Deepti Naval may not be a very sexy woman, but she’s
certainly a very alluring one
Those who know Deepti say that she is an intriguing package full of inexplicable contradictions. Her growing up years in New York has given her a certain sophisticated edge that Bollywood has never fully come to terms with.

“Don’t bother to see it – you’ll hate it,” warned a friend. “See it for
Dimple,” said another: “I thought the boy, Amol Mhatre, was very good, commented a third. Nobody but nobody said a word about the one person I thought effortlessly walked away with the film – Deepti Naval.
Yes, Deepti Naval, the actress India has all but forgotten. I came away from Leela, the small but satisfying film, carrying the image of a compact, controlled woman who plays the role Chaitali with heartbreaking sincerity. It’s easy to get hopelessly distracted by Dimple Kapadia. Distracted and besotted, who can stay untouched by Dimple’s presence it’s equally easy then, to overlook the finely-nuanced performance of the second woman in this tightly constructed, surprisingly convincing “older-woman-younger-man” saga. In any case, when an actress – any actress – is pitted against someone as riveting as Dimple, it’s a tough call.
But, like I said, Deepti holds her own and delivers a performance that succeeds in touching you in the oddest of moments and for the strangest of reasons. Frankly, I felt for Deepti and with Deepti, for more than I did for Dimple. Perhaps, it’s unfair to compare. But since Leela is being touted as Dimple’s tour-de-force, most people who’ve seen the film have come away raving over the raven-haired star, who possesses a mane so eloquent and attractive, it seems to possess a life of its own.
That leaves the others in a bit of a lousy spot. Except for Deepti, who, even in her final confrontation with the 40-ish woman (Dimple) who has had sex with a 19-year-old student (Deepti’s son) still manages to hang on to her dignity while the world crumbles around her. There is nothing even remotely pathetic about Chaitali in these powerfully-etched scenes. And there’s nothing caricature about her, either. If anything, her controlled rage and transparent contempt for Leela are projected more through her subtle body language than anything else.
After leaving the theatre, I could still hear Deepti’s choked words and see her pained dyes. Over a crab dinner at Trishna, I found myself unable to discuss the film with companions – my two sisters. I was too over-whelmed. The last time I’d seen Deepti was year ago. The first time, I’d seen Deepti was also years ago. Overtime, I’d sort of forgotten all about her existence. I knew a few sketchy details. I’d read about her civilized divorce, her starkly beautiful, self-designed terrace apartment in Seven Bungalows, her passion for poetry and paintings, her desire to make a film on Amrita Sher-Gill’s life starring herself, her feelings towards her adopted daughter, her involvement with several social issues and the recent death of her partner with whom she’d spent seven of the happiest years of her life. All this is public knowledge. For me, that’s enough. Or rather, that was enough. Until now. After seeing her in Leela, I want to know more about Deepti. Better still, I want to know her. It’s about those sad eyes and that twisted moth. It’s about her thinness and quick, small steps. It’s about her confident, articulate façade that may or may not hide a vulnerable care.
Those who know Deepti say that she’s an intriguing package full of inexplicable contradictions. Her growing up years in New York has given her a certain sophisticated edge that Bollywood has never fully come to terms with. Deepti’s unusual looks stopped mainstream producers from casting her as a heroine earlier – where would they fit her in? But today, I believe, these very looks would work to her advantage in off-beat productions like Leela. ‘English’ films are going to come into their own very soon. Here is an actress who delivers her lines flawlessly in both languages. Sexy, she isn’t. But alluring her most certainly is.
Dimple’s was the easy role – all she had to do was look ravishing and then ravished. A cakewalk for her. What Deepti was required to deliver was something for more difficult. And she did it brilliantly.
Some say Leela was loosely inspired by the Shabana – Javed love story. I’m not sure. And it doesn’t matter. To those who haven’t seen the film, I would recommend it. For no other reason than to feast your eyes on Dimple. And then, focus on Deepti’s journey, as she evolves form and transforms (in under two hours) from being a neurotic, anxious, unhappy and insecure woman, into one who understand and appreciates the difference between a love that stifles and a love that nurtures. Maybe, just maybe, India is finally ready for Deepti.