Neena Gupta’s autobiography Sach Kahun Toh has some terrific stories. Like how Ebrahim Alkazi, the legendary director of the National School of Drama, demonstrated to students, who were used to squatting in Indian bathrooms, how a Western-style toilet works: he sat fully clothed on the commode. Or how when she first came to Mumbai to be an actor, Neena helped out at the Prithvi Café in exchange for free food and tea. She talks about retaining her positivity despite past bad experiences and why she hasn’t named the people who’ve wronged her.
I remember when ‘Choli Ke Peeche’ was a big hit and you used to do live shows. You had said that you were performing at a sangeet in Ahmedabad. It was just you and your hairdresser. You had already done your number, but the drunk hosts forced you to come back to the stage and perform another dance. The incident must have been so frightening and humiliating. How did you find the strength to keep going after this incident?
I find my strength from people. A few years later, I realised that I was a young and upcoming star then and that such experiences had happened to such big stars too. On another occasion, we had gone to New York and arrived at a premiere by limo. I was wearing a sari and so I left my coat in the car, thinking that I didn’t require it. When we had to return to the hotel, there was a van waiting for us instead of the limo. My coat was lost. The next morning I met Shashi Kapoor and told him about the incident. He said that such things were very common. So I came to realise that similar mishaps and inconveniences happen to big stars too.
The Ahmedabad incident was very bad. But I learnt from it. After that, I never performed anywhere before my dues were paid. I learnt and grew from such incidents and accepted them as a part of life.
The then-revered magazine Illustrated Weekly had then printed your daughter Masaba’s birth certificate without your consent, revealing the identity of her father. In the book, you say that you felt betrayed by that incident. But you don’t name the magazine or anyone associated with it. Why?
Sometimes, I feel like my book should be called a blind item. But there were two reasons behind changing the names of some people. Firstly, there are many people who’ve done bad things to me. But they have children and grand-children, and I know some of them. Children treat their parents like gods, and I didn’t want to make those children feel bad about their parents through my book. Secondly, the lawyers at Penguin had asked me to either change the names of certain people or ask for their written consent. Of course, I wouldn’t ask Illustrated Weekly or anyone who had wronged me for consent. So I decided to change the names. I did ask for consent from my ex-husband and from my nieces. They had no issues with the book.
Your social media profiles don’t reflect any bitterness. How do you retain that positivity?
I’ll tell you an anecdote. There was a guy who behaved very badly with me. It was my fault. I always say: Nobody can take advantage of you unless you let them. I always have thought back to those days and realized that I had been stupid, I had allowed him to take advantage of me. It was not his fault. I haven’t even mentioned this incident in the book because I’m so ashamed of what I let him do, not physically, but otherwise. But I worked with him again as an actor. Somebody offered me a role in his film. I looked at the role. It was really nice and I was ready to accept it. The person who offered me the role was skeptical whether I would still do a film with that guy. But I thought, ‘Why should I reject such a wonderful role and be a loser when he has done something wrong to me? I don’t have to talk to him, I’ll do my role and leave.’ I did that.
So at the end of the day, I don’t blame anyone. I always say, ‘It was my fault.’ And if something is my fault, I’m okay with it. I say, ‘Next time I won’t do it.’ But we all repeat our mistakes again and again.
Success has come late for you. What’s the flavour of that success like?
It’s like rajma chawal. I love rajma chawal. Sometimes I wish I was younger, now that I’m getting different kinds of work, now that people think I am a good actor. But I’m very grateful that I am getting this now. I’m also very happy that I can finally say no to things I’m not interested in doing. It’s so exciting and liberating to say no because I couldn’t afford to say it earlier, I always needed more work. I’m very happy that I have a lot of interesting stuff in the pipeline. There’s Masaba Masaba season 2 and Panchayat season 2 & 3. But that wishful desire to be young again keeps returning.