National Award-winning Indian actress and author Neena Gupta, who is gearing up to promote her autobiography ‘Sach Kahun Toh’ at the upcoming Sharjah International Book Fair this Friday, despises all the labels that have been thrust upon her. She loathes being called a rebel with a worthy cause.
“I always object to this line that I have lived life on my own terms. Nobody in this world or on this earth can live life on their own terms. You accept the circumstances and make the best of it,” said Gupta in an interview with Gulf News. And she believes that it’s mostly women who do all the sacrificing.
“Women are the ones who sacrifice and compromise, especially in a marriage… The truth is I made the best of what I could in my life… And I am the best,” said Gupta with a laugh.
While Gupta, 64, might shy away from being called a clutter-breaker, her life is a portrait of relentless grit and spirit. This blazing talent, who grew up in Delhi’s Karol Bagh and was a product of the prestigious National School of Drama, is self made in the highly clannish Bollywood.
She became a household name in India through merit and relentless ambition alone. While her hit serials like ‘Saans,’ a stirring family drama that explored infidelity and the dynamics in a marriage, breathed fresh air into her career, it was her 2018 comedy ‘Badhaai Ho’ in which she played a pregnant woman in her fifties that gave a robust boost to her career. Her book chronicles her interesting childhood, her multiple, and sometimes, futile attempts at getting her first big break in Indian cinema, and her life as a single mother to fashion designer Masaba Gupta. She chose to be a single mother out of marriage after expecting West Indies cricketing legend Vivian Richards’ child.
Through her book, she hopes to give an earnest and honest account of her eventful life. But she hasn’t given the whole farm away.
“I have hidden many things because I didn’t want to reveal my weakest weaknesses… But whatever I have talked about in the book is true and honest. It’s a simple and straightforward book… These days, simplicity is looked down upon, and I want to change that,” said Gupta. Excerpts from our interview with Gupta...
After reading your memoir ‘Sach Kahun Toh: An Autobiography,’ I felt it came from a real space. Plus, you took a swipe at the press/media multiple times in your book...
I am a person whose nature is to keep it real. If I do not want to say something, I just say that. I don’t talk rubbish or tell lies. With this book, I am not getting back at anybody... I have always maintained that whatever bad happened to me in my life was always my mistake... For instance, it was my mistake when I naively assumed that the journalists were my friends. They were never my friends; they were just doing their job. I spoke to them like friends, so it’s my fault and not theirs. I always say that whatever wrong happened to me was my fault.
You take ownership of your life in this book, fair and square. The chapters on your childhood where your mother was strict yet caring hit a soft spot...
I just wrote the truth. Earlier, I used to be very angry with my mother, but now I have begun to understand everybody’s point of view. With age, you begin to understand things. When you are young, you tend to blame all those around you... Trust me, there was no agenda while writing my autobiography. The only agenda was that I wanted to tell the story of my life. I have not spoken ill about anybody in this book. In fact, I had to change all the names.
That’s a sweet gesture; you wanted to protect their privacy...
It wasn’t anything sweet. Lawyers from the publishing house said I need to change all names. I was so upset. While I didn’t want to name and shame, I wanted to tell people that I am not this person who has affairs. When I spoke about my ex-husband, I retained his name because there was never any ill-will because he was a good guy. But there was one toxic and evil guy in my life, and I had to change his name, and I was very upset about that... All this talk of women’s empowerment isn’t wholly true. Only a tiny minuscule of our population is progressive. Even today, you will see those same advertisements in newspapers in India that they only want a fair girl for their son to marry... My niece, who’s a qualified Chartered Accountant, was scolded by her mother-in-law when she went to buy potatoes at a store without asking her permission. She lives in a big town and not some village... Maybe a drop has changed.
That’s a sobering picture... But you seem to have lived life on your terms...
No, that’s all [expletive] and is what the press says because they don’t know the facts of my life. You and I are not representative of the whole of India; we are minorities who are educated and can wear what we want or divorce if needed... But honestly, nothing has changed. I know what happens in my neighbourhood, and I told you about my niece. She cleared her CA exams in one go, but her reality was different.
What advice did you give your niece?
I got her divorced. I reminded her that she’s educated, can earn her own money, and is well-mannered. She’s my own blood, and I couldn’t see her suffer like this. Even now in Purani Delhi (Old Delhi), I see women wearing a ghungat [veil] over their heads and eating only after the men in their homes have eaten. We are living in a glasshouse. In my Juhu suburbs, there’s a slum down there where most women are single parents because their husbands left them to marry again.
Speaking of brutal realities, your book has this interesting chapter about the working conditions in Bollywood. The lesser-known stars live in smaller hotels as opposed to bankable stars... Has anything changed?
It’s almost the same. My position is different now, so I stay in a five-star hotel or I get a full vanity van between shots. In my Netflix show, ‘Masaba Masaba’, there is even a scene about it. Usually, a van is divided into three compartments, and the lesser famous actor gets the smaller share. As you become more famous, you get half, and you get a full fan when you are truly famous. I laugh at it because everybody has to go through this. At the start of my career, I was sent to shooting sets on trains. These days, I travel business class. But those who are more famous than me are carted around in first class or private jets. You know you are a star, not necessarily an actor, if you are travelling by jets.
Were there any no-go zones in your life while writing the book?
There were many no-go zones. I didn’t want my weakest weaknesses on display. And, why would I tell everyone about the biggest mistakes of my life? I don’t want to be like that girl who falls in love and tells everything about her past to the guy and when they fight, they use that information against you.
How difficult was it to write your autobiography, then?
I had signed up to write my autobiography many times over the years. But when I sat down each time, I couldn’t write. I didn’t feel free to write back then. But my close family is no more. I could not have written the book if my mother, father, brother, or bhabi [sister-in-law] were alive. I did not want them to go through any pain again. Now, I am free to write. I have also reached a point where it doesn’t matter to me whatever judgment you make. No matter how you judge how I live, work, or behave, I am past that stage of my life where I will get scared. I will not lose sleep at night thinking of what people will think of my life story.
You must feel liberated...
Yes, that’s the word I was looking for. I went through a lot in life, but I could write this because I felt free. My book is not a piece of literature and has no flowery English language... With this book, I don’t intend to win any literary award or prize. I am not a big writer; I am just an actor who wrote her life story.
But not everything in life has to be intellectualised...
Yes, my book is not meant to be intellectualised. This book is perfect to read before going to bed and will let you sleep peacefully... It’s a privilege to be a part of the Sharjah International Book Fair, and I just heard it’s the third biggest book fair internationally. It’s a big thing.