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I wish I could make my debut now: Neena Gupta

Actor-writer Neena Gupta on the changing face of television, looking for work, and how films are offering interesting roles to older women.

Written by Ektaa Malik |
Updated: August 17, 2018 6:53:13 am
Neena Gupta in a still from Mulk. (Photo: Twitter/@Neenagupta001) Neena Gupta in a still from Mulk. (Photo: Twitter/@Neenagupta001)

Tell us about playing Tabassum, the matriarch of the family in Mulk.

I play a wife, a mother. What drew me to the character was how in times of crisis she holds the family together. Whenever any member of the family is in trouble, she as the older woman of the house helps keep the emotions together. Family is most important to her. The film is political and socially relevant, but at the core it is about family.

Earlier this year, you also wrote Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain (KKHH), a web series for Ekta Kapoor that deals with extramarital relationships.

I had this story in my mind and approached Ekta (Kapoor). I wanted to act in it, but Ekta said it would work better with younger actors. So I wrote the story. Relationships have remained the same. The only glimmer of change that we see is in the urban set-up, where women are financially independent and do not tolerate any disrespect. Both men and women are equal — which makes the situation untenable. The changes that you see around — people divorcing without the fear of stigma, or live-in relationships, it’s all a very urban phenomena.

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Neena Gupta with actor Kanwaljit in Saans. (Photo: Twitter/@Neenagupta001) Neena Gupta with actor Kanwaljit in Saans. (Photo: Twitter/@Neenagupta001)

KKHH has the same premise as Saans, the popular television show in the ’90s that you directed and acted in.

I had the same thoughts when I wrote Saans in 1998 — a 30-plus woman is nothing. She holds no place of importance in society. She is reduced to looking after the kids, running the household. We educate our women and then ask them to sit at home. A lot of extra-marital affairs happen because men are working, meeting other people, whereas women are sitting at home. The underlying thought for Saans was that a woman has her own standing even when she is not working. She is worth much more than her salary. Saans worked because I did not paint any character as negative. I wasn’t taking sides.

The late ’90s saw brilliant television writing, with Saans, Tara, Thoda Sa Aasman, which had strong women characters. In the following decade, we seem to have taken a U-turn with the ‘K’ soaps.

We need to understand why they became hits. In our society women are still like that, they wear heavy sarees at home, cover their heads and apply sindoor. People identified with the ‘K’ soaps. I call us a minority. Things will only change when mothers start training their sons to respect women.

You took to Twitter last year to say, ‘I live in Mumbai and I am working and I am a good actress, koee kam hai toe batao’. What made you do that?

It was sheer frustration and desperation. I was going to meet a filmmaker, and someone asked me, “When did you shift to Bombay?”. I have been asked this question many times. I was always in Bombay. Just because my husband is in Delhi, people think I am there too. I got so desperate and angry that I tweeted. After that Mulk came to me.

Neena Gupta with Sonam Kapoor Ahuja on the sets of Veere Di Wedding. (Photo: Twitter/@Neenagupta001) Neena Gupta with Sonam Kapoor Ahuja on the sets of Veere Di Wedding. (Photo: Twitter/@Neenagupta001)

You have been part of the industry for almost four decades. Do you think the film industry has evolved to accommodate older female actors and not relegate them to the mother/bhabhi/mother-in-law slot?

I wish I could make my debut in the industry now. When I came to Mumbai, after doing Gandhi in 1982, I was so underprepared. The only avenues available were Doordarshan and films. A sea of opportunities awaits young actors now. Things are also changing for actors like me. Older women are getting interesting roles. I am hopeful. I play an interesting character in my forthcoming film Badhaai Ho, where I am just not a mother.

In the West, there has been the #MeToo movement and #timesup, where women from the film fraternity have spoken about sexual harassment. Do you think Indian film industry will see something similar?

It will happen. It will take time. We need to remember that all the women and people who spoke out in Hollywood are very well-established. A struggling actor can never speak out. When I came to Bombay, somebody misbehaved with me. I was playing a small role in a film and he was this big producer-director. I got very offended. I gave an interview to a film magazine about this incident, and it went against me. People were scared to cast me, ‘ki isko kuch bolenge toh pata nahin kya aur bol degi’. I was a newcomer. As a nobody, it’s scary to speak out.

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