Deepti Naval’s self-portrait as a pregnant nun draws attention to the great promise she held as an actress when she burst on the scene more than a decade ago. Does her avatar of painter-poet spell the death of yet another thinking actress?

Scepticism breeds easily in the human mind. I was guilty of it myself, when I cynically dismissed the news that Deepti Naval, so far acknowledged as a talented actress, was all set to make her debut as a painter at Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay. Just another Sunday painter, I dismissed cruelly (like many others undoubtedly did) – before pausing to reflect that Deepti Naval is certainly not just another actress. For evidence, rewind to her sensitive delineation of powerful female roles in films like Ankahee, Kamla, Panchvati and Andhi Gali. Her debut as an actress in Ek Baar Phir in 1980, where she portrayed a sensitive woman torn by her love for two men, was itself path-breaking, and it placed her in the dwindling league of thinking actresses like Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi – in the jungle of Hindi cinema. Even I, who can hardly call myself a Hindi film buff, have seen enough of today’s formula-ridden commercial films to realise that this unconventional actress is a misfit in ‘Bollywood.’

So, where does that leave her creative spirit? Should it remain stifled by the grip of mindless plots on Hindi film audiences, or should it overflow on to a newer, fresher, more individualistic canvas? It’s a question the actress addressed during her ‘Dark Period’. The result was this added dimension of painter-poet.

Dwarfed by a huge canvas being framed in the charming terrace of her suburban flat, the petite actress steps out of the chaos to lead me into the inner precincts of her home and heart.

Deepti Naval is an interviewer’s delight. Sans make-up, she looks defenseless and much softer that the independent woman you have pictured. Before you can say camera! lights! Action! – she voluntarily lets down her guard, leading you into the hitherto unexplored recesses of her mind. Open, vulnerable, yet never weak, her strong convictions are her only ammunition against the volley of questions directed against her. Head cocked to one side, she listens intently before replaying, never ever getting on the defensive or dismissing a query as irrelevant.

• How far back does passion for painting date?
It goes back to childhood. It was very natural for me to draw. I was good in drawing, though not much of my drawing shows in my work today. And, my mother being a good painter herself, my parents were very encouraging. I studied at Sacred Heart Convent in Amritsar; and after school, I migrated with the family to New York, where I studied painting as my major subject. My father was very keen that I join a full-fledged art institute in Paris after my B.A.

Then what made you suddenly take up acting?
I wasn’t geared for painting. I was a very quiet child, so I never really had the guts to tell anybody that actually, it’s not painting, but it’s acting that I want to do. They would have been shocked. They were shocked when I told them.

When was that?
It was after I graduated from college. In 1979, just before I came here.

What urged you to come back to India to act?
Hindi films. It was always Hindi films. I don’t know why, but I never really opened my mind to pursuing acting there. I was just so much in love with Hindi films. As a child, I used to watch a lot of re-runs. There was a particular theatre which had all these old films coming back – of Meena Kumari, Raj Kapoor… I had seen films like Guddi, Ankur, Nishant, Bhumika, a few films of Jaya Bachachan. She was one of the major inspirations of my growing years. While I was in college, in New York, I was very turned on by her films.

So you gave up painting after you graduated?
For the first two years that I was here, I was shooting and looking at films, going to the FTII in Pune, reading. Education in cinema, for me, was through reading.
(Masters of Modern Drama by Block & Shedds and A History of the Cinema by Eric Rhode, standing alongside volumes on master painters like Picasso, Matisse, Seurat Manet, Goya, Gauguin, Rembrandt, Cezanne, on her wall-size book shelf, bear silent testimony to that statement.)

Why do you think your debut-making role in Ek Baar Phir created a stir?
It was very unconventional, very bold thematically. For the first time, it was showing an Indian woman, who was married to a film star, falling in love with a struggling painter in London. She goes through this middle-class conflict in her head – a nice girl like me, what am I doing in a situation like this? I have to end it. But she decides to end the marriage instead, because she sees the hypocrisy in her married life. It was a lovely film by Vinod Pande. There are times when you feel: Ah! I’d love to see myself in a film like this. This is one of those.

