Neena Gupta greets a badhaai for her first 100-crore film with a hint of restlessness. Her voice suggests that she’s eager to move on. After the sort of year she’s had in 2018, why shouldn’t she be?
Amit Sharma’s Badhaai Ho did the unthinkable by going toe-to-toe with Salman Khan’s Race 3 and Aamir Khan’s Thugs of Hindostan, even after being made at only a fraction of the budget. Along with Gajraj Rao, Gupta was a part of arguably Bollywood’s most disarming love story of 2018. It’s the tender moments between Rao and Gupta that make an otherwise tricky film… accessible. Acting alongside Rishi Kapoor in Mulk, Gupta participated in two of the industry’s most important films of 2018.
But there remains some disquiet in her voice. Letting out an exasperated laugh, she says, “This (2018) was like a new beginning because I (also) had a good role in Mulk… although it was another supporting role. I’m slightly tired of supporting characters. I am the one who needs to be supported now.”
Gupta’s name famously caught on fire on social media, after she put out an Instagram post calling herself a ‘good actor’ looking for ‘good parts’. With a career spanning close to four decades and having enjoyed some clout on Indian television during the late 90s, there was no question what Gupta did was unusual. It all seems worth it in 2018, where she says she’s been ‘born’ as an actor, again.
Gupta’s career has been building up towards a success like this for nearly a lifetime now, where she was hardly ever seen in the role of a typical ‘heroine’. “In films, I never got the heroine’s part. Ever. People like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza made many interesting films with powerful women. But none of them thought of me as the lead heroine. Most of them went to Shabana (Azmi), Smita (Patil) or Deepti (Naval) and I never got the main parts. It was a trend, you know? Something I tried to break by refusing similar roles, but I couldn’t break it. So I lost interest because I stopped working. I was getting horrible offers in films, and so I turned to TV,” says Gupta with regret.
Television, however, did what films couldn’t. After appearing in Buniyaad, Shyam Benegal’s Yatra, Gulzar’s Mirza Ghalib and her biggest hit, Saans, it emphatically proved to everyone what a solid actor she was. While acting and directing Saans, Gupta became a household name along with her on-screen husband, Kanwaljit Singh.
So what does she think of the shows on TV on air currently? “It’s a phase and it will pass. Indian TV needs a break, like I got with Badhaai Ho. Then the rules of TV will change.”
Lest we romanticise the golden age of Indian TV during the late 90s too much, Gupta points out, “Don’t forget, they were weeklies. What you’re talking about, they’re dailies. The writers aren’t paid well, there is hardly any turnaround time for the episode. I’ll give you an example. I have shot for shows a day before it needs to air.”
Neena Gupta could very well be a part of Bollywood’s bandwagon of exciting actors like Shefali Shah, Sheeba Chadha and Seema Pahwa, who are redefining the limits of a mom in the Hindi film industry. Does she fear getting type-cast as the ‘quirky mother’, something she played with great success (and annoyance!) in Veere Di Wedding? “I’ve done far worse. And I’ve prayed to God that those films don’t see the light of the day. I did them because I needed money, and there was no TV at that time. So I’ve played the servant of the house; and there was another film where I was a part of a group of beggars. I think that was the worst role of my career. How I used to cry when I had to go shoot for that film.”
Now starring in Chef Vikas Khanna’s directorial debut, The Last Color, Gupta is slightly more hopeful about her career as a Bollywood ‘heroine’. Playing the role of a 70-year-old widow, Noor, who’s barred from playing Holi in Vrindavan, Gupta was convinced about this Vikas Khanna’s directorial after he narrated a crucial scene to her. “I heard him, and I immediately knew that the film meant a lot to him”, Gupta says about the debutante director. The Last Color is being screened at the Palm Springs International Festival on January 3.
But is there a wish-list of directors or actors Gupta wants to work with in the future? “I stopped watching Hindi films because I used to get depressed after watching a role that I thought I could have done well. I’ve just been born (again), so there are many, many directors/actors I would like to work with. Like Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Amit Sharma… again.” Gupta pauses for a moment and continues, “Even after all these years, I feel quite lonely in this business. I still feel that I have no one supporting me… like a Godfather or a godbrother [bhaijaan?], there’s no one to push me towards good roles. Rarely do I know which part to take and which one to reject. But I still do feel very lonely in this business.”
After a splendid year that was 2018, can Bollywood do right by Neena Gupta in 2019, and the many years to follow? Maybe Bollywood will finally atone for typecasting gifted actors in ‘supporting’ roles, and realise that they’re more than capable of being the hero of their stories.