Early on in Neena Gupta’s autobiography Sach Kahun Toh, she writes: “I know many of my readers are waiting for me to get to the juicy bits of my life.” Those “juicy bits” allude to her decision to have a child without getting married in 1989. That choice, unusual even today but downright radical three decades ago, has defined Neena’s public persona. She is often described as the original rebel, the woman who defied societal norms and lived life on her own terms. While that is true, this book also attempts to set the record straight – that in fact, Neena consistently struggled with low self-esteem, too often did not demand or get her due, and is also, as she writes, “flawed, chipped, broken”.
Her honesty is endearing and it is what makes Sach Kahun Toh worth reading. The book has minimal writerly flourishes. The language is prosaic and sometimes repetitive – in one chapter, the same person is described as ‘sweet’ on two consecutive pages. Sach Kahun Toh was written during the lockdown last year and there are parts that seem slapdash. The chapters on her later work, like the films Badhaai Ho and The Last Color or the television series Panchayat, are overtly gushing and largely superficial. But what keeps you hooked is Neena’s straightforward, sometimes melancholic, wise-with-age-and-experience voice. This is a woman looking back at her tumultuous life with grace and forgiveness.
The book 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. Or how when she was pregnant with Masaba, her close friend, actor-director Satish Kaushik, comforted her by saying, “Don’t worry, if the child is born with dark skin, you can just say it’s mine and we’ll get married. Nobody will suspect a thing.”
Neena isn’t afraid of revisiting troubled times: when a partner called off their upcoming marriage (it was so close that she had bought her trousseau); when she shot the climax of Khandaan – the television series that made her famous – after flying to Delhi for three days for her mother’s funeral; or the fact that she wondered if her father was a little relieved when her mother died because he had a second wife and family, and had lived an exhausting divided and double life, shuttling between the two.
But what she doesn’t give us enough insight into is her process as an artist. This is perplexing because Neena is a National Award-winning actor and – this doesn’t get enough attention – a National Award-winning director (for her 1993 short film Bazar Sitaram). She also wrote and directed the blockbuster television series Saans. But she doesn’t articulate her way into her craft, how she builds characters and what enables her to deliver performances in which she rarely seems to be acting.
Despite her talent, Neena didn’t achieve the heights of Shabana Azmi or the late Smita Patil, but she was a well-known actor in Hindi cinema’s flourishing art house movement. She worked in seminal films such as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Mandi and Trikal. But again, we don’t get enough insight into that time or those personalities – in Mandi, she worked with both Shabana and Smita, but says little about the experience except that they were wonderful to work with.
Through the book, Neena also imparts life lessons such as: “Never sleep with a married producer or director” or “I want the whole world to know that you won’t get anywhere if you aren’t besharam.” She means that in the best sense of the word. In 2017, Neena famously took to Instagram to ask for work. Her post, written, she says, out of “passion and fury”, had grammatical and spelling mistakes. But it kick-started her career and, at sixty-plus, Neena is finally a leading lady. Case in point: the recent Sardar ka Grandson.
Neena’s story is also a reminder of what women go through as a matter of course – she speaks candidly of being touched inappropriately by a tailor and an eye doctor when she was a teenager. Later, after the hit song ‘Choli ke Peeche Kya Hai’, she became an in-demand live show performer. She describes it as “easy work for decent money”. But one night at a sangeet function in Ahmedabad, after she had already done her set, she was forced to perform again, in front of a drunk audience. Neena also talks about being propositioned by assorted men in the industry who assumed that female artists and sexual favours go together.
But Neena negotiated this tough terrain and emerged victorious. This is a woman who, as she says, “didn’t listen to anyone but myself”, and that is always inspiring. A word of caution for those coming in for the juicy bits – there aren’t any. Neena skims through the details of her relationship with Sir Viv Richards because she wants to, in her words, “protect my daughter.”
Fair enough. And in any case, Neena Gupta is so much more.