What happened after Ek Baar Phir?
After that, I did some good films with good directors like Sai Paranjpye, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar… I was exposed to all the international films and festivals, but I didn’t see myself standing anywhere in terms of what I felt could be my contribution to Indiani cinema. So I made a conscious effort to stop playing this sweet girl next door. Ek Baar Phir had been a landmark, but after that, I didn’t do anything of that kind. I started doing lighter roles but they couldn’t keep me happy for very long. I needed to put myself into the roles that I played – my own sensibility, my sensitivity, my own awareness of things… I had loved working with Sai Paranjpye (Chashme Badoor and Katha). She works with such minute attention to detail. But I wanted to make a difference to the audience. Like, when I saw Bandit Queen recently, I said – this woman is going to make me think for so many days! I would be doing my other work, and thinking of her. The performance is so stark, it’s so bloody disturbing! These are the kind of roles I was looking for, roles that would go home with people, make people think about them. Not roles that are just entertain – and that’s it!

What did you do about it?
For about seven months at a stretch, I didn’t sign any new film. I started selecting the roles that I wanted to play. One of the first films I did in that period was Kamla. I didn’t play the strong woman. Instead, I played the doormat - the very subservient, meak Adivasi woman. It’s not necessary that I play the jhanda-wala role. No. If the film is making a statement that is thought-provoking, then I’m part of it. It’s as simple as that!

Which are the performances that you are proud of?
I think Kamla set the ball rolling, and I did one film after another that gave me tremendous satisfaction. I think my most important work has been in Kamla, Ankahee (directed by Amol Palekar), Mirch Masala (directed by Ketan Mehta). Smita Patil plays the main role in Mirch Masala. I did a smaller role, but it’s one of my most precision-cut roles. It was short, but so precise. so correct. That is the feedback I got. It’s the feedback that gives you an opinion about your work too. Then I did films like Andhi Gali, Panchvati. etc.

Again, my role in Panchvati is a wonderful one, the role that I really identify with as a woman. (It was directed by Basu Bhattacharya). I play a painter from Nepal who is exhibiting her work at the Kala Academy in Delhi. She meets a very interesting, slightly older married man, gets a proposal to marry his younger brother, does so, and realizes that the younger brother is nothing like the older one. The marriage gradually deteriorates to the point of physical violence, and that’s when she decides to end it and goes back to Nepal. Somewhere along the way, the unspoken relationship between her and the older brother concretizes, and she spends two days with him on her way back. She conceives form him, but goes back to her painting in the temples. She gives birth to twins, but does not latch on to the man. She continues living on her own and painting in the temple, bringing up the kids herself.

In terms of the sensibility and the quiet strength that the woman possesses, I think it’s a role that is very close to me as a person –though I’m not as calm.

When did you start painting again?
Fall ’91 was when I started doing a lot of work. I was working in a friend’s studio, a very close friend of mine (called Akash) living in Delhi. The two nuns were done in her house. Then, when I came back to Bombay, I started painting in the garage downstairs. For two years, I think, I worked relentlessly.

How did you manage that? Did you take a break from films to do so, or did you start painting because you had no films?
I had breaks of sorts. To be very honest, I think it was the lack of meaningful work. Nothing concrete was happening for a while, and I said – why should I hang around here? So I would just go to Himachal, the Kulu valley. I love that area. There’s one painting here called Road To Keylong. I used to go on my own or with a friend. I love going to new places – a little village here, a valley there which I haven’t seen before. Travelling, hiking, trekking or just vagabonding, is a great high for me. At that point, I just needed to keep going away.

You also write poetry?
While I was in Delhi, going off into the hills from time to time (in ’91 – 92), I got into a period of writing poetry, which I had given up completely. When I was in college in New York, I would be writing in Hindi, particularly because it was 'my own' language. A question of identity when you’re in America. Amrita ji (Amrita Pritam) in Delhi liked my poems and she spoke to a publisher there to bring out my book. So my first collection was published in Hindi seven years ago.

