happened. I got stuck for six months and wrote it. Also, there are some secrets that I shared in the book which I couldn’t do if my parents were alive. They have kept so much to themselves, I did not want to hurt them.
I add a lot of fashion ideas to my shoots. I love shopping. People say I can shop in the jungle, too! But I have so many good clothes, so why not wear them? I give my costume designers ideas on where to shop for me. I have a basic funda — you wear whatever looks nice on you. God has given me great legs so I love showingthem but my lower abdomen is not so good. So, I hide it.
A TT STYLE CHAT WITH THE STYLISTA:
What is your idea of style?
Wear whatever suits your body type and whatever you feel comfortable and confident in.
What is your style statement now?
Wear what is comfortable.
Is there anyone who influenced your fashion sense over the years?
No, I influenced myself! (Laughs)
You have always been very versatile and elegant in styling, but after Baadhai Ho we have seen a sea change in your styling. How would you define your style graph over the years?
My style graph hasn’t changed after Baadhai Ho. People are noticing me after Baadhai Ho. I was more stylish earlier because I had a better body and I was younger, but nobody noticed me because Baadhai Ho hadn’t happened. My style has remained the same over the years. Also, depends on whether you have more money or less money. I couldn’t afford a few things earlier, but now I have.
Is there a recent trend that you love?
I don’t go with the era. Yesterday for my Filmfare awards, I wore a Wendell Rodricks blouse that I brought 25 years back. I don’t believe in following trends.
From sari to shorts, what is the secret of carrying every look with so much confidence?
It is my style!
Does it surprise you when people make hype about you pulling off shorts?
They are jealous! People can’t wear shorts, so they say... But I wear everything according to my body type. That is why I can wear so many different things. If it doesn’t suit my body, I don’t wear it.
Who do you like wearing other than Masaba?
We both like wearing a lot of Anamika (Khanna). I wear a lot of Pero, Payal Khandwala and Sabyasachi (Mukherjee).
Between you and Masaba, who takes style tips from whom?
Both from each other.
Which style helps you to express yourself best?
Would you call yourself a fashion-conscious person or a passionate stylista?
Both conscious and passionate.