There’s no pigeonholing her. Actress, painter, writer, nomad, she is indeed a woman of many parts. Recently, she drew all the stares for her cameo in Leela. Right now, Deepti Naval is wowing the preview circles with her turn in Freaky Chakra. Mini Chandran-Kurian delves into the mind of the somewhat reclusive performer

Somewhere in the cold nether regions of Leh, the lone woman traveler accessed her mail, and was instantly inundated with messages from across the world, from Tibet to France to Kabul. A charmed circle of friends, all wanting to stay connected to this lovely actress, painter, poet, individualist: also known to be a recluse and a nomad. One message was from Somnath Sen, who had a script ready called Leela, and he wrote – ‘Chaitali is you, and no one else. In the manner she speaks, walks, talks, even thinks…a little confused, a little confident, but strong.’

For Deepti Naval, who had given much of her soul and spirit to Indian cinema, who had traveled a long way from the Kamla and Miss Chamko days, to a period when the seasons seemed a fallow grey; and to a re-surfacing of sorts with an interesting cameo in Dr. Jagmohan Mundhra’s Bawandar, and a shade more melodrama in Shakti, Leela fraught with significance. It was the kind of role that an actress of her caliber deserved, a coming of age film with which she could identify. “It gave me tremendous satisfaction as an actress,” she says, with a luminous smile.

The buzz generated by a film in which she more than held her own against the beauteous Dimple Kapadia, has spawned other one-of-a-kind offers. Like Freaky Chakra, her new film directed by VK Prakash, which is about an eccentric, attractive 40-year-old, who makes a living out of embalming the dead; and whose love affair with a young boy spans the gamut of emotions from the passionate to plain whacky! What absolutely charges Deepti is the fact that there is more unconditional acceptance of experimental subjects today. She exults, “The biggest change is that issues are being brought up- dialogue with the audience on subjects that were taboo earlier. When I look back, I see that a lot of the films that Shabana Azmi and I did also tackled issues, but they were mostly about deprived human beings. Today’s small films can be about go-getters; themes like extra-marital affairs, extraordinary relationships between men and women; sex and stress…..they all get their moment in the lights.”

“Of course I miss the naivete of some of our earlier romantic films like the ones Farooque Shaikh and I did,” she says nostalgically. “Back then, it was more about the innocence in the eyes than ‘boobs in the face’!”

Next in the pipeline is a smaller role in a Marathi film with Amol Palekar at the helm, co-starring Sonali Bendre and Anant Nag, set in Hampi. “I’m brushing up on my Marathi now,” she says in her soft voice. Everything about Deepti is soft and fragile – her persona, the creams…the paneled wooden furniture, the gently sloping roof of her terrace flat. You can sense the positively in the house, which her friends describe as a ‘Zen’ home. Here, not so long ago, a musician and an actress shared a beautiful existence together.

Those were cherished years, and when she lost her man to a terminal illness about a year and a half ago, those became memories to be treasured. “Only when you lose so fully, do you value life…” she says, the pain fresh in her eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it, but I don’t reject the pain that the memory brings. I’ve never felt negative about anything, not even when my earlier marriage to Prakash didn’t work out, or anything else. I never want to lie back and feel beaten.” Her voice becomes stronger as she remembers, “Vinod taught me so many little things. He would also tell me, ‘Deepti, you haven’t achieved even one hundredth of your potential.’ And that still inspires me….”. But as she says herself “My face is made for a film camera”.

Deepti never did stop expressing herself. Writing poetry, directing a serial, traveling, painting passionately enough to hold an exhibition of landscapes and self-portraits that were molten in their honesty; she did it.

The camera indeed recognized that, and has captured her potently in over 60 films. Perhaps one regret is that many of them for instance, Tapan Sinha’s Didi and Basu Bhattacharya’s Panchvati, did not see the light of day. Ironically too, none of her performances ever fetched her, an award. “I used to feel bad about that once, but not any more” she asserts. “If you ask me have I been successful, I’d say yes, my life has been successful. When I came to India from the US after college, I chose not to merge completely with the film industry by doing only certain kind of films. I cannot root myself in Bombay. I love being a gypsy, I take five days to drive to Leh but I do it whenever I want to.”

She cradles her tea and gazes at the sea through the stretch of glass panes. “In fact, if I could leave everything, even this home that I enjoy so much, if I could be even more minimalist, that would be true success. Sometimes, you have to give it all up, to gather…..”