Neena Gupta can do it all — she acts, she writes, and she’s the coolest single mom on the block. In a freewheeling conversation on all things life, Gupta delves into details about her second innings, her best choices, and her dreams
In 1998, my mother — a massive fan of Saans — introduced me to this terrific actor that is Neena Gupta. She told me that the show was so popular that many women imitated Neena Gupta’s bindi style (a line and a black dot below the big red bindi). Soon enough, I learnt that Gupta is not just an actress; she is also one of the leading producer-directors on television. Her famous “aap jaa sakte hain, namaste” from Kamzor Kadii Kaun is still referenced in memes and jokes. Cut to today, this two-time National Award-winning actor has been a part of the movie business for nearly three decades.
Despite being an actor of repute, Gupta was in the spotlight for reasons other than her acting. The best part about fate is that it can change at any time, and it changed for good for Neena Gupta in 2018, when she became a part of one of the biggest hits of the year, Badhaai Ho. Everyone took notice, stood up, and applauded her acting chops. From here on, there was no dearth of projects coming her way.
Her second innings appear more destined than planned. It was commonly mistaken within the industry that Gupta, post her marriage to Delhi-based Vivek Mehra, had left Mumbai and the film industry, and settled in Delhi. One fine evening, she was headed to meet Zoya Akhtar for a small role in her web show Made in Heaven, and the assistant enquired, “Arey, when did you return from Delhi?” Gupta decided that she needs to put out a #jobs post that instant. She posted a headshot of herself on Instagram, asking for work. It said: “I live in Mumbai, and working as a good actor, looking for good parts to play. ” The rest, as they say, is history.
However, Gupta says she didn’t get work because of that post. “Some films came my way, but the post got me back in the news. I got a lot of emotional support. Many people came up to me teary-eyed, asking how I put myself out there and asked for work. A lot of notable work came in only after Badhaai Ho. If that film hadn’t worked, then I wouldn’t have been where I’m today.”
She isn’t bitter about success coming late to her. “I’m delighted and very thankful for what I’ve received. I’m someone who thanks God for even the smallest of things. Though, I wish I was younger, in this era. I would have been eligible to do so many different roles that are offered to Alia Bhatt, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, and Kareena Kapoor (laughs).”
Gupta was recently seen in the suspense thriller, Dial 100. She plays a mother out for revenge for her dead son. This thriller, Gupta says, was “a fascinating and wellwritten story. The film gives a very good message. I’ve always liked projects that have something to say. It is not just in serious films that you can have a message but even a funny film. For instance, in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Kundan Shah said so many things with humour.”
Being a mother on-screen and being a mother off-screen are two very different things. Gupta and her daughter Masaba’s relationship have been the centre of many Mother’s Day stories (and they’re collectively sick of it). Masaba is also one of the most influential fashion designers in the country at present. Gupta says she was an overprotective mother “because I was a single mother. When Masaba was a teenager, I constantly hovered around her like a satellite. I have changed now, but only a little (smiles). I have learnt to let her be, to some extent. When she began her business as a designer, we started it from an apartment with just three tailors. I used to look after her finances and a few other things. With time, her business grew, and I realised that she doesn’t want me to be a part of her business. She wants to be on her own, so I stepped back. I let her be.”
The mother-daughter duo also teamed up for Masaba Masaba, and are coming together for a second season. Not many are aware that Masaba always aspired to become an actress. It was Gupta who dissuaded her from following that dream. She believed that Masaba won’t fit into the industry, and could be relegated to only doing certain kinds of roles. But Masaba is playing herself now in her own show, and the duo is having fun working with each other. “Masaba is a very professional person, and I’m very proud of her. When we were shooting for the first season, we behaved like two professional actors. She has the same approach in her life,” Gupta says.
A few months ago, Gupta penned her autobiography, Sach Kahun Toh, which was very well received. In fact, I completed the book in one night. The actress-turned-writer, on purpose, hasn’t named a few who were the cause of her pain. Did any of them reach out? “No one has reached out, and even if they do, I’m not scared of anyone. I have only written the truth. That is why they haven’t called.” Many people mentioned in the book called to say how much they loved the book, including Badhaai Ho director Amit Sharma, Satish Kaushik, Deepak Qazir, and Gupta’s husband’s family.
Reminiscing about her journey, Gupta says that if given a chance, she’d want to live her life differently. “I would change everything. Life could have been better. Maybe, I would have been an excellent IAS officer serving my country. Maybe I would have had a traditional marriage, a big family with two or three kids, or maybe I would have been offered central roles when I was younger.”
The actress has known her husband for over 20 years, and recently completed 12 years of marriage. She explains their relationship with an example. “Take, for example, you are leaving town for work and you message your loved ones that you are leaving and when you reach, you message that you reached. Now imagine you have no one to send that message to. For me, this is a strong sense of belonging. I have someone who is mine. Back in time, I only had my father. Now I have my daughter, and my husband.”
Juggling between films and web shows with great ease, she has now reached a point where the medium is of less concern to her. “The only thing that matters to me is how different is the role that I am getting to play. Like I played a titular role with Sardar Ka Grandson. I was used on the poster, which was a huge deal for me. Otherwise, I’m usually limited to doing small roles, even in Shyam Benegal’s films. His film posters had pictures of Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi. I’m happy that I’m getting good work, and that the responsibility of those projects also lies on my shoulders.”
Not getting pivotal roles made Gupta question her choices. “I had a grouse with my life. Why don’t I get such roles? What mistake did I make? There was always a little hope that probably in the next film, I will get a better role. But I’m also thankful to Shyam Benegal for giving me work. At least he made good films and offered me good roles,” she expresses. If you take a look at her Instagram account, you’ll see that acting is not the beyond-and-end-all of Neena Gupta’s life. “It is not that I will not know what to do with myself if I don’t act. Life is not just one profession. Life offers you so many things. I got the opportunity to come to America to shoot a film during the pandemic. Who gets such opportunities?” she says. At present, the actress is enjoying her acting phase so much that she doesn’t want to don her producer-director hat again as of now, but that being said, she’s also very keen on making documentaries.
“After so many years, I’ve only understood one thing about acting: you have to mean your lines and listen to your co-actors’ lines. On top of that, if you have a good director, they can guide you if you get distracted. Plus if you have the right costume for your role, you don’t need to do anything else. All these extensive talks about getting into the character, mujhe samajh nahi aati. It’s like in cricket, you keep your eye on the ball.”
It’s really that simple for Neena Gupta. After all, her success is proof that her mantra has been right all along