"I'm a very committed person"
PRODUCER- DIRECTOR, WRITER & STAR
By BEHRAM CONTRACTOR
My TV viewing is restricted to WWF, boxing, cricket, when India is playing abroad (not Sharjah or Dhaka), X-files, Saturday Suspense (on Zee), occasionally TNT, when it is a movie I have seen 30 years ago and would like to see again, and Saans.
Saans is the Neena Gupta serial of a man who leaves his wife for a girlfriend, then in turn, is unfaithful to his girlfriend and starts seeing his wife again. Though it is much more subtle than the way I have put it. It completed one year (52 installments) last week, and is well set for another year. It is the only soap opera I see on TV. Perhaps, it is the only soap I have seen in my life, through and through, sitting before the TV, like a housewife, for each new installment. It comes Monday evenings, 8.30, and, when I am not at home, with the help of my neighbour's little boy, I get the video timer set in the morning for automatic recording.
Its producer, writer and star is Neena Gupta. I admired her in Shyam Benegal's Trikaal, where she plays a young Goan housemaid suffering from epileptic fits. And I admire her independent lifestyle, her total disregard for public opinion about her personal conduct. Note, it is disregard, not defiance, that I find admirable. But Saans is the cherry on the pie. If you have seen it, even in bits and pieces, you will understand what I talking about. It is as true to life as a TV serial can be, without being a documentary. And it is amazing how our sympathies keep shifting from character to character with each installment, almost as if Neena Gupta decides: this week, you will sympathise with the husband, whimp though he may be.
I rang her up for an interview. She stays at Yari Road, Versova, in one of those nouveau granite-and-marble suburban complexes. It is the end of the town, beyond is a fishing village and multiple rows of Bombay duck drying in the sun. Carefully, she gave me the directions. "You know where Mamta Kulkarni stays?" "No," I said. Later, after we had met, I asked her how she expected me to know where Miss Kulkarni stays. "But she's a movie star!" she said, thus dividing the show world between big movie stars, and small - like herself - TV stars.
She is now very much a television person, movies are behind her. "No movies," she tell me, matter of factly. "There is nothing for me there, nothing in movies for women above 35. Only parts of mothers, bhabhis, they are not real roles, just reference points."
But the actors do fine after 35, I pointed out. "That is when they really start out, they even get babies when 60," she says. "And it is not that only men look better as they age, women also can. Maturity in the face and confidence in manner can make women look very attractive. But I know it is difficult for them, after the baby, they let themselves go." That is the theme of her Saans, the story that is yet to come. However, before that, let me do the introductions, properly.
Neena Gupta was waiting for us at the door, as we got out of the lift of the fifth floor. No make-up, bare feet, wearing what I understand is called a kaftan (a housecoat!), but still looking hauntingly attractive, like she does in that song-dance number, Choli Ke Piche Kya Hai. People forget, there were two women doing the number, with jhatak and matak. Her father was having some guests from Delhi, the drawing room was occupied, so we sat in a bedroom. The father resides with her. About him she has said: "He is an amazing person, very practical. He doesn't question me much. Even if the doesn't like what I do, he stands by me. In fact, he is the man of the house. I'm a very lucky daughter."
The drawing room looked Delhi-ish. I said as much. She laughed: "A lot of people say so." The bedroom was simple, there were pictures on the walls, hers, Viv Richards, the daughter's. The photographer asked if she would like to do her face, hair, make-up, before he shot the pictures. "Are you using flash?" she asked him. "Natural light," he said. She told him to go ahead. "And please use the pictures, every time you people use my pictures which are 15 and 20 year old, lying in your files. Sometimes, the clothes I am wearing in those pictures, I don't have any more.
We began with Saans. "The basic story is mine, but I have two writers, one does the screenplay, the other the dialogue. Basically it is about what happens to a woman after 35. I am very affected by this, for most women it is almost the end. But it need not be so, their prime time, their responsibility with the children is over, they have more time for themselves, they are more mature, more independent. Unfortunately, husband and children continue to make use of them, so they become frustrated, fat and lost." The real story of Saans, she says, will start now. What you have been seeing so far is over. The theme was ready till the conclusion, but it will of course change, as they get feedback from viewers. And the serial will continue till such time as they feel they have something to say.
I tried to tell her that getting in to this post-35 woman's independence theme, the suspense of the story would be lost. Whether Kanwaljit finally decides for the wife or the girlfriend. She disagrees. "You have not seen the rest, so you would be lost. The story so far is age-old. It is the way it is being shown that is new. For instance, there are no negative characters in the script. All the three characters are unhappy, but the other woman is not negative, she does not smoke or drink.
"Yes I agree, perhaps Kanwaljit comes out as a bit of a whimp. But all men are like that, they want to have affairs but they never stick to their commitments, neither with the wife nor with the girlfriend. Men are basically weak in this respect."
It is a compact unit, and they work fast, often finishing their work before the end of the shift. Neena looks after everything, the clothes the cast wears, the jewellery, hair-style, the colour of the lipstick.
She buys the material for the shirts of Kanwaljit, and has them stitched. And she looks after everything, the props required, bed covers, lamps, curtains, she goes and buys them personally. "I try to use actors who are no trouble. Koo Koo (that's what they call Kanwaljit) has turned into a very good actor. Our lines, we do not even have to study them, together we just glance through them, and they flow.
Bharti (who plays her mother and is Kanwaljit's mother-in law in real life), I fight with her all the time. But she is very sweet, and looks very real for the role, she comes across very genuine. That is our major success, all the characters look real. I get angry with Kavita (Manish in the serial) sometime, she wants to wear a wig, or a little patch, but she understands the present serial does not require these, and both Shagufta Ali (Shakuntala) and Ashok Lokhande (Suri Saab) are their own roles.
About the boy, yes, even Kanwaljit has said, he says that the girl looks like our daughter, but the boy doesn't look like our son. But he is very sweet and very talented. I quite like him."
To make things even more real, there is, I am told, a move to bring Kanwaljit's mother, in real life, into the serial. And she will naturally be playing his mother's role. Neena says that she is very beautiful, slim and smart. She hopes she will agree. But that's for the future. The past goes back to Delhi, where Neena Gupta did a course in acting at the National School of Drama. They mostly did plays, which paid nothing, then Attenborough came along with his epic Gandhi. She was one of Gandhiji's two walking sticks, Abhaben, the other was Supriya Pathak, Manuben.
Ben Kingsley leaned on them as he walked though the film. The walking stick role paid her Rs 10,000, enough to come to Bombay, and Bollywood. It led to a series of films with Shyam Benegal, Mandi, Trikal, Dushman, Suraj Ka Satva Ghar. She said she enjoyed working with Benegal and is very fond of him. "He is not jut a dry director, who talks only of work. He knows so many things, and he can teach so much. He doesn't take me in his films now, I don't know why, but I will always be fond of him whether he takes me or not." I said, perhaps he did not have a suitable role for her. "He tells me that, but I don't believe him." And she talked of Shabana Azmi. "She has done the best of role that any woman could have done in our country. She is so talented, I am jealous of her. And Smita Patil, I love her face. "Just shoot her face, don't let her do anything else, it would make a great film."
We returned to her early career. She came to be known country-wide with Khandan, which was one of the biggest TV serial of its time. And more fame came with the Choli song. "That was very funny. I earned money. But I didn't get work from it. They offered me similar roles, I refused. But I am very proud of my work there. I appear in only a quarter of the song, Madhuri Dixit appears in the rest, three-quarters. Nobody should have noticed me. They did."
I asked her if she would talk of Vivian Richards. She was not coy or secretive about it, that's Neena Gupta. "We met in Jaipur, 11 years back. We didn't meet in between for five years. Then we started meeting again. Now we meet almost every two months. He is a cool man. Honest, to me I feel. Once he says something, he will stick by it. But he hardly says anything. He is a man of less words. Down to earth." And her daughter? "She goes to the Jamnabai Narsee School. She is a happy child, uncomplicated, very normal." As for herself: "I have nothing to complain. Everybody does not get everything in life. Whatever I have got, I am happy, I am not complaining." I said to her: "You are a committed actress." "I am a committed person," she replied.