'It is totally a Deepti Naval film’. ‘She has acted brilliantly’. ‘A powerful role for her.’ These are some of the remarks of those who saw ‘Main Zinda Hoon’ (I am living) at the London Film Festival. Directed by Sudhir Mishra, the film is a powerful commentary on the plight of a lot of women of India.
Beena a young small town girl (played by Deepti) finds herself in a pathetic condition when her husband refuses to consummate the marriage. She is forced to take up work in the big city, Bomaby, to provide for her husband’s family. During her husband’s long absence Beena has another relationship. In the role of Beena, Deepti displays an intensity and naturalness that are rarely seen on the Hindi screen.

“It is the sort of character I always hankered after,” says Deepti. “Sudhir brought out the best in me. Now I hope to get more such challenging roles.”

Deepti Naval has always been a bit of an enigma for the film industry. Undeniably talented, she has never been, for them, the ideal heroine material and despite her, again, undeniable charm, she has never fitted in with the average film maker’s conception of glamour.

Yet the late Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi, both of who could easily be considered in the same light, have proved highly successful in breaking through this tunnel-vision approach to casting. Somehow Deepti has been overlooked.

Girl from New York
Deepti came to Bombay from New York where her parents, both professors of English, still live. But in the industry, her love of poetry and good roles led many producers to believe she wasn’t interested in commercial films. Thankfully, this omission on the part of the Bombay establishment seems to be sorting itself out and her performance in ‘Main Zinda Hoon’ has proved that she is a talented actress.

Deepti began her career with a small part in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Junoon’. Soon she was cast in the lead in ‘Ek Baar Phir’ with Suresh Oberoi. The first Hindi film to be made completely in London, it dealt with the emotional conflict of a woman caught between an indifferent husband and her artist lover. Deepti’s freshness captured the sympathy of audiences in India, from people who normally would have shunned a woman of that sort. The film was a box offive success. Slowly the offers started to come – ‘Hum Paanch’, ‘Angoor’, ‘Partner’ and ‘Shriman Shrimati’ to name but a few.

But her work in these films just wasn’t giving her the kind of artistic fulfillment she had left New York to find. Moreover, the more glamorous actresses such as Rekha, Sri Devi, Hema Malini, Jaya Pradha and even Shbana Azmi and the late Smita Patil had cornered the commercial market and the better parts. But says Deepti: “It’s not that I don’t like the idea of my work being seen by the multitudes, it’s just that the artist in me refuses to compromise. I just know there is a market for quality cinema.”

With Sai Paranjpe’s Chashme Baddhoor’. Deepti at last found her audience. It was a commercial success and proved that good films could have major box office appeal. This film was also the first of a series of films in which she appeared with Farooque Shaikh.

Most Creative Phase
Then ‘Kamla’ marked the beginning of Deepti’s most creative phase, directed by Jagmohan Mundhra, ‘Kamla’ tells the story of a journalist who, in order to expose the buying and selling of girls, purchases a young girl called Kamla. “The character of Kamla intrigued me and I was determined to give it everything I had.”

It was followed by ‘Ankahee’ perhaps Deepti’s most talked about performance. Based on man’s belief in astrology and directed by Amol Palekar, it features a delightful Deepti as the marginally unbalanced Radha.

Looking back Deepti has enjoyed the last 10 years despite the uncertainties of the film world. And, there is more of Deepti Naval to come with ‘Kisise Na Kehna’ with Farooque Shaikh and Utpal Dutt. Chopra’s ‘Sauda’, ‘Aks’ based on her own script with Nana Patekar (of ‘Salaam Bombay’ fame) and a Marathi film. Never before has she been as ambitious as now and never before has her future looked so promising.