“The main excitement is on the periphery,” says Deepti Naval, who played Mrs. Thomas in the experimental Freaky Chakra. FC2 talks to her about the film and her many careers.

Deepti never played the stereotypical Bollywood heroine because, “I wanted to play real roles, something that people could identify with. I didn’t want to be in movies where everybody had to look pretty. Everybody has to look pretty.” She shakes her head in puzzled disbelief, “I mean Bollywood is a world by itself. It’s just there, it thrives by itself. There’s no reason why it should, but it does, Indian people for some reason, are hooked to those movies. Now, I don’t even see the need to criticize it any more. It doesn’t bother me.” she had all it took to become an alternative sex symbol but she never essayed the glamorous roles even Smita Patil flirted with. Mainstream movies bothered her once, because she “didn’t want to do those roles” but she says, “Now I can watch a song and dance routine and enjoy it. I’m a great fan of Madhuri Dixit. She’s so beautiful. “Since she also likes watching “Sonali Bendre dancing”, does it mean she might consider roles in commercial cinema? An infinitesimal shake of the head and then Deepti says gently, “No, not mainstream movies like Shakti and Yalgaar. I did those films for certain scenes. I’ve been waiting for a role would excite me as an actress. The roles I was being offered were all major clichés. Freaky Chakra is meant to be fun, but it doesn’t represent Indian womanhood. I fear Mrs. Thomas is going to be looked at from a feminist point of view. But it’s just her role; it’s her perspective on life, which she has the prerogative to change.”

Mrs. Thomas is a widowed woman in her forties, who works in a morgue, receives obscene calls from a bachelor and eventually falls in love with a 19-year old paying guest. From a frustrated, ranting widow, she turns into a fun-loving woman, who begins to enjoy her feminist, Sunil Rao, who plays the college-going kid, adds, “It’s not as though her situation has changed. It’s somebody else’s attitude that has made her difference. She just rediscovers herself.” One of the ironies of the protagonist is that she is a doctor who has stopped practicing medicine in order to become an embalmer of sorts. “Her life is so boring. She picks up the phone; ask for details of the deceased, the time of death. The scene where she is shown decorating a dead body in the morgue, is beautiful. She looks pretty; there’s a calm and serenity in the room. While she is in the morgue, she does her job with great care and beauty. So actually, the repercussion of her job is outside the morgue, like, screaming at the watchman all the time. I’ve never done that; I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that. It was so hard to shoot that. I’d say ‘Do it, don’t laugh tell yourself you’ve really pissed’,” Deepti is trying hard to keep a straight face but sobers up enough to add. “It was lovely character to play.” Sunil echoes that the film was fun. “It’s experimental, unconventional and besides I’d be interested in doing a film with any kind of difference, and not just as an artist. If somebody else had played my part, I’d have watched it and still loved it, because it’s different. Despite being an Indian film being made in English, as so many films are these days it isn’t about NRI it doesn’t have Indian showing Indian culture to those abroad. They choose to live it their way. This whole cross-cultural brouhaha” Sunil sounds mildly acerbic. According to director VK Prakash, almost a 100 youngsters were auditioned for Sunil’s role. “I am passionate about good cinema. And it was great shooting for Freaky Chakra in just 23 days,” says Sunil, who is remarkably confident for a 24-year-old. Being pitted against against a veteran caused no flutters, he says, “I was nervous on the first day, but not because of Deepti. I set very high standards for myself so it was a matter of living up to my own expectations. This is in a sense, my first big mainstream movie but I have worked with stars before.” He debuted as a child star when he was five, played Anant Nag’s son in the mithaiwala episode of Malgudi Days and also has several mainstream Kannada films to his credits.

Freaky Chakra is a story that exists entirely in the imagination of the writer, played by Channel Jockey Ranvir Shorey. “He is occasionally even interacting with his characters, like when he gives Mrs. Thomas’ phone number to the hero,” recalls Deepti, who adds that this is the kind of cinema she’s wanted to belong to Prakash explains that in sense, the film is closer to theatre, because it’s an ensemble script, “Seven of us were writing the script and since we were all writing it, we decided to turn the writer into a character. It’s mad and unconventional in structure. The narration of the story makes it different, not the content itself. Also, we have the freedom to switch to English and get away with that.”

Deepti agrees that it is different, “Although it’s a small film, it is thematically a very big experiment. There’s just one song, which is like a montage, and that is the only regular song. There’s a market emerging for different films. Society in India is changing. We’re becoming world people; we’re opening up, growing up. We’re not running away and hiding somewhere.” Farooque Sheikh, Amol Palekar, Shabana Azmi and Supriya Pathak were her contemporaries. Deepti is aware that she was “lucky to have entered films at that time. The atmosphere was very conducive. “Both her parents were teachers in New York so having had an academic upbringing, she doesn’t think she “would have been able to wear a lehenga” and run around trees. She reiterates that she “wanted to play roles that smelt real”. At least two of her movies, Katha and Saath Saath depicted the grim reality of life in Mumbai chawls. In Saath Saath, she starts out as a woman with capitalist parents, who Maries an “idealist man.” Despite the socialist fabric of many of her movies, Deepti doesn’t believe in socialism. “No, not really,” she tells me in her slightly husky voice, “It isn’t necessary for me to choose movies according to my personal beliefs. I wouldn’t put up with a man making obscene anonymous calls. I’d never entertain a stranger calling me up like that.” She sounds mortified, as she recalls her latest role. “But, that’s what acting is all about, isn’t it? You think, here’s another kind of person. Mrs. Thomas has got shades I haven’t played before. So, let’s see life from her perspective, get into the character, and empathies with her and interpret her. Say, I’m portraying a prostitute. It doesn’t mean I want to become one, or that I believe in prostitution, but I’d step into the role and I’d want to make the audience empathies with her.”

She has ‘always’ wanted to become an actress, “I decided, when I was six,” she says with absolute conviction, as though it were a foregone conclusion. Yet, because she wanted to do “something academic” she pursued painting obtaining her bachelors from a college in New York, where her family lives. She was in fact an NRI (and stills is an American citizen) when she began acting. She tells me she had no problems with language or accent, since she was born in India. I grew up in Amritsar and attended school here; both my parents are originally from Lahore and came to India during the Partition. So, although my father was an English teacher, his first language - written and spoken - was Urdu, which was published some 20 years back. “I was brought up by nuns in New York and I was fascinated by Urdu poetry. Of course, when you’re looking for your cultural identity, you tend to go back towards your roots. Later, I outgrew that, I heard Urdu all the time anyway, at home, but if my expression was best in English. I felt ‘let it be’. There was no need for an identity crisis, no reason to get all convoluted. I was comfortable just being myself.” She expects to publish her second volume of poetry in four months - this time in English. “I’ve been writing poetry all along. I love the process of writing,” she has written television script and several short stories, which she is “not ready to publish”, and is currently writing another script, based on a novel by Prem Prakash, a writer from Punjab.

Actress, writer painter too “I do oil paintings. Everything comes from the same core you need to express yourself. I’m going through a writing phase right now, so everything I see around me, everything that I perceive, is expressed through writing. Acting is the only medium that doesn’t allow me to express myself. Look at that glass over there. Acting is like a reflection. It’s not what I think about life that I am expressing, it’s the vision of the director, on film.” She searches for the right words. As I watch momentary frustration fleeting across her face. I realize that for her, it’s important to get this right, it’s important for her that I get this right. “Do you get what I mean? It’s not my feelings or my thoughts. The film, the role, the interpretation of the character is all via this glass and then, you see the reflection. When I’m writing or painting, it’s my own expression.” For a few moments, I get the feeling she has forgotten our presence. When she comes out of her reverie, she says, “Acting is so strange, I haven’t figured it out yet. You put your life into it; you become very vulnerable. Emotionally, you bare yourself completely and yet, you’re never revealing yourself. The audience doesn’t know that what they think is acting, is actually a moment that was so real. You draw from an emotional reservoir, from your own experiences and feelings. You bring in your own general perceptions of life, your observations like when I say to Sunil in the film. It’s so funny when you call me ma’am’. Also, that scene in bed, when I think he’s cheated on me, that he has a girlfriend on the sly, I was traumatized by that scene. Emotionally, it drained me. I’m very good at subtly, I find loud emotions as difficult to recreate that for camera. Yesterday, for example, somebody asked me a personal question and I felt completely incapacitated. I couldn’t do a thing after that I know people think I’m moody, but you’re not a pretender. You can’t always be suave. I kept telling myself, “You’re being unprofessional. You’re jeopardizing their work, they have-deadlines to meet.” But, you completely lose your charm and balance. This scene in Freaky Chakra, where I’m nursing my dying husband in my arms - that was so close to my personal life. I lost the man I was living with and I found myself weeping uncontrollably. The crew was standing around and they didn’t know how to react, whether I was ready for another shot. You feel so raw all the time. Your life is so exposed. Why am I talking about this?” She breaks off only to continue with an earnestness that takes me a back, “I keep living my roles. Then, I have to remind myself to step out of it. I tell myself, ‘Hold it, that’s not me. Snap out of it.”

What she finds remarkable about Freaky Chakra is that “all the characters are serious. Everybody is doing their bit very sincerely. It’s the situation that is funny. The man who makes these obscene calls (played hilariously by Sachin Khedekar) doesn’t think it’s funny. He thinks Mrs. Thomas has no medical ethics. But, the viewer finds it funny because he’s shown as a pathetically earnest man who has lost his grip on reality. Even the writer is serious. He doesn’t find it funny that the character he has created has fallen in love with his heroine.” Comic roles in mainstream movies (Angoor, Kisi se Na Kehna, Chashme Buddoor), serious roles in parallel cinema (Saath Saath, Katha, and Ankahee), newer experiments like Shakti and Leela - Deepti has tucked a diverse lot under her belt. Her toughest scene has been in Ankahee (directed by Amol), where she played a mentally disturbed woman.

“It was so draining - this scene where I start hallucinating, between the bars, and I tell the rishi that the blot went away only because he is a rishi,” she looks tired all over again, when she needs a break from acting, she does some trekking in Ladakh. Twice a year, she takes off to Himachal. “I love the mountains. There’s such a sense of space there. During ek dum khul jaata hai (The mud just completely opens up). She has held a photography exhibition. In Search of the Sky - a series of photographs she clicked in the mountains. When in Mumbai, she keeps fit by walking in Mud Island, “the first open space near the city. It’s quieter and prettier there. I love walking anyway.” So actress, writer, painter and photographer too.

A portly man crossing the hotel lobby greets her. She doesn’t recognize him, but turns politely to say hello. The man enthuses, “I was wondering where I’ve seen you before. I’ve remembered now, you’re Miss Chumko. Are you still acting in films?” She tells him she recently did a film called Freaky Chakra and exchanges a few inanities. In her forties, she looks as young as she did in Chashme Buddoor, in which she played the girl next door (referred to as Miss Chumko by Farooque Sheikh, because she sold a detergent called Chumko). “That was such a Delhi film,” says Deepti, “For me, this city used to be a transit point for Himachal, but I loved the Delhi of Chashme Buddoor - the restaurant in Talkatora gardens, the Defence Colony barsati, the pan ki dukan in Nizamuddin.”