Everyone had her pegged as an actress. But with her painting, photography, scriptwriting – and now her latest book of poems – people know there’s even more to Deepti Naval. SATISH NANDGAONKAR reports from Mumbai
Will the real Deepti Naval stand up, please? Two decades ago, she was the poster-girl of art-house cinema. Ten years later, as the market banished her kind of cinema, she went back to an old passion – painting. Then, as her marriage crumbled, she roamed the valleys of Ladakh as a photographer. And now, after rediscovering and losing love again, she has turned to poetry.
Deepti Naval, clearly, is a woman of many faces. And nothing, perhaps, says it better than the painting that adorns the cover of her latest book of poems – Black Wind and Other Poems (Mapin Publishing). The painting is a self-portrait showing a contemplative Naval holding a bouquet of wilting flowers, with the left half of her face a blur. This is possibly how she sees her-self – which could be the reason why at least two copies of the self-portrait dominate her spacious sea-facing apartment in suburban Versova, the new hub of Bollywood’s wannabes and established stars.
The image reverberates within, but outside the house, there is nothing – not even a nameplate – to indicate that Deepti Naval, once a popular heroine, lives on the sixth floor of the Oceanic Apartment. As you press the buzzer to the only accessible flat on the floor, you notice that unlike most security-conscious Mumbai doors, there is no keyhole there. The door opens a crack, and Naval – initially apprehensive – breaks into a smile. That’s the smile that gave her the girl-next-door image in Hindi cinema. Poet-director Gulzar, who wrote the foreword to Black Wind, calls it the “the heart-warming smile”.
But Black Wind and Other Poems is not really about smiles. The collection of 50 poems dates back to an emotionally turbulent period of her life from 1990 to 1995. Her poetry revolves around themes such as broken relationships, abortions, communal riots and suicides. “Now that the time has gone by and I have moved away from it, I am able to look back and say, ‘Yes, I lived that… I went through this,” Naval writes in her preface.
“She has her brains in her heart or the heart in her head,” says Gulzar in his introduction. “She lives the experience twice. First, when she actually lands in a situation, and takes the full experience of life. The second, when she filters it, takes the essence of a poem and relives it. That is why for an actress her first take is always her second take. So too with her poems.”
The collection also includes
23 poems in a section titled The Silent Scream
based on her experience at homes for the mentally
disturbed to prepare her for her role in Amol
Palekar’s Ankahi and Sudhir Mishra’s
Main Znidna Hoon.
“It was such a different experience. I would say these women made a lot of sense,” she says, chatting in her bright spacious apartment tastefully decorated with antique furniture. But Naval refuses to give geographical details of the homes she spent time in. “It’s not fair to the women there,” she says.
She was just 14 when she first
visited a mental home to meet a close friend admitted
there. In 1983, she visited another home to understand
the nuances of her role in Ankahi. But her real
interaction with women with mental disabilities
happened in 1993. Naval wrote a script about an
actress playing a disturbed woman, and how the
role starts to affect her real life. For this
she stayed in a home for the mentally ill for
“The script never materialized into a film, but the experience changed my llife completely,” says Naval, who adds that for several days after that, she found the so-called sane world shallow and superficial.
Naval also found some perfectly sane women dumped in asylums by relatives who did not want them back. “I wanted to convey and share my experience through these poems, and want people to think about a section of women shunned from life,” she says.
During her visits, a patient
once looked at her with accusing eyes after realising
that Naval was not an inmate there. Her poem –
The Stench of Sanity – is written from the
perspective of that woman.
There is something rotten – inside of/ You, in your flesh, the stench of/ Sanity. It breathes in your / Eyes, this thing…/ This thing that sleeps with you/ Night after night, like / An ageing wanton woman,/ Spent, but not quite spent.
The poems in Black Wind are deeply
personal. “I was worried that the often
highly personal nature of my poems would disconcert
the reader - anyone unfamiliar with the details
of my personal life. But I believe in what D.H.
Lawrence once said – ‘Even the best
poetry, when it is at all personal, needs the
penumbra of its own time and place and circumstance
to make it full and whole,” says Naval,
who separated from her filmmaker husband Prakash
Jha in the early 1990s and lived with her companion,
vocalist Vinod Pandit, who succumbed to cancer
three years ago.
Some of her works are dedicated
to her friends such as the late Smita Patil whom
she had met in New York much before she landed
in Mumbai. We come from non-glamorous backgrounds
and shared an unspoken understanding. Smita’s
loss at the peak of her career was a great personal
loss,” she says, pointing to Smita &
I – the largest painting hanging in her
Naval’s wide canvas of
activities – poetry, painting, photography
and acting – merge into each other. For
instance, her painting of a pregnant nun, up on
the wall, is about Naval's own contradictions.
The look in her eyes in the painting conveys her
dilemma – whether to embrace life or renounce
it,” she says, walking up to the full-size
Naval had studied art when she
wandered into Indian cinema from New York, chasing
her dream to be an actress. Originally from Amritsar,
her father was the head of the English department
at Hindu College there and her mother had a gift
for painting. The family migrated to the US after
her father got a teaching assignment at the City
University of New York. Naval studied at the same
university before finishing her bachelors in fine
arts from Hunter College, Manhattan.
Her passion for photography
grew during her travels with Vinod, her fiance,
to Ladakh. Then last year – two years after
his death – she traveled alone to Ladakh
to complete the Frozen River Trek in the Zanskar
River Poems – poetry that she wrote in the freezing cold – is slated to be published next year. The verse that she wrote when Pandit was battling cancer – “the most painful period in my life” – is also ready for publication.
Black Wind will be launched at Prithvi Theatre on December 20. Naval will be in Calcutta in January for a reading from the book.
And then, there is cinema. After
Pandit’s death, Naval decided to return
to acting. Her career – spanning 60 films
starting with Junoon in 1978 and including the
critically-acclaimed Ek Baar Phir and Chashm-e-Buddoor
– is taking off again. She starred as a
single mother in Somnath Sen’s 2002 film,
Leela, which had Dimple Kapadia in the lead role.
A year later, she followed it up with another
off-beat role in V. K. Prakash’s Freaky
Chakra where she plays a middle-aged loner who
finds herself in a relationship with a younger
man. She also directed Thoda Sa Aasman a serial
about women, and produced a travel show, A path
But Naval, clearly, has a world
beyond cinema. If a role is not challenging enough,
she is not interested in taking it up, she says.
“I am not ‘just’ an actress
any longer,” says Deepti Naval.