DEC 2004


Who can forget the refreshing appeal of the gregarious MS Chamko in the evergreen comedy Chashme Buddoor? Or the hibiscus-sporting girl-next-door in Katha who succumbs to the charms of anti-hero Farooque Shaikh?
The 80s sparkled with a brilliant genre of parallel films… and Deepti Naval was son of its main protagonists, though her repertoire of roles goes beyond the merely comic. Deepti has always followed her heart, often at the cost of fame and moneys: she is poet, painter, photographer, traveler and mother… Here’s catching up with the artiste

I felt I had Deepti Naval figured out. But only till I meet her… For starters, she is a much better actress than I had imagined! In real life, the first impression one gets of Deepti Naval is of rather serious person. She is not at all the simplistic girl-next-door she plays with such charming conviction in some of the best-known movie of the 80s. A many-layered personality of mercurial moods, Deepti follows her heart wherever it leads her, even if that be beyond fame and riches. And she lives for the moment: ‘Tomorrow I will be elsewhere – I will live those moments fully. But the now and here is what mattes.’

The way we were…
After growing up in Amristar, Deepti left with her family for New York when her academician father migrated. Fine Arts were a natural choice for graduation. ‘I cherish those years in New York. The city makes you capable of fending for yourself. I recall we had to rush from the subway to the house: In winter, it would be snowing, getting dark; every other person would be in a heavy overcoat, a hat… It was scary! Your reactions had to be sharp. The city prepares you for life – maybe over prepares!

‘I felt my father had worked much hared to get us there. I wanted to contribute, so I would work during the day as a receptionist and attend school in the evening. It made me independent.’

It is a little bit of New York that she preserves in the heart of Mumbai city, in her apartment, reminiscent of Manhattan studio lofts. Knocking down a few walls, she has created a flowing space, offset by white walls and minimal furniture. The eye is drawn to the paintings that adorn the walls, the only “embellishments” on the home canvas. In one corner, I notice a portrait of a beautiful lady. Deepti bears a distinct resemblance to her. ‘My mother. She lives in Long Island and is a very fine painter herself.’

Her bond with her parent’s continues to be strong. ‘My wanderlust comes from my parents. My father was head of the English department at the Punjab University. I remember every summer we would head for the Kullu hills. My father used to walk a lot and my mother would paint… There is a mountain person in me: I feel I am less of a Punjabi and more of a Pahadi,’ says Deepti, who is part Dogri on her mother’s side.

Clad in a simple black top and jeans, with no make-up or Jewellery, there are indeed none of the razzle-dazzle in her that one associates with modern-day Punjabiyat. ‘I just use some sun block and maybe a bit of lipstick when I go out.’
Deepti is striking and does not need artifice to offset her unique appeal. Her large brown eyes mirror her soul, now lighting up with quick humour (I see flashes of the endearing Ms Chamko!), now shining pensively. At 5 feet 2 inches, she is slender and keeps herself fit by ‘eating sensibly’ and skipping a meal when she has overeaten. ‘Sweets are my weakness, but I try to stay away! I do stretching; but no gym for me – I can’t imagine stationary walking! I like to manage one meal myself, maybe a quick stir fry and yoghurt.’ Over several cups of coffee that she makes in her well-organised kitchenette, we talk about her many passions.

‘I am an actress first’
With her refreshingly earthy appeal, Deepti burst on to the Indian screen with Chashme Buddoor, Saath Saath, Kath, Rang Birangi… Within a few years, she had established a certain brand of entertainment that was uniquely “her type”. ‘I wanted to act ever since I was seven. In school, though, I was too shy. Films brought me to Mumbai. I remember in Junoon (released in 1980) I was so much in awe of everybody: Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Bejamin Gilani, Jennifer Kapoor, Kullbhushan Kharbanda. Ek Baar Phir, soon afterwards, was great fun. I was in London shooting amoung people who were all beginners, like me… Of the 60-odd films I did, my favourites are Edk Baar Phir, Chashme Buddoor, Katha, Mirch MAsala, Kamla, Ankahee, Panchvati, Main Zinda Hoon, Didi (a film I did for Tapan Sinha in Kolkata), then Leela and Freaky Chakra’

Though she says she was fortunate to have worked with a spate of great directors, she remembers her association with Sai Paranjpe (Katha, Chashme Buddoor) with special affection. ‘She was the only director who could scream at me! I was like a schoolgirl in front of her, she the headmistress! I really cherish my relationship with Sai. The way she worked on details was incredible. I remember the scene in Katha where Raja Ram (Naseeruddin Shah) asks me, the girl-next-door, why I insisted on calling him “ji” all the time; she answers: “Kya karein, aapke personality mein hi ji hai…” Only Sai could come up with such nuances.’
Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s hilarious Rang Birangi with the inimitable Utpal Dutt saw Deepti as the comely secretary to Amol Palekar’s married –man-out-to-romance role. In Kissise Na Kehna, Deepti and Utpal Dutt teamed up for yet another situational comedy. In Gulzar’s Angoor, a take-off on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Deepti has a smaller role but made an impact as the scatterbrained Moushumi’s sensible sister, paired with the redoubtable Sanjeev Kumar. To this day, Deepti holds Sanjeev Kumar in high esteem.

Even as her fame spread as the actress who excelled in endearing, everyday-girl roles, Deepti was never limited to comedy. She met her future husband, director Prakash Jha, on the sets of the joyous Hip Hip Hurray (loosely based on To Sir, With Love) but went on to work with him again in the acclaimed Damul, a stunning film woven around the hanging of a bonded laborer. Also in the serious genre were Kamla (where she enacts the role of a tribal girl sold to a city baby [played by Marc Zuber] with haunting sensitivity), Main Zinda Hoon, Panchvati and Ankahee too were immensely thought-provoking.

Says Deepti: ‘With Leela and Freaky Chakra, the last two films that I did in recent years after a six-year gap, I was able to break away from my earlier of Chaitali, an NRI in the US who is a single mother. The story rakes an unexpected turn when her young son gets involved with an older married woman, Leela, a role played by Dimple. ‘Chaitali is very close to the way I see my own personality. Somebody who is working, is independent but complex… there are a lot of contradictions in Chairtali. Freaky Chakra, my latest film, was a challenge. The protagonist goes from being an irritable, generally disliked woman, to someone who becomes a gentler, softer version of herself.’ The movie explores the relationship between the older woman and a much younger man.

Deepti is a formidable storehouse of talent. Yet incredibly, it didn’t take much for her to cut off as she did for several years. ‘I am first and foremost an actress, but one who is very distracted, who cannot sit still in one place for long, and can’t take herself as seriously as an actresses she should! I am addicted to vagabonding. My sense of security does not come from films. Instead, if I couldn’t take off and wander, if I couldn’t reach out to something else, I would be terribly insecure. There was a time when I was going to the studio, doing my part, but was ill at ease. I realized I had to stop doing the routine. How would better roles come to me if I kept doing that? So I did not sign a film for five years. Instead, I produced, directed, wrote and acted in a TV serial, Thoda sa Aasman…’

Of today’s crop of actors, she likes Sushmita for her ‘overall personality’; and Rani Mukherji for her acting. She also likes Shaid Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan. Of her many co-actors, she looks back with Farooque Shaikh, with whom she did several films, though her all-time favorite remains Naseeruddin Shah. ‘The young actors are all so clear-headed today, it’s admirable… Recently, I saw Bride and Prejudice on the big screen. It was enjoyable, but I didn’t analyze the film.’

Me, myself

Deepti was earlier married to the acclaimed director Prakash Jha, but says she enjoys a much more valuable equation with him now. ‘When you eliminate role-playing, remove the quotation marks from both ends of a relationship, you are able to really appreciate the person for who he is.’ Today they share the upbringing of their beloved 16-year-old, Disha. Deepti may not be the biological mother, but she has all the concerns that plague a parent of a young girl on the verge of taking her board examinations. ‘I feel I can’t say no to her – I am not much of a disciplinarian! Just this morning I dropped her at Prakash’s, were she’s studying hard. I would like her to grow up to discover what she would like to do in life. She may work it out now, this year; next season... it doesn’t matter.’

Some years ago, the actress met her fiancé Vinod Pandit. ‘Those were beautiful times. I did no films. It was a wonderfully wholesome period of my life. I remember the first time we drove all the way from Mumbai to Delhi, then on to Spiti, Lahaul… finally landing in Ladakh. We were there for two months, just driving from village to village, staying wherever we felt like.’ Films and fame faded into the background.
When Vinod was diagnosed with cancer, Deepti’s world was rocked. ‘He was a very special man. When he was in New York undergoing treatment, I nearly said no to Leela. I wanted to be with him, since I didn’t know how much time I had with him. But he said, “I could have gone in a jiffy and you could have been shooting and heard that I am no more. You are not going to give up your work for me like this. It is your work that is going to show who you are…” Vinod Pandit came from a prominent musical family and he nurtured Deepti’s love for music; she began doing her riyaaz, inspired by him. He also pushed her into picking up the camera again and into writing.

