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Saturday, August 20, 2022

Deepti Naval: ‘We have always co-existed despite Partition’

Actor-artist Deepti Naval on her memoir A Country Called Childhood, the stories that made her childhood, living through war, and a life readying her for cinema

deeptiDeepti Naval after the launch of her book in Delhi. (Photo Credit: Abhinav Saha)

If you think you are about to read about “Ms Chamko” (Chashme Buddoor, 1981), then this is where we must part. “My whole persona has been given this one face: simple and sweet girl next door (an image from her early films that has stuck on), I needed people to know me for who I am,” says Deepti Naval, 70. She divides her time between New York, Mumbai and Himachal Pradesh’s Haripur studio, where stands her hatstand, her girlhood companion, and the gramophone her Badi Mummy (maternal grandma) lugged from Burma.

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Her father had adopted the surname Naval, meaning new, to avoid being just another Sharma. “There were so many in Amritsar,” says Naval, who has a knack for storytelling. That’s evinced by her recently released memoir, A Country Called Childhood (Aleph, Rs 999), which defies chronological memory-keeping. It trains the lens on her growing up years in Amritsar (1952-70), before she left for the US with her parents, only to return later to the Bombay film industry, but also takes the reader along into a past before her time. “I want the reader to see what I was like as a child, not by telling them about it, but letting them come into my world and see what was going on there, even inside my head what was going on. If you ask me to write about my memory after that time, about my films, et al, I don’t remember so much,” she says.

Deepti A Country Called Childhood Cover. (Photo Courtesy: A Country Called Childhood/Aleph Book)

Acting first began as toddlers, while playing with her elder sister who’d say, “choonchi bann jaa”. Her grandfather had three boxes reserved for him in the theatres, where after work every day, he’d catch parts of films. Balraj Sahni would autograph her book. She had a Meena Kumari, Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore craze phase, and inspired by the latter’s Anupama (1966), she’d give up speaking for an entire season, much to her mother’s chagrin. Her and her mum’s cousins would have brief stints in the film industry. And had it not been for Gulzar, she’d have deprived the world a glimpse into her adventurous streak: how the draw of Kashmir, the setting for most films, made Naval run away from home at age 13, with Rs 15 on her. “I remember my childhood like cinematic visuals,” she says, “writing about them was a joyous journey but also cathartic.” Her parents, childhood friends, cousin, former tenant, those who fill up the pages of her book, passed away in the two decades of writing the memoir, which is as much about girlhood as a chapter of a country’s syncretic past. Edited excerpts:

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Is there a willing forgetfulness towards cinema?
I was hell-bent on acting and joining cinema. I knew this is my calling in life. I didn’t want to try. I wanted to give my life to it. But out of the 100-odd films I’ve done, I would like to forget 60 (laughs). When I came into the industry, I thought I’ll work for 10 years and then I’ll go back to writing and painting. I always saw myself as a writer, to grow old writing.

Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and you were the female triumvirate of Hindi parallel cinema, did that limit the kind of roles being offered? You regret not getting to dance on screen despite being a trained dancer (Kathak, ballet)?
That is the tragedy. I found that women just happened to be there in commercial cinema…to dance and sing…for the glamour quotient. I found more meaning in doing these other realistic films and working with people like Basu Bhattacharya, Gulzar Saab, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Sai Paranjpye. I owe so much to Sai Paranjpye for my success story in the Hindi film industry. For roles, I preferred that kind of strong character who starts off as the girl next door. That’s why I keep saying that this image of being simple and sweet is a limiting way of seeing…these girls are internally very strong. They will take on the world when the situation arises. Let’s not undermine the girl next door. I mean, look at the girl in Saath Saath (1982). Look at the girl in Panchvati (1986), she says, I don’t want any man in my life. Not my husband, not you either. So, I’m pregnant with your child, but I’m not going to leave one man and pile on to the next. I will live my life on my own terms. I will be the mother and father of my children.

Deepti Her dancing days. (Photo Courtesy: A Country Called Childhood/Aleph Book)

Do you see the discourse around women actors changing now?
Deepika (Padukone), Priyanka (Chopra), Alia Bhatt, Anushka (Sharma), these girls have transformed the role of women in cinema. Of course, we did, too, in our way. Shabana, Smita and me. We also changed things then. But now the same kind of change has happened in commercial cinema, which is such a good blend, it’s the coming together of art and the commercial.


