Write ups



Deepti Naval in conversation with Shoma A. Chatterji

DEEPTI Naval is a woman of many parts. Apart from doing a whole lot of meaningful roles mainly in off-mainstream films, she has produced and directed serials for Doordarshan. Yet she remains one of the least utilized talents in Hindi cinema. Recently Deepti featured in Muqammal. A soap on Sahara TV in which she performed a modernized version of Draupadi. But her lesser known talents are also brilliant in their sparkle and their creative imagination, be it a solo exhibition of paintings or a book of poetry that splits itself into two parts, each an unique reflection of Deepti’s mindset over given periods of time. Her relationships with the men in her life have been an unconventional as the characters in her films. And she has never been clandestine about them. Excerpts from an interview:

For nearly a decade, 1992 to 2001 or so, you kept yourself away from the limelight and was not seen on the screen….
You see, I had steppd into mainstream films because I am an actor first and last and do not believe in the kind of labels the media places on cinema. But the experience of having worked in Subhash Ghai’s Saudagar and Feroz Khan’s Yalgaar were so bad and so discouraging that I just upped and left. At some point, I realized I was doing many films but wasn’t getting any satisfaction. Not that I was wanting for work because work kept coming in. But it was not work I would have enjoyed doing. I busied myself through reading, painting, directing a television serial and traveling. Even today, I do not want to play the typical mother roles – wearing a white wig, being a doormat, with a pallu pulled over my head all the time and so on. I am yearning for roles that show a woman in her middle age, a time when she stands up for her physical, mental and financial needs. Why does the film industry have most roles for youngsters and oldies?

You had an exhibition of paintings in London sometime ago. What was it all about?
It was called In Search Of Another Sky and was held at the Nehru Centre, London, to raise funds for The Consortium For Street Children. Founded in 1993, the charity is a network of development agencies providing training, technical and campaigning support to projects for children who live and work in the streets of developing countries and in eastern Europe. The exhibition was presented by Surina Narula, the charity’s co-chairman and trustee, and attended by a host of British Asian celebrities and public figures, including filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, wife Suchitra and Baroness Shreela Flather. But before then, I had my first solo exhibition of paintings in Mumbai and credit for this goes almost solely to my late partner, Vinod Pandit, who I had decided to marry if he had lived. We worked together in my serial Thoda Sa Aasmaan which explored the different worlds of women of three generations and starred Nadira in an important role. Vinod helped me revive my love for photography in a big way.

Tell us something about your new collection of poetry in two parts – Black Winds and The Silent Stream.
The poems belong to a particular phase in my life, beginning in 1990 and ending around 1995. I had created them in fits and starts over the years and they were lying with me till Bipin of Mapin Publishing approached me to hand over the collection for publishing. The first part, Black Winds, contains about 50 poems that are totally subjective, introspect6ive and reflective of my own feelings as I lived within my loneliness, in company or outside of it. The second part, The Silent Scream, would interest readers more. There are 24 poems that throw back to the 23 days I spent in a mental home for women as a normal person. The experience was traumatic to begin with. But as I lived with them, everything began to fall into place and seeped into me so much that I asked for permission to extend my stay from three days to 23 days. Then it was the parting that was more traumatic.

What is it that pushed you to such a strikingly unusual journey?
This was for a script I was writing with the dream of making a film on an unusual subject. I had worked in two films where I play a mentally “not-all-there” person. One is Amol Palekar’s Ankahee where the woman becomes completely normal after marriage and when she becomes pregnant. The other is Sudhir Mishra’s Main Zinda Hoon where the pressures of a low middle class family bear down so heavily on the earning daughter-in-law that she goes completely insane in the end. After having done these two roles, I wished to explore the impact of playing such characters on the actress who plays them. So, I decided to make a film on the subject. I felt I needed to live with mentally sick people for some time to understand what mentally sick is all about. And I came out with questions about the line that divides the mentally healthy and the mentally sick. It changed my perspective on life. Today, I live alone, I go on long treks all by myself, I read, I take pictures and am happy to able to live life on my own terms. Some of this philosophy comes across in a poem dedicated to Smita Patil.

Tell us something about the Best Supporting Actress award you won in Pakistan at the Karachi film festival for your performance in Leela.
I am not used to getting awards. It was new for me, and one hardly expects an Indian actress to get an award from Pakistan. I was truly touched. It was also for me, a trip into a kind of psychological nostalgia because five years ago, I visited Lahore to trace my roots. My parents studied in Government college, Lahore. As for Leela, I loved my role. After playing more subdued characters in most of my films, I needed to play a strong character. The last time I won an award was way back in 1982, after the release of my first film Ek Baar Phir. But that wasn’t for acting, it was more for a newcomer.

Which among your oeuvre would you pick out as your favourite ones?
My first film Ek Baar Phir, directed by Vinod Pande, continues to be closest to my heart. But other than that, I have worked with several directors in several unusual roles that have transcended the screen to influence me deeply. They might not have been commercially successful but they are characters not many actresses would have cared to step into. Among them are Buddhadev Dasgupta’s Andhi Gali, Sudhir Mishra’s Main Zinda Hoon, Amol Palekar’s Ankahee, Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, Prakash Jha’s Damul and Jagmohan Mundra’s Kamla and Bawandar.

How about Indian diaspora movies?
I am truly proud of the recent resurgence of South Asian films being brought into the mainstream and being screened in India, be it the big screen or small. Somnath Sen’s Leela for instance, debuted at the Reel World Film Festival, Toronto. It was not a mainstream film but it bravely explored meaningful issues like divorce, infidelity, sexual awakening and generation gap. I enjoyed my roles in Freaky Chakra and Wings of Hope, besides playing the social worker in Bawandar. Shooting for Freaky Chakra was like a picnic. It was a very bold and unusual role, something I had not played before. The story is about an unpopular middle-aged woman who suddenly discovers a new meaning to life when a young boy (Sunil Raoh) enters her life. There are a few steamy scenes between the two of us, but I was doing them this time around, as I was no longer the young and naïve girl playing the lead in Ek Baar Phir in 1979.

---Trans World Features