The time after he passed away was one of deep sadness for Deepti. ‘My mother came to be with me. She wanted me to get out of that environment and so she insisted I accompany her to Myanmar – she had grown up there and wanted to revisit it. I did not want to leave this house, where I felt Vinod was with me, but finally I did go. I went down Mom’s memory lane, met her old friend (both of them so old now)… I lived my mom’s nostalgia.

‘Some time later, I went to Kullu and stayed alone in a secluded place. It was the Diwali after Vinod’s death. I remember sitting out on the balcony in the evening. I could see the river Bees flowing down below. There were little villages on either side of the river. As the evening unfolded, I could see he firecrackers light up the skies in a joyous, continuous stream. Softly, it cam tome: Life goes on. There is so much beauty in the small things around you; you can’t miss seeing the joy in living. Basically, my strength comes for Vinod himself. The one thing he left for me is a zest for life, the strength to go on no matter what. He used to say, “You haven’t given 10 percent of yourself to the world as yet…”

Brush with creativity
Deepti paints landscapes and portraits – canvases that mirror her soul. She declares” ‘I don’t mind selling my landscapes, but the portraits are difficult to part with.’ The pictures are unconventional, and could be a manifestation of a thought or an image that stayed in her mind. A self-portrait where she is a pregnant nun (‘It symbolizes an inner conflict. Initially there was no definitive face, but the painting generated so much controversy, I had to paint myself in it!’); Actress Smita Patil and herself in a pensive bonding mode (painted after the actress passed away)… There’s a gripping quality to her work that makes you pause a while, look deeper.

It’s all about words…
In America, she started writing in Hindi. ‘Being in New York, one wanted to establish one’s identity as an Indian. But I outgrew that hang-up! I think the thoughts decide the language. Her new book, Black Wind and other Poems, is in English. The first section has poems that talk of her life experiences; but it is the second section, termed ‘Silent Screams’, that’s particularly evocative. The subject is rather unusual: women in mental asylums.

She recalls: ‘I spent a few hours in a mental asylum to study for a role. The time that I spent in the women’s ward left me completely frazzled.’ Later, in the winter of 1993, she went back to the asylum to work on a film script. This time, she actually lived in the ward with the women. She writes in the foreword of her book: ‘…I realized that the world of the mentally disturbed is also the world of the unabashedly honest… when you return to the sane world you find everything shallow…’ The book is all set for a December 2 release. Her first book of poems, Lmha Lamha (1982), rendered in Hindi, came with a foreword by director Gulzar. This time too there is a foreword by him.

Through the lens eye
Deepti had studied photography. Yet for years, she didn’t pick up the camera. But the pull of the Himalayas was too much. Soon, camera in place, she was headed for the hills. ‘In Search of Another Sky’, her exhibition, captured the barren beauty of Ladakh in all its sweeping immensity. The photos were born of a whimsical bonding with the mountains. ‘I think one lifetimes too little to experience the Himalayan region. I like to spend quiet time with myself out there…’
Last year saw the actress in yet another unexpected role, that of a real life adventurist. Alone save for two porters, she took off for the Tchadar expedition. The fallout: a stunning collection of 33 photographs of the frozen Zanskar River in Ladakh, in temperatures hovering around –15 degree C. the collection is titled ‘Images from the Frozen River’. ‘With two porters as companions, I set off on what turned out to be one of the most mind-blowing experiences of my life. It was freezing despite the layers of clothing. It was on the river that things got really dangerous. It was frozen and I could see the bed beneath the clear ice. If you happened to step on thin ice, you were done for!’ Deepti is, incidentally, the first non-Ladakhi Indian woman to have traversed the frozen river.

Delving within
‘I simply cannot be bound to a place. In Mumbai, my closest “out” is the Erengal Church on Madh Island. There were years when the church was not even functional. I would park quietly, go in and sit by the wall, spend time listening to the sea, watch the rain pouring down… Basically, I ma a loner – I love being with myself.’

Though she follows no organized religion, the actress is inspired by the teachings of Buddhism. Some time ago, she went in for an intense session of mediation – Vipassana, the basic Buddhist practice of delving within, without chants, music or external props. ‘It was a liberating experience… Not easy, since you have to be totally silent for 10 days and allow yourself to get in touch with your inner self. People hurt you; you hurt people; there is anger as well as regret… Vipassana helped me wash myself of all that.’

Looking ahead

There’s another book of poems that she wants to publish, but not before giving this one ample time. A travelogue too is sitting ‘in my computer’ – but there’s no hurry. ‘I like to work at my own pace. There are projects that I am committed to, but I don’t allow them to dictate my life,’ she says.
My time with Deepti is almost over but I am tempted to linger – to let her philosophy of life, so refreshingly different… As I leave, I think maybe I have figured her out.
Maybe not.