Coming to your memoir, it’s evident you grew up in a different country from what it is today. Your house Chandraavali brushed shoulders with the Khairuddin Mosque, the azaan there and havan in your house peacefully co-existed.
From my terrace, I could see inside the mosque, a lane dividing us. At the time, the mosque was all white; now, it has been beautified and also has green paint. Havan was a quiet affair, just four-five family members sitting together; the azaan was on the loudspeaker, but it was not a disturbance. For 10 years after Partition, the weather-stripped mosque was deserted, with only pigeons fluttering atop the dome. And, then, in 1957, the first azaan was heard. Over a period of time, because it happened five times a day, it became a part of our life.

Deepti Chandraavali, their house in Amritsar, was next to the Khairuddin Mosque. (Photo Courtesy: A Country Called Childhood/Aleph Book)

Not fantasy or mythology, your childhood was full of stories of your family’s history. Tell us more about it.
My mythology was the stories of Burma that my Mama told me, since I was two-three years old, about the exodus and how they came walking to Imphal from Burma, and further on to Mukerian. Piti (as she called her Pitaji/father) opened up much later. The Jalalabad (Bauji/her grandpa’s Punjab village) chapter was never told to us when we were kids, they never tried to plant any negativity in our psyche. In America, my father told me: ‘Beta, there’s one very dark and sad chapter of Partition, and nobody talks about it, because there are no survivors to tell the tale.’ (All the village Hindus were allegedly killed on the banks of Beas by Muslims.) He, however, had one cousin who was away from that village that night with his son. These may have been a couple of others who were away/hiding, too. Years later, I made several trips to Jalalabad to cross-check everything. My book is not about bringing out these gory details, it is to tell that there was hope. There was also an old Muslim tangawallah who saved three Hindu girls, one of whom was Mama (ferrying them out of Lahore’s riot-torn mohalla into the safety of a refugee camp).

You’ve mentioned how the Jalalabad chapter or the Burma exodus are not in the public domain/consciousness, so, in a way, you are also documenting lost/forgotten history.
A few years ago, when I went to the Partition Museum in Amritsar, I asked Kishwar Desai (author and chairperson of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust that set up the museum), ‘Why isn’t there no mention of the Jalalabad massacre?’ She said, ‘We don’t know about it.’ So, I said, okay, then I’ll have to document it.


How do you see your city Amritsar — or Ambershire as the nuns of your school called it — being changed, in particular, the Jallianwala Bagh?
That is my only disappointment. I love what they have done to the Golden Temple. It’s beautiful. But Jallianwala Bagh…it was naïve of them to try and beautify it. That was not the right thing. You have to let that be. Preserve it as it is. It’s a reminder of the monumental tragedy that has happened with innocent people. It’s not a war memorial or tomb for soldiers. Innocent people have died. That should have been preserved the way it was. Well, now, it’s done (sighs).

As a child, you were excited when the India-Pakistan war (1965) unfolded at your doorstep, and then your father took you sisters to the Khemkaran border.
He must have seen how non-serious we were (laughs), so, he said, let me give them a reality check. They need to understand, it is not fun and games, war is war. You see, since childhood, I’ve been hearing stories of the exodus from Burma, then they went to Lahore, and from there another exodus happened, so, they had all the excitement while us sisters’ lives were so bland. I was addicted to drama, to the dramatic element in all these stories (laughs). So, when the first bombardment started, we went crazy. We must have been scared, sirens would go off, we’d paste black, cardboard paper to cover all the window shades during blackouts, but more than scared, we were excited ki kuchh ho raha hai (that something’s happening, at last).

Deepti Deepti (right, in front) with elder sister Smiti and their parents (Photo Courtesy: A Country Called Childhood/Aleph Book)

During the war, did you see people hating on each other?
The war was in 1965, I was born in ’52. I didn’t know a single Muslim in Amritsar, who was living there, except for the Pathans, as we called the men who lived inside the mosque. We didn’t even know the word mullah at that time. We had no interaction with them, they were just a visual. They would come to the mosque, wearing their tiny, white (kufi) caps, lift the shalwars to wash their feet in the pond before offering prayers. This is what it was to a child, and they were very gora, gora (fair complexioned), so, I’d tell my mother that they must be Kashmiris (laughs).

Your Bauji and Bibiji (paternal grandpa and grandma) were on two ends of the political spectrum. How did that work? Would they insist on what ideology your father must align with? As a child, how were you assimilating all this?Bauji was affiliated to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), she would debate and fight for Congress. There could have been fights every day. In the city, people would quote their example and say, ‘Dekho ji, Bauji toh kattar Jan Sanghi hai aur Bibiji staunch Congressi.’ They would sit at the dining table, exