Deepti Naval may not be a very sexy woman, but she’s
certainly a very alluring one.
Those who know Deepti say that she is
an intriguing package full of inexplicable contradictions. Her
growing up years in New York has given her a certain sophisticated
edge that Bollywood has never fully come to terms with.
to see it – you’ll hate it,” warned a friend.
“See it for
Dimple,” said another: “I thought the boy, Amol Mhatre,
was very good, commented a third. Nobody but nobody said a word
about the one person I thought effortlessly walked away with the
film – Deepti Naval.
Yes, Deepti Naval, the actress India has all but forgotten. I
came away from Leela, the small but satisfying film, carrying
the image of a compact, controlled woman who plays the role Chaitali
with heartbreaking sincerity. It’s easy to get hopelessly
distracted by Dimple Kapadia. Distracted and besotted, who can
stay untouched by Dimple’s presence it’s equally easy
then, to overlook the finely-nuanced performance of the second
woman in this tightly constructed, surprisingly convincing “older-woman-younger-man”
saga. In any case, when an actress – any actress –
is pitted against someone as riveting as Dimple, it’s a
But, like I said, Deepti holds her own and delivers a performance
that succeeds in touching you in the oddest of moments and for
the strangest of reasons. Frankly, I felt for Deepti and with
Deepti, for more than I did for Dimple. Perhaps, it’s unfair
to compare. But since Leela is being touted as Dimple’s
tour-de-force, most people who’ve seen the film have come
away raving over the raven-haired star, who possesses a mane so
eloquent and attractive, it seems to possess a life of its own.
That leaves the others in a bit of a lousy spot. Except for Deepti,
who, even in her final confrontation with the 40-ish woman (Dimple)
who has had sex with a 19-year-old student (Deepti’s son)
still manages to hang on to her dignity while the world crumbles
around her. There is nothing even remotely pathetic about Chaitali
in these powerfully-etched scenes. And there’s nothing caricature
about her, either. If anything, her controlled rage and transparent
contempt for Leela are projected more through her subtle body
language than anything else.
After leaving the theatre, I could still hear Deepti’s choked
words and see her pained dyes. Over a crab dinner at Trishna,
I found myself unable to discuss the film with companions –
my two sisters. I was too over-whelmed. The last time I’d
seen Deepti was year ago. The first time, I’d seen Deepti
was also years ago. Overtime, I’d sort of forgotten all
about her existence. I knew a few sketchy details. I’d read
about her civilized divorce, her starkly beautiful, self-designed
terrace apartment in Seven Bungalows, her passion for poetry and
paintings, her desire to make a film on Amrita Sher-Gill’s
life starring herself, her feelings towards her adopted daughter,
her involvement with several social issues and the recent death
of her partner with whom she’d spent seven of the happiest
years of her life. All this is public knowledge. For me, that’s
enough. Or rather, that was enough. Until now. After seeing her
in Leela, I want to know more about Deepti. Better still, I want
to know her. It’s about those sad eyes and that twisted
moth. It’s about her thinness and quick, small steps. It’s
about her confident, articulate façade that may or may
not hide a vulnerable care.
Those who know Deepti say that she’s an intriguing package
full of inexplicable contradictions. Her growing up years in New
York has given her a certain sophisticated edge that Bollywood
has never fully come to terms with. Deepti’s unusual looks
stopped mainstream producers from casting her as a heroine earlier
– where would they fit her in? But today, I believe, these
very looks would work to her advantage in off-beat productions
like Leela. ‘English’ films are going to come into
their own very soon. Here is an actress who delivers her lines
flawlessly in both languages. Sexy, she isn’t. But alluring
her most certainly is.
Dimple’s was the easy role – all she had to do was
look ravishing and then ravished. A cakewalk for her. What Deepti
was required to deliver was something for more difficult. And
she did it brilliantly.
Some say Leela was loosely inspired by the Shabana – Javed
love story. I’m not sure. And it doesn’t matter. To
those who haven’t seen the film, I would recommend it. For
no other reason than to feast your eyes on Dimple. And then, focus
on Deepti’s journey, as she evolves form and transforms
(in under two hours) from being a neurotic, anxious, unhappy and
insecure woman, into one who understand and appreciates the difference
between a love that stifles and a love that nurtures. Maybe, just
maybe, India is finally ready for Deepti.