What is your long-term goal? To be known as an actress? Or as a painter?
As an actress, I know I am good. It’s a much tested and tried medium. I’ve got enough feedback on that. But I would appreciate some feedback on my painting and poetry. It could only improve my work in the future. I certainly don’t see myself as someone who is “dabbling” in other mediums. I feel the need to say something, to express myself, and I get down and do it. I am somebody who needs to be creatively alive all the time. So whether I write or paint or do a scene which really turns me on, it’s all the same thing – except that the first two give me much more freedom as a person.

What does writing mean to you?
Writing poetry is harsh thing to be doing with yourself, really. You are completely emotionally exposing yourself to the world, and that’s difficult. Not when you’re doing it, but when others read it. There’s something inside you that compels you to – write! You can’t ignore it. You may write in your most intimate, alone moments, but there is a need to share that also. I find that I am in contradiction with myself so often. I need to be by myself, and yet I dread being completely alone. I don’t think I’ll ever really solve this one! Like someone very early in my career said, “You don’t have the temperament to be an actress. Temperamentally, you’re a painter. As an actress, you’re constantly thrown among people and you’re supposed to love it.

Do you like living alone?
In a way, I think it’s quite wonderful to live alone. To have friends when you want them, and if you want to have a relationship with a man which has the potential to grow – it’s a most wonderful equation! As a creative person, I need that kind of space to myself.

Didn’t you adopt a child at one point?
Yes. Actually when Prakash (Jha) and I got married, for two years, while we were still married, we were living away from each other. He was working in Delhi, and I was continuing to cope with my life in Bombay. We adopted a child then. (Prakash doesn’t like my bringing his name into my interviews. Today, we are such good friends, that we don’t see any need to keep referring to the past, but since we’re talking about the baby…)
She lives with him. She’s in Panchgani now and she knows me as a friend, as Deepti. I feel it’s okay, because I hardly had the chance to mother her. To me she’s still my baby, but I have also managed to see her as this little friend I have.

Would you want to adopt a child again?
I don’t know. My life is not planned at the moment. I don’t want to lose the spontaneity of living. It shouldn’t happen like before – when I used to stop living at times, because I was always evaluating what I was doing. If it didn’t fit in anywhere, then I wouldn’t do it. And maybe I missed out on the essence of living. I don’t really care for all that anymore. I just want to live for now. She comes home sometimes, and we’re friends. And Prakash and I are friends too.

Does your self-portrait as a pregnant nun have anything to do with wanting to have a child, without the hindrance of a man in your life?
No. It’s about the contradictions within me. A phase which really threw me into a conflict. I was really debating about whether I wanted to start my life all over again, or leave everything and go away somewhere – live in the mountains in oblivion, not have anything to do with films, or trying to prove myself, or making a statement, or wanting to make a film. Since I went to a convent school, the nuns - I always found them very fascinating and mysterious. As a child, I could never really understand their world, and as I grew up I did come to understand a little bit and then I romanticized it. And then, I caught myself painting a nun - painting myself as a pregnant nun, because I was going through this conflict – whether I wanted to start my life all over and adopt the world. Embrace it with both my arms and get pregnant with life. Or leave everything and become a recluse. No relationship, no child, nothing.

If you found the roles you were looking for, would you still explore your talent for painting?
Absolutely. The film medium is not, for me, an independent means of expression. It’s not me. I’m interpreting whatever is given to me in terms of the scene. For freedom of expression, you have to write a film and direct it yourself, for which you need funds.
I see myself as an artist, and not essentially as a writer or a painter. Or even an actress.

You haven’t said no to commercial films?
I haven’t. All I’m saying is that I don’t want to waste myself in films. It’s not that I’m cutting off that part of myself which is the actress. I never want to cut off any part of myself at any stage. I’ll be open to doing a good role when it comes along. There are some brilliant film-makers among the commercial lot – But I don’t want to be on the periphery. I have a fan following, and my fans have a certain expectation from a film of mine. I have to live up to their expectations. I have to do better than my last film…

Meanwhile, her thoughts and feelings overflow on her canvas and paper. Her exhibition of self-portraits, landscapes and pregnant nuns displayed her potential to be as sensitive a painter as she is an actress. We wait, expectantly, for the creative fulfillment of the promise of Deepti Naval – not the actress, or painter or the poet, but the consummate artiste.