I am not a big fan of celebrity autobiographies and no offence meant, it’s just that I find them tedious, since they tend to lean towards self-justification, even glorification whilst a few have been polite accounts of struggles and triumph or just emotive trawls of life in the spotlight.
The constant interest in the private lives of celebrities breeds a familiarity that is persistently fuelled with ‘according to sources revelations and rumors’, by tabloids. It’s no surprise that many take pen and paper to set the record straight through their memoirs.
Neena Gupta known for her candour, has often made headlines – be it her relationship with West Indies Cricketer Vivian Richards, for her decision to having a child out of wedlock, to her relationships, and being a single mother.
“Behanji and Shameless”, is how I have been described all my life, the actor writes in her autobiography “Sach Kahun Toh” adding, that the book is her life’s journey not narrated by the media but by Neena Gupta herself. She picks on the fact that many would have picked this book to read up about her relationships and the controversies that have created her media image for years.
In an interview with me, Neena Gupta said, “It was nowhere therapeutic to write this book. I think it was the need for me to tell my story the way I am, not the way people have told my story over the years. I was sick and tired of that, mujhe laga marne se phele ek baar to batadun , the ones who have been writing about me for years, is all rubbish. I only got the confidence to speak my truth after Badhai Ho, because it’s when you are successful, that people listen to you’.
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An extremely readable book, the first part which chronicles her humble beginnings in West Delhi is pure nostalgia. She recounts how her strict mother insisted she go to an all-girls college and her emphasis on studies. But on the other hand, she also made sure that Neena had the most fashionable clothes to wear.
Her hasty first marriage to her then-boyfriend which was her logic to her mother’s, ‘you cannot go out with him unless you get married’, was her way of carving her freedom, which she describes as a ‘ foolish choice’, in retrospect.
Though the marriage didn’t last a year, Neena Gupta admits there were no regrets, as it brought her closer to her passion, acting. From the National School of Drama to landing in Bombay to make it to the movies, she was determined in her path to success.
However, her life’s narrative was not how she had planned. Relegated to playing parts which didn’t amount to much in her filmography, the curse of being the “ Lallu Ladki” seemed to haunt her, with no one giving her a chance to prove her talent’
‘See, it was always Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, and Deepti Naval who were seen as the face of art-house cinema, and even though Shyam Benegal, Govind Nahiliani knew me, but they never saw me as a commercially viable actor’, she candidly admits.
With assignments few and far in between, she calls out the disparities and inequalities in mainstream Bollywood. She narrates how a top director propositioned her and calls out the existence of the casting couch. Bur Neena maintains, it is an individual’s choice. As she shares her stories of being treated as a non-entity to humiliation, never does she gravitate towards portraying herself as a victim or a struggler, rather she takes it on the chin.
‘I didn’t know how to conduct myself in the industry. I thought everyone was a friend. Nobody is your friend. They are doing their job and you have to do yours. I couldn’t learn how to talk to people. I was hesitant to persuade people constantly thinking it would push them away more and they’ll end up not talking to me. I was very shy and didn’t know the rules of the business. So, I made plenty of mistakes, and have been made a fool of because I didn’t know any better, I am a ‘ ghusudu’. You should know when to exit.
As she constantly berates herself for not knowing her self-worth, playing small parts in the hope of snagging a big role, she asks the reader to not make the same mistakes she made personally.
As she chronicles her journey between films and television, she candidly talks about her heartbreaks, being cheated on by her long-standing boyfriend to her fiancé calling off their wedding just days before the ceremony. She casually mentions how to date she has never found an answer to why her wedding was called off but does not hold a grudge.
In the much-awaited chapter “ How I Met Vivian”, she clearly states, “I am keeping the details to a bare minimum, a lot has been said and written about this chapter of my life. To guard the privacy of the people concerned, she also subtly lets the message out that this is just one incident and not the story of her life and to stop portraying her as the ‘radical face or feminism.’
She recounts how her friend Satish Kaushik even offered to marry her if she felt burdened with bringing a child all by herself. She also mentions that Om Puri, Gulzar, and many others supported her through her pregnancy, even as a senior journalist betrayed her trust and made her private life public. Neena Gupta says, ‘I had the support of my father, my friends but everyone is not in the same boat, I may not have gone ahead and had a child alone if I was not confident about my support systems and my life in no way can be an example to others to lead theirs. I had no husband, Masaba’s father didn’t live with us, but I had my father who helped me through the years, and I am grateful for all I have, there is no reason to lament.
Part three of the book chronicles her life as a working single parent, as mainstream Hindi cinema continued to treat her as a junior artiste. From being asked to wear a padded bra for Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai to being shouted at by David Dhawan on the sets of Eena Meena Deeka, to dancing at functions and being denied her remuneration.
In the later part of the book she briefly talks about meeting and marrying her current husband Vivek Mehra, and the iconic social media post where she stated ’ ‘Am A Good Actor Looking For Work’, what follows is an elaborate rundown of her filmography, from Badhai Ho to Sardar Ka Grandson, Panchayat to Masaba Masaba, as Neena Gupta finally got her due becoming one of the sought after actors at age 60.
Neena candidly admits that writing about her late brother was the toughest chapter and her regret at not getting to know her mother.
The book’s appeal is in the simplicity of its narrative. Unraveling scenes from her life with the candour she is known for in real. Sach Kahun Toh as I suggested to her would make an exciting film, to celebrate the legacy of a woman who has owned her life for what it is.
(The author is executive editor, Good Times. She lives on coffee, loves dogs, travel and K dramas. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)
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