Updated: June 16, 2021 5:47:21 pm
Last year, when the world was afflicted with uncertainties, leading publishing houses in India announced a roster of celebrity memoirs. The timing could not have been more apt. A nationwide lockdown ensured lives were slowed down for once without an end in sight. It also made for a sound business proposition. With bookstores shut and operations suspended, the decision was presumably aimed at countering ongoing losses. Actors like Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Sonu Sood, Kareena Kapoor Khan were in line, having brokered deals to write about their lives. So was Neena Gupta.
That Neena Gupta did not write an autobiography till now, is both a marvel and understandable. In India, films are part of the daily diet and the regularity of watching them breeds informality. Appetite to know about actors is rooted in the belief of having known them already. Note how often the word ‘revelation’ is used while dissecting celeb memoirs, as if familiarity exists, to begin with. It does — though, one-sided, manufactured by press coverage, fuelled by rumours. Actors writing about themselves then enables authenticating, discarding, even comparing what has been written about them. But mostly, the added layer of legitimacy is a bait that sees through the keenness to know them as apathetic voyeurism.
Little about Neena Gupta is unknown. Constant media attention coupled with her general forthrightness ensured her memoir unfolded in real-time. The actor’s relationship with West Indian cricketer Vivian Richards, the hardships of being a single mother, and marriage with businessman Vivek Mehra at the age of 50 are in the public domain. The ‘revelations’ are all known. How do you generate curiosity?
In Sach Kahun Toh — an immensely readable book — the 62-year-old actor resists such an affront by crafting an autobiography in the truest sense. She does not give in to telling the story others want her to tell–“I know many of my readers are waiting for me to get to the juicy bits of my life. Don’t lie. I know there’s a part of you that only picked up this book to read about my relationships and the controversies that have been part of my media image for decades now”. Instead, she outlines her own narrative, challenging the common assumption of her, and laying bare eagerness and not bottomless curiosity as the only response to her life.
By all accounts, it should be. Born in a humble family in New Delhi, the National-Award winning actor had an impossible journey, filled with personal setbacks and hard-fought professional triumph. She remembers growing up with a strict mother, the dynamic of a relationship she keeps revisiting with gratitude and regret. After pursuing M.Phil in Sanskrit, she enrolled herself in the National School of Drama, discovering her passion for acting. In 1981 she shifted to Bombay, while playing a small part in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Her struggle began.
If candour has evolved as her second nature over the years, there is plenty on display here. The actor recollects her past with fuss-free detailing– her first crush which was crushed by her mother, facing abuse from a trusted source (a doctor), dating a Bengali boy while in college and marrying him on a whim just so that they could visit Srinagar. They divorced soon, harbouring no bitterness. That this is not documented anywhere and yet included in the book, makes a compelling case for her honesty.
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Divided into five parts, Sach Kahun Toh, unfolds chronologically, spotlighting her growing up years in Delhi, life in Bombay, giving birth to daughter Masaba, downslide and resurgence of career, and ultimately in the last section, she dedicates each of the five chapters to her immediate family members — mother, father, brother, daughter and husband. By the time she arrives at How I Met Vivian, the details are kept to the minimum — ”I’m going to pause here to request you, dear readers, to please understand why I am keeping the details in this chapter to a bare minimum,” she writes.
One can read this as safeguarding privacy but another way of looking at it is as an act of defiance. For years, Neena Gupta’s public perception was coloured with details of this relationship, derailing conversations about her work, shrinking her achievements. And yet, as the book shows, the affair was an incident in her life. Her life was not this incident. This refusal to expand, without belittling its importance, becomes her way of reclaiming her narrative.
She does the same when writing about her pregnancy even though she mentions it in detail — Om Puri believing it to be an excuse and later inviting her for lunch every day, her close friend Satish Kaushik offering to marry her. In all this recollection, not for once does she over-emphasise the plight of being a single mother, acknowledging instead all the help she received from friends and her father. Reading the episode in the context of all the work she was doing, it is impossible not to hold feminists guilty of doing disservice to her. For all their celebration of Neena Gupta as a radical icon, didn’t they too equate a woman’s career to an event? Did they highlight her work enough?
The later part of the book, where she documents the shift in the direction of her life caused by the viral Instagram post asking for work, reads like an elaborate CV. She starts with Badhaai Ho, and then goes on to enlist other projects — The Last Colour, Panga, Gwalior, Sardar Ka Grandson. In any other memoir, this would have been a painful flaw. Here it works. After years people are talking about the artistry of her craft. After years of waiting for a ‘break’ from Shyam Benegal and Basu Chatterji, she finally got one. Why won’t she participate?
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The title of the book Sach Kahun Toh is derived from the actor’s famous video series on Instagram where she freely shares advice, questions, and reflections. Last year, like a solemn neighbourhood aunt, she advised young girls not to fall for married men. “Do not get involved in all this, do not fall in love with a married man,” she says in the video. Imagine the woman who had a child in wedlock three decades back saying these words? Did she become less brave? “I have suffered,” she says. She has become wise.
It is redundant to uphold the craft of language as a parameter to appraise celebrity memoirs. Most are co-written and even when it is not, it hardly matters. A more fitting way to gauge their effectiveness is by examining the slant of their perspectives and craft of their thoughts. To see how they look at life after gaining and losing more than they can truly remember. Much of Sach Kahun Toh’s easy charm resides in Neena Gupta’s wisdom while looking back, in excavating lessons from failing, and resistance to being a stereotype even as a rebel. Celebrities write about life to restore their public persona, storify their legacy. Neena Gupta uses life to dismantle her persona, rewrite her legacy.
Sach Kahun Toh has been published by Penguin Random House, India
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