Actress, painter, poetess, photographer, social worker, hiker – she is prone to taking off to the Himalayas at the drop of a hat… once married to film director Prakash Jha, she has a teenaged daughter, Disha… In Deepti Naval merge so many aspects, roles personas and shades, that it becomes a tad difficult to compartmentalize the talented artiste…

Verses penned by yesteryears Ms. Chamko of Katha and the elegant Chital of Leela - Deepti Naval has always been a bit of an enigma. Her meticulously-maintained apartment points to her non-filmy lifestyle. Antique furniture, dressers, pin boards with clippings of her films, a huge wooden easel, a rack stacked with neatly-ironed clothes, the treadmill on which she walks for an hour everyday a piano, a well-designed kitchen, a bath-tub for a centre table boasting a thousand-page bound volume that she picked up from a binder in Jaipur - the assortment of souvenirs and collections in her wall-less terrace home is amazingly individualistic though nothing g to match her portrait in nude in the bathroom. Her home is beautiful indeed but not as much as Deepti Naval herself is, this daughter of the mountains who insists she is “re-inventing herself.”

Dressed in black trousers and a sleeveless matching top, no trace of makeup, hair gelled and rolled into a casual French knot, black slip-on sandals and two silver chrome rings are the only companions so far as her deportment is concerned. She is a much slimmer version of her previous self, though her face is as clear, her skin as radiant and her smile as wide and open as it always has been. She flashes the same smile as she shares the story of her life, amid rounds of coffee.

What made you give it all up, and then come back?
I live on two continents. Besides Mumbai, I have a home in New York, where I spend a lot of my time. In Mumbai, I had started feeling that I had seen it all and done it all. Nothing seemed to excite me any more. Plus I had moved on in life and didn’t want to wait here endlessly, waiting for some role, which may never come. Another contributing factor is my nature - you see I am quite a vagabond by nature, so I just take off and return as and when I find good offers that I want to do, I keep in touch through the Internet.

You are known to head for the Himalayas often. What is the driving compulsion?
I simply love mountains and there isn’t better option than the Himalayas. It’s like a getaway for me. My mother is a Dogri - she hails from Himachal Pradesh - and I have a Punjabi father, and I guess there is more of my mother’s influence in my being. So this attraction is natural. If the grapevine has reached you, you would know of my temptation to just pack off and zoom towards the mountains. I just shove few of my belongings into my knapsack, take my sleeping bag and drive off. Someone should watch the look on the face of the truck wallahs on the highway when after giving you the way; they realize that it’s a woman-driver. It hurts their ego, I guess.

Isn’t it dangerous for a single woman to venture out for nowhere, all by herself?
On the contrary, you will be surprised to know of the number of people who are eager to help, especially after they recognize you. They are actually willing to go out of their way. But now that you are mentioning it, and I am focusing on it, it does seem a bit scary. All the same, once I take off, there is no looking back. I’ve just returned from one of my trips and I am going again to Kangra (in the foothills of the Himalayas). I hope to write in the solitude of the mountains.

Tell us about your education and family.
I have an elder sister and younger brother. I went to Sacred Heart School in Amritsar and then we moved over to the United States where I finished my college at the Hunters University. I specialized in Painting and also had Photography as one of my subjects for three semesters.

Did you always know that you would be an actress some day?

I was always an introvert, but even as a six-year-old. I knew that I wanted to be an actress, though never had the guts to tell my parents about it. After college, however, I started working for a radio-station that used to air a lot of Hindi programmers. I got opportunities to interview a whole lot of film personalities like Sunil Dutt, Hemant Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Dev Anand, Gulzar, Sadhana, Raj Kapoor, etc. I remember telling Gulzar sahib very confidentially that I wanted to become an actress, but that he must keep it a secret. Ah, those days of naivette! Gulzar sahib still teases me about it.

How did poetry become part of life?
During those days, I was traveling a great deal, to New York, Paris, Mumbai and Delhi. I was also going through an identity crisis. Living abroad had given me an opening into that world and I started to think and write in English. There was also this tremendous influence of Urdu on my language because my father belonged to the pre-Partition Lahore. I distinctly remember not exactly being in awe of the colloquial Punjabi and I could hardly relate to the language, that is, till I had the privilege of meeting Amrita Pritam, the great poetess from Punjab. Once I heard her recite some of her verses, it was enough to draw me towards the language. I read some of my compositions to her, and she thought I wrote well. She in fact introduced me to someone who was looking to publish new writers’ work. The rest is history, as they say. Around then I began to take lesson in Urdu and started composing in Urduised Hindustani, if I can coin this term. Poetry is a passion now.

Doing some film has had a cathartic effect on you.
Films like Anakahi, Main Zinda Hoon, Leela, Freaky Chakra and Didi (which never saw the light of the day) have had that effect.

But which ones are your eternal favorites?

Chashme Buddoor Ek Baar Phir, Mirch Masala and Panchvati among others

How your experience with Amol Palekar was directed Marathi film?
Most of the film has been shot in Hampi, and if one thing I really enjoyed there, it was my morning walks. But Marathi is one language that gets the worst of me. It is really difficult. The only other time I did a Marathi film was with Nana Patekar where I had precisely three lines. I think I will remember those lines till the last day of my life. Nana is such a task master; he was really after my life even while the dubbing was on, trying to make me get the accent right. Besides, I have also done films in Oriya and Kannada.

In an industry known more for cut-throat competition, who would you term friends?
Manisah Koirala -she and I are planning to trek to Tibet via Nepal, soon. It’s just that she keeps putting it off every time saying that we will go via helicopter! Dimple Kapadia is also a friend, of whom I have always been in awe of, and I really enjoyed working with her in Leela. She has now become very busy after she became a grand-mom. Ketan Mehta, Meeta Vashisht, Sudhir Misra, Mona Ambegoanker and Nandita Das are some other “industry’ friends I have.

You are known to have loved and lost. You were also engaged to be married. How did you see your relationship with the late Vinod Pandit?

Life is so helpless at times. Vinod and I shared a beautiful relationship for eight long yeas. We had got engaged and were planning to get married, have children but the one above had different plans. Vinod always used to encourage me, and often said that I hadn’t even tapped one-hundredth of my potential. He was the son of Pandit Jasraj’s elder brother, who also happened to be his guru. He wanted to educate at least one girl child in his lifetime, so I have started a Vinod Pandit Education Trust for the Girl Child and we have four girls receiving education under the banner.

You are all by yourself here…
I may be alone but no lonely. I quite enjoy my own company and solitude. I see myself just as I am - single.

Tell us about your daughter.
Disha is all of 14, nice and fat and does not want to do a thing about it. She studies at Panchgani, and comes here during holidays. She divides her time between Prakash and me, as both of us are working.

A lot of celebrities are going for Art of Living kind of courses. Are you also into it?
No, I am not into anything like that. My trips to the Himalayas tend to become very introspective, and I end up assimilating a whole lot of insights and knowledge about the self. Let’s say, I meditate with my eyes open. There’s so much to focus on outside…

By Savvy Gehna Mehra