THE MOMENT you set eyes on her, all your preconceived notions of a showbiz actress cry for revision. Petite and blessed with a classic oval face, Deepti is simple, dispenses with make-up and has a twinkle in her eye.

“I grew up in New York where my family had emigrated many years ago,” says the actress-turned-artist. On August 10, she takes her bow at the Jehangir Art Gallery with a vibrant set of paintings.

“We Navals are originally from Amritsar,” she continues. “In New York, my father lectures at Lehman College of the City University. He teaches English as a second language. I myself went to Hunter College for my bachelor’s degree. Though it is not widely known, I studied painting there.”

Deepti’s mother has also been a teacher all her life.
“As I studied for a college degree going to night school,” she says, “I worked as a typist-cum-receptionist during the day.” And behind those luminous eyes, one starts detecting tremendous grit.

“I came to Bombay in 1978 and could fortunately make a meaningful start in films,” Deepti informs. Her first film was Shyam Benegal’s Junoon. “Although the role was small I learnt a lot,” she adds. She bagged her first major role in Vinod Pandey’s Ek Baar Phir. “I could now truly get the feel of the Hindi film industry.”

Deepti has acted in more than 50 films to date. I remember her well in Tanvir Ahmed’s Chirutha, which was shot on location in the South with a dusky-coloured Naval merging with the lush locale. She then acted with Sai Paranjapye (Chashm-e-baddoor, Katha) with she was actively associated.

In Kamla she again had a novel role. Her foray into “parallel cinema” came to fruition in Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho. She also starred in Prakash Jha’s national award-winning film Damul, Amol Palekar’s Ankahee and other award-winner by K Bikram Singh, Andhi Gali.
“One of my most rewarding roles was in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, which claimed a notable brigade of leading ladies,” she says. “In Basu Bhattacharya’s Panchvati I was at the centre of a unique theme which vindicated the inborn intrepidity of womanhood.”

Deepti has just finished shooting for Love, Lust and Marriage in the US. Produced by the New York-based Trilok Malik, the film is directed by Ravi Khote, Vijaya Mehta’s son.

Besides, the actress is busy working on a TV serial, Thodasa Aasman, which she has written, produced and directed, besides playing a main role. This will be telecast from September 5.
Before one starts mulling over Deepti Naval’s paintings, one notices the unusual wooden frames she has used. Complete with knots, this wood was picked from the lakda bazaar. The frames supply an exotic showcase to the canvases, heightening their quality and authenticity.
Typical of Deepti’s landscapes, we have Misty Mountain, Road to Keylong and Beyond Rohtang. The vastness of the mountain ranges, the spiritual grandeur of te snows and the skies, the winding roads of the passes – all hypnotize us.

Deepti essays her strokes on the canvas with the help of a knife. It need not be the usual palette knife used by painters. For her, a bread knife leads to more expressive whorls of lines.
The atmosphere in these landscapes reminds us of the moody work of an expressionist genius like Edward Munk. But this is a pure coincidence as are

the echoes of Van Gogh in a painting such as Green Lamp. One believes that Deepti is too deeply immersed in evoking her vision to worry about influences.
Street Lamp is one such canvas which is Van Goghesque without being derivative.
Some of Deepti’s best paintings explore a relationship between man and nature. In Black Wind we have a lady on the balcony who is caught up in an expressionist darkness. In her poem Black Wind, Deepti broods on a monsoon night and looks within herself. The painting corresponds with the theme of the poem.
While we are on the subject of Deepti’s poetry, it is best to quote a sample called The Sinking, which proves that she is a genuine poetess:

The actress pours
out her soul onto
the canvas.
In vibrant colours

There it comes again
The old sick sense of doom
Death pangs pegin

Could hard fingers
Clutching at the third stomach
The centre point of consciousness
Start to drag me down
Deep down within
Towards a dark sharp edge
Sinking, sinking

I desperately try to balance
My wrecked fragile nerves
On these sharp cutting blades
Of destruction

Nothing can help me now,
you’ll have to leave me to
myself here
You could have helped
Had you gone away earlier

Coming back to the paintings, we are struck by the vast expanse of land in Electrictric Pole.. One may call this an understanding of distance.

Lantern is another intriguing canvas. Here Deepti deploys a small-size cross in a deserted church in Dalhousie. (Deepti went to school in the Scared Heart Convent in Amritsar, and this explains her Christian-oriented themes in this and other paintings. The cross is reflected in a circular mirror. The lamps here are of the same pattern as in Black Wind.
“In the Kulu-Manali valley I saw the Roerich country, and I was deeply affected by it,” says Naval. “In Huts I have painted the stream of the Beas river and the mustard-coloured shoots of the harvest.”

We now come to some of the most impressive works on view. A few of these are self-portraits which are in the form of masks – thus revealing much philosophical thinking.

“I once saw a Japanese film about an actor portraying a mad woman,” says Deepti, “From the outside the film hinted one dons a mask but from the inside one is free and uninhibited. Ina way your own image of yourself is here contending with other people’s image of you.”
And finally we discover Deepti’s climactic achievement. It all starts with Pregnant Nun. Deepti has mysteriously woven a self-portrait in two of these canvases.

“For two years I did no films,” she says. “I wanted to give up everything material and stray into a spiritual area. I wanted to start life all over again. I was swayed by conflicting currents of thought. In this mood, I painted self-portraits in an attempt to move away from the sensational.”
Deepti is an iceberg. You decipher only a fractional part of her personality even when her image is spread large on the cinema screen in a hundred different personae.
Maybe her paintings – which she had never before displayed in public – will allow people a look at more than just the tip.