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Why did Benegal never cast me as heroine? : Neena Gupta

Sathya Saran | Updated on July 01, 2021

Life’s like that: Neena Gupta reveals herself not as a woman who dictates her terms, but one who has lived with compromise, fought for her space every inch of the way in her memoir

Actor Neena Gupta on lacking confidence, making mistakes and why she masked names in her memoir

* I wanted to show the huge mistakes I made, which impacted my career right through

* One learns to hide what might take away from the perfect picture viewers want to see

* I had to ask someone which year I had got married the first time… it was not part of my memory

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“After I die, “Neena Gupta had said in an interview, “people would describe me as a ‘single mother who lived life on her own terms’”. To a large extent, this is true of the gutsy woman admired by thousands of cine-lovers. But that’s not all that defines the actor. Her book Sach Kahun Toh is an attempt at presenting her life, with all its ups and downs — with as little fuss and camouflage as possible.

Sach Kahun Toh: An Autobiography / Neena Gupta / Ebury / Non-fiction / ₹599.00

 

Gupta’s career has made a comeback in recent years, with a spate of roles that celebrates her age. But even when she plays the role of a mother, the character is that of a woman who breaks every rule in the book. In Badhaai Ho, for instance, she gets pregnant at an age when she should have been — traditionally — knitting for her soon-to-come grandchildren. Whether as a rural wife in Panchayat or as the widow in Colours, Gupta has embodied roles that defy the stereotype and underline her never-say-die spirit and ability to find new ways of inventing herself.

And that is why her autobiography throws up a few surprises. She reveals herself not as a woman who dictates her terms, but one who has lived with compromise, fought for her space every inch of the way, and is both vulnerable and fierce in protecting her turf in the industry she has made her home. The book, which zooms in on the rebel who chose to fly against her family to study drama and created a space for herself in television by writing, directing and acting in a path-breaking serial that addressed marital issues, could well inspire a generation of young women. Excerpts from an interview:

Through the book one gets the feeling that you are focusing on the mistakes you made…

I wrote the book with this in mind. I wanted to show the huge mistakes I made, which impacted my career right through. It was like I was looking back and asking myself why I made those mistakes and what could have been different if I had not made them. I mean, I have talent, I am quite good looking, I had a good body, besides a great number of contacts in the industry. Then why did I not land the big roles? I thought it was important to talk about my not knowing my way around. It might help someone else today.

Except for Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad and Vinod Khanna, you have hardly spoken in detail about your co-stars or directors despite the fact that you have worked alongside some of the biggest names in the industry. Did you not think the reader would be keen to get insights about them?

I saw no need to elaborate on those I left out. They were not a part of my growth; they made no yogdaan towards my career. So, they had no place in my book. I just went with the flow and put down what was important to me as part of my life.

You have consciously kept many names under wraps, though you detail incidents and relationships. Were you not worried that people would recognise those you have tried to keep veiled?

(Laughs.) Actually, I want them to be recognised... My lawyers advised me to keep from mentioning their real names, so I gave them new ones. Also, in many cases, I did not want to mention their names as revealing them could hurt their children, or their grandchildren. But I am sure they can recognise themselves.

Tell me about the chapter titled If I Could Turn Back Time. Was there a need to pause the flow of your story to add this somewhat reflective and philosophical section?

I thought it necessary. To let readers know that I am not someone who ‘lived life on my own terms’. Nobody, I believe, does that. At least no one I know. I took life as it came and made the most of what I got from God, or life, whatever you want to call it. For example, I learnt to highlight my good points, hide my faults. If I don’t have a great figure now, well, I hide the parts that need to be hidden. One learns to hide what might take away from the perfect picture viewers want to see. Similarly I hid my vulnerability, my lack of confidence, almost all through the early years of my career.

That comes as a surprise — that you thought you lacked confidence. You had two National Awards; your roles even in Shyam Benegal’s films were always special.

Think about it. Why would I not lack confidence? Yes, I had the talent, but why did Benegal never cast me as heroine? I might have been in most of his films, but not as a heroine in a single one. I knew it was my early mistake, of playing a comic role, that got me sidelined as a supporting actor like it happened to many others. Take Mehmood, so talented, so handsome, but never seen as a lead actor. Or Aruna Irani. Typecast like I was after playing a “Lallu Ladki”. I never stopped regretting that mistake. It made me feel vulnerable. It is only after Badhai Ho [2018], that I started feeling confident and in charge of my career.

Tell us about the section at the end, about your parents and brother, about your husband.

I wanted to talk about my parents; they were an integral part of my life. It was easier to write about what had been in hiding, to reveal the secret that they lived with throughout their life. They are both dead, so I could write about it without hurting them. My brother too has been a part of my life, and Vivek is now, so I needed to make space for them in the book.

I loved the conversational tone of your book and the way you talked to the reader. It is your voice as anyone who knows you can tell. Was this how you planned it?

Yes, I recorded bits as they came. Sometimes a few chapters would flow at a stretch; other times just a few incidents or paragraphs. The tone comes from that. Of course, not all of it was spontaneous. I had to look up Wikipedia for the years of the movies I worked in, and whether Trikal came first or Mandi. I had to ask someone which year I had got married the first time... it was not part of my memory. And as I am sharing my life with the reader I thought it important to also, being someone who has the experience, share the pitfalls and mistakes I made so they can avoid them or learn from them. I hope I achieve that.

Sathya Saran is a Mumbai-based journalist, editor and author

Published on June 28, 2021

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