What prompted you to write your autobiography at this stage of life? Abhi toh kahaani bahut baaki hai…
I think this pandemic has a lot to do with it because I’d started writing it many times. I signed with publishers two-three times over the last 10-15 years, but used to get stuck. I was not ready. In this pandemic, I was here in my Mukteshwar house for around six months with nothing much to do. I finally had time to think about my life: what I have learnt, what I have to do, and suddenly I started to write. Then I didn’t stop.
After reading your book, it is very clear that you always have had a rebellious streak. Sometimes you have rebelled for a calling or a passion that was beyond your control, but sometimes the rebellion was just for the heck of rebellion! Would you say that this rebellious streak has served you well over the years?
I don’t use the word rebel for me, generally. I don’t think I have ever rebelled; I think I am like a chuhiya (timid as a mouse) as far as being rebellious is concerned. I go with the flow… actually, I go with logic. For example, I wanted to go to Kashmir with my boyfriend but my mother said you can’t go before you get married, so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get married to go to Kashmir’. There’s no rebellion in it. I never think like I have to do something to show somebody that I am like that. No. I have done these kinds of rebellious things–as you call it–because of the circumstances. It was not in my hands to do things that I wanted to do, so I had to accept what God gave me at that time, what my luck gave me at that time… and I made the most of it. Somebody gives you something and you make something out of it but if you don’t get something, what do you do? Nothing, you just sit back and try something else. This is what I have done all my life.
Also, there is this dichotomy… basically, like you say, you’re a very shy person. You were very timid and vulnerable and you remained so for several years even in Bollywood, where often you’d be hurt and withdraw into yourself rather than stand up and demand your rights. . You even used the word ‘pushover’ for yourself. Do you still remain so?
Yeah, I still remain so. I think that is in my DNA, I think that can’t change. I try to remain happy, and accept what was given to me and make the most of it and not just keep crying and keep cribbing that God has not given me something. Every morning, every night I thank God for whatever He or She has given me. I even say it out loud when I am alone in my room; I also thank God for small things like for instance, giving me good hair, nice legs, nice head. So, I am very thankful. I have a lot of gratitude for what I have got. I think that’s a very important thing and because of that, I have sailed through a lot of problems which I had in my life, which everybody has.
You say in your book that all through your life there has been this theme that you did well, then you lost and then you fell and it was something like, if I read out from your book, ‘When I look back at my life, I see a recurring theme. Neena Gupta gets stuck down, Neena rises from the ashes, Neena overcomes her obstacles, Neena reaches great heights, Neena falls from grace. So much in my life has left me hurt, disheartened and disillusioned because of the recurring humiliations that I have suffered.” What gave you the courage, the confidence to get up again, because on the one side you do this again and again and then you say that you perhaps had an inferiority complex when you were shooting for your first film ‘Batwaara’. How do these two meet?
There was a lack of self-esteem. This is what I am saying now. At that time I didn’t even know what the meaning of self-esteem is. Now I have learnt that I did this (accepted lesser roles and treatment inferior to what other actors got, such as a good hotel and separate meals) because I didn’t have the confidence to go and say ‘No’. Like I have mentioned that in my college I knew I was a much better actor than the other girls who were a part of the college play, but I didn’t have the courage to go to the director and say, ‘Can you let me try?’ I used to go home and say the same dialogue in front of the mirror and tell myself ‘I am much better.’ I am still a little bit like that; I don’t have the courage to say that ‘I am better and I deserve that, you should give it to me.’ So that happened, and that happened to a lot of men and women.
Today’s young people, at least in the entertainment field, don’t seem to be suffering from this problem of an inferiority complex!
No, they have another problem. They have a superiority complex. They don’t know anything but they know everything. There are many like that also.
The book is full of beautiful memories … and a surprise is your education — M.A. and MPhil in Sanskrit! And the he passion that you had for Sanskrit… I always believe that when you have a passion for something it holds you in good stead all through life. It gives you, and it keeps giving you. How has studying Sanskrit helped you in your career and life?
I have come to believe that nothing you do goes to waste in this life. If I am talking to you right now, something somewhere will come of use. It is not a waste; nothing you do is a waste like I have written in my book. In NSD, they were teaching us light design, set design, carpentry as a part of theatre education. I used to think about what I will do by learning lighting or carpentry. In this pandemic I did a lot of sessions like this, and it all helped. I had to light up myself, I didn’t have any help. When I used to direct Saans, I used to think that as a director I won’t have any ideas. You suddenly remember something from 30 years ago and you incorporate that in your work. I did ‘Utsav’ which was based on Sudraka’s play ‘Mrichhkatikam’. I had read it, it helped me a lot.
And it was also like something you knew you can always fall back on. Like you say you always knew that if you didn’t make it to Bollywood, you could teach in a school…
I used to curse my mother for pestering me to study every now and then, but now, I thank her every day because it is not just your studies, it is also other things which you like. I used to play hockey in my college; I was centre-forward and right out. Even meeting people, interacting with people when you’re studying, makes you learn so much. Sometimes you think that ‘Oh this girl is so nice’ and she suddenly turns out to be something else, and then you learn from your mistake, and then you learn that this person comes from that background and that’s why he or she is doing this. So, there is so much to learn. That’s why I don’t believe in the concept of home-schooling because interacting with your fellow students teaches you a lot.
Neena, I think you have always short changed yourself. All of us, across generations have regarded you as a great actor and someone with phenomenal talent and skills, and sincerely so. But your book reveals that you have never considered yourself successful all your life till you did ‘Badhaai Ho’ in 2018. Why is that so?
I explain this in my book, that I didn’t know this business when I came here. There was nobody to help me; I didn’t have a Godfather or mentor. I made a lot of mistakes, businesswise. Sometimes you make a wrong investment but I didn’t invest at all. I was too shy. Yet, I came in with great expectations that I’d do one film, like ‘Sath Sath’, and people will come to me, but nothing like that happened. When you come from Delhi or other places, you think you’re very good, so you’ll make a mark in Bombay, but it doesn’t happen. There are so many people struggling here. It was a very different ball game. That is why that one break I was looking for, came with ‘Badhaai Ho’. It came so late because I didn’t play my cards well. I didn’t know how to.
But you were a household name and not possibly someone who became a heroine and was just a flash in the pan never-to-be-seen-again. And maybe even if you had got the role of a heroine then, you may not have been able to emote the way you did because you’ve got so many wonderful roles and the ones that you’ve created for yourself…
Yea, but somehow that became a negative point for me because I did a variety of roles. So, if somebody was casting for something, they would not think of me for that particular role because here if you do one thing, then they will cast you for that only. So that is why today, when I have a little bit of success and more confidence, sometimes I am very depressed. Because today is the time I wish I were younger. Today there’s so much opportunity. In my times, there was hardly any opportunity… it was only films. Sometimes I see younger girls doing such amazing work and I feel depressed.
I think the bravest thing that you did in your book is talking about your parents. Your father had two families and how that impacted your mother all her life, and how in turn, that shaped you and your choices. It helps me understand a lot about you. You still manage to have a special relationship with both your parents and all that comes through very beautifully in the book. But it must have been very difficult for you to write that bit towards the end of the book…
I think that is why I have written this book when my father, mother, brother and bhabhi are no more. If my parents were alive, I don’t think I‘d have written it, even if my brother was alive I would not have written it. I think that was also one reason that I could write now. As I said, My mother killed herself hiding this fact–what my father did to her. But yes the death of my mother, father and my brother, these three chapters were very difficult for me to write. Sometimes I’d write one page and after that, I would not write for a week. So, certain things went very smooth, but with these chapters, I had a lot of problems.
Yet writing it must have helped to get it all out of your system…
I thought it will help but in this regard… I don’t know. I feel numb. I don’t know if it’s all come out. Someone was asking if now that you have written all of it, everything is out of your system, you must be feeling relieved. I asked myself and I realised, no, nothing like that has happened. Then I was thinking why? Maybe because I have not written everything that I wanted to write and have left certain things. I have changed most of the names, I have hidden a few things because it was not coming from my heart that I should talk about that. So, I think maybe that is why it is still within me, my heart isn’t completely light.
Your book is peppered with wonderful advice for young stars, young actors who come into the industry. One of the things that you’ve said even for acting is that most people don’t realize that you have to relax before you act rather than work yourself up. I always used to think that an actor has to whip himself or herself into passion but you say you have to relax first. How is that?
It is the most difficult thing. You have to focus and be in the scene; what I have learned from my experience is that you have to mean the dialogue you say and listen to the co-actor. That is the most difficult thing to do because your thoughts can wander; if you are tense, you can’t focus, so, you have to relax. Even now sometimes my mind goes somewhere, but because I have so much experience, I can do average acting even without meaning it. But people who know, people who are very critical, and people who want to feel what you’re saying get it that you’re not fully into it. Even now it happens because we’re not machines and if today you didn’t have a good night’s sleep and then you have to go and work. It’s a very physically taxing profession, very tough.
And another thing you’ve suggested is the need for a mentor. How important it is to have a mentor in the entertainment industry?
It’s like any industry, if you say a whole lot of people had this dream of starting a restaurant. I also started once but you cannot enter a business without knowing the rules of the game, that is what I have said most of the times. As I said, I didn’t call Shekhar Kapur back, even though I was being considered for a role in his film, because I thought he had told me that he’d call me back. If there was somebody whose advising me would have later on people said that you write your week’s schedule on a paper as to who you have to call and meet. You have to make ten calls daily. If you’re unable to get through to anyone then keep trying, either tomorrow or day after. No one told me this.
You have said that the press is not your friend and that you hope young actors and actresses understand this and learn from your mistakes. You have blamed yourself for it because you trusted media, who you would talk to openly and they would misrepresent. Did this happen a lot to you?
Yes, a lot, but again as I said it was my mistake. I thought they were my friends but they are also clever, and that was their profession. It demanded things to be gotten out of me. I don’t blame them, Like a few days back a journalist was messaging me about an interview on some subject that I didn’t want to talk about. So, I kept denying her request and then one day she told me that ‘Ma’am I have just joined this organization and they have told me that if you can’t get Neena Gupta’s interview, you leave the job’. I don’t know if it’s true or not but they are also pressurised to get something scandalous. But I think in today’s generation people are very wary of what they’re saying, they’re very good. Because I think they have learnt a lot from social media, things have changed now.
Now, coming to the love of your life, Masaba, your daughter. There’s a very poignant note in one sentence of your book where you say, ‘Sometimes I wonder what I should teach my daughter,” and you say “Should I tell her to settle with a man and start a family? Should I tell her to do things that I couldn’t do because of the choices I made? Or should I tell her to work hard and focus on her career?” So, do you think that today when our children grow up, they become just like friends and we don’t even get the opportunity to tell them what to do? Kids today tell us what to do. They’re the ones teaching. So what are the lessons that Masaba has taught you?
She has taught me a lot. Well, one thing she has taught me is about social media, and how to behave there. She has taught me to be non-judgemental. One day I said that so and so said something to me and that I don’t think she is a nice person. She told me ‘Mom, she is like that. Why are you being judgemental about her, let her be.’ Little things she tells me and I realize that yes, why am I getting unnerved about something like this. And then, I can’t remember all right now but there are very small things that I get from her, I do.
I think the last generation of parents never stepped off the pedestal to become friends and today parents become friends. When you’re friends, you’re willing to learn as well as teach, and that is very, very important.
Yea, definitely. My generation is much more friendly to our kids than my mother was. I never talked to my mother about anything.
You talk about marriage in many cases as a compromise, and you say that we all need to make adjustments in our lives and attitudes, and we have to really try hard to make it work and if it doesn’t, you ask whether we should just let the thread of marriage snap rather than staying in the mess and the trauma that it creates.What, to you, is a happy marriage?
I haven’t seen a happy marriage around me so I don’t know. It’s always full of compromises. I don’t have an answer to this question myself. Each individual has to make their own choice according to what they’re looking for in life like I told my friend,’ Your husband is womanizing, leave him already.’ She said’ Why should I? I will lose on a lot of things. When he was nothing, then I helped.’ She told me about it and it made sense to me. So, for each individual, it is different, I cannot tell you that you should do this or that if your marriage is like this or that. I don’t know enough about it to comment on it.
So, like in your present marriage, you say that you and your husband live in different cities. You also said that because of that there is a certain loneliness. What kind of loneliness is that? What can help a person not be lonely? When are you not lonely?
I’ve learnt this now. I used to crib a lot to my husband that he is always busy with his phone or work or whatever. I wanted to talk to him about mundane things; he had no time. I was cribbing. I asked myself why I was cribbing and I also started keeping myself busy; now I had no time to talk to him. If he tells me to make time for him, I do. Now I don’t crib. Sometimes even though together in our Mukteshwar house, we’d only meet for dinner because at lunch sometimes he’d be at a meeting and he’d eat there. What I have learnt is that you have to make your own happiness.You have to try and do things that make you happy, like I started learning music some time ago. I don’t want to be a singer but it makes me happy. I read books and it makes me happy. I see these no-brainer Turkish series and they make me very happy. I sometimes experiment with cooking, I go for walks, I have Audible and I can download books and I don’t have to be alone on walks. I listen to Sidney Sheldon’s books because I like the element of suspense that comes with those. So you just have to learn the ways to be happy in your own company. But still, I yearn to be with people, I am a people’s person but I don’t want to get disturbed if I am alone.
So you enjoy your aloneness, it’s not necessarily loneliness. You enjoy being by yourself as well.
If I have to be by myself, I find ways to be happy and content.
When you were writing the book, did you discuss any parts of it with your husband Vivek Mehra? Or were there any parts that he advised you to leave out or delete from the book?
No, nothing. He was very keen to read his part first, so when I wrote it, I showed it to him. I asked him if he doesn’t like something I will delete it but he didn’t. I never discussed; it was just me in my room and that’s it.
And what about Masaba? How did she react to your book when it came out?
I think she knows about my life story so well that I don’t think she has read it yet. She isn’t interested because I have never hidden anything from her, she knows everything. So I don’t think she is interested in reading my book because she knows all.
What was it with Vivian that clicked for you? Was there a special quality in him that appealed to you and because of which you were willing to go ahead and have a baby with him?
I didn’t plan the baby. I think the main thing by which I got attracted to him was his down-to-Earth humanness despite being an international cricketer, a big name, and so famous. His being like a normal person, I think that’s what attracted me to him. Yes, small things. In life I value small things much more than the bigger things, I think that’s what matters in life because house, money, will come and go. It feels nice if you have good money and a big house but if there are little things that trouble you while you live in the big house then that house is of no use. I was very impressed by the little things that he had as a human being and I never planned to not write certain things in certain chapters. I am telling you frankly. I wrote whatever came to me in that flow. I remembered certain things later. I have no obligations to anyone, I don’t want to create a literary piece or write in a very refined language. I wrote in colloquial English like I am talking to you. So my agenda is not to impress anybody with my book or pose as a writer. I wrote my autobiography the way I am and whatever I wanted to write, whatever is not there is not because I didn’t feel like writing it.
Now that you’ve written the book and you have sorted out all the material and your life till this stage in your mind, what are your biggest regrets in life, if any, at this point?
A very big regret is that Masaba doesn’t have a sibling. That’s a very big regret. Apart from that, as such there isn’t anything big that I regret. Yes, I wish I was not so stupid when I was young, that’s the regret I have which everybody from my generation would have.
And you also speak about forgiveness in a very nice manner you say that I have forgiven but I have not forgotten, and I truly believe in that. I believe that you should forgive but not forget because if you forget and repeat the same mistake then there couldn’t be a bigger fool than you…
I think that’s the one very big reason where I have moved on with my life, is because I let things go, even if people wrong me. I just move on. It’s about how much resentment can you hold in your mind or heart, If all your anger, hurt, grief, there is not much place in your heart. So if your heart is full of all those things, then where will new things reside? Where will love, laughter and happiness reside? Because your heart is already full of so much. There is a very nice Hindi word called ‘Dwesh’. So where will good things enter it from?
You just said that it’s the smaller things that matter to you, and you say the same thing about love also. You talked about how love also is more about the little things than the big things and you said that you know your mother loved you because she insisted on educating you, and because every time you did something which she didn’t agree with, she forgave you and she took you back. You also mentioned how your father used to peel two oranges, taste them and then feed one to you. It’s so beautiful that if you think of love in that manner, life seems so enriching because these are the little things that happen and yet you keep looking for the bigger stuff.
I have a friend who told me that it was her husband’s birthday. Now it’s very difficult to gift something to men for their birthdays so she was quite confused. I casually asked her as to what she received on her last birthday, and she told me ‘He never gives presents’. So, I asked then why are you taking all this effort? She said because she felt like doing it. I loved it! I never thought like that. It makes sense because she said that let him do what he wants to and I’ll do what I feel like doing. Although she’s divorced now, but..
So finally maybe it all added up and she realised that he doesn’t love her as much as she loves him…
Once a friend of mine said a very nice thing to me. I don’t remember if I have written it in my book or not. I was cribbing to her about some relationship, and she said, ‘Neena, love doesn’t mean that one person says to you ‘I love you’, it’s so easy to say. It includes birthday presents, money, house, and so many things otherwise what substance is there in the phrase itself?
So Neena, today when you look back at life from the stage you’re at and the place you’re sitting in today, and you look at everything that happened in your life, what you studied, the places you stayed in, the people you met all through your life, the men you were close to, the choices you made, do you feel that all the dots were connected and it all makes sense and there is logic to everything that happened?
I don’t think about all this. Thinking about my past gives me too much grief, I go blind, I want to be blind for that past. I never think like that. I want to think ahead, I want to think today. If I think about my past I will become very bitter and I have noticed some people who were so bitter, their faces have hardened. So I don’t want to think about it. It’s not like I never think of it, it comes to me. On some days it comes. Sometimes I meet somebody it comes, sometimes I see somebody and it happens, it hurts also. I don’t want to be bitter about it because it’s not easy to be not bitter about it. I can manage it because I am very grateful that I have so much, if I didn’t, maybe I would be bitter.
And whatever you’ve got, you’ve got by your own hard work and your effort, like stepping up and saying I need work, I am in Mumbai. It was brilliant and something new that would have required a lot of courage.
Yea, I wrote it because I was very frustrated because I had this image that I lived in Delhi so I didn’t work. I was so frustrated that I came home and I just wrote it.
Yes, there are always phases in life, there’s a good phase and a bad phase and possibly it was that good phase that made you who you were at that point.
It’s destiny, everything happens when it’s supposed to happen.
Okay, so what gives meaning to your life?
The meaning of my life comes from my work. If I do one good scene in one month, it’s enough. It is a matter of contentment for one month.
Watch the full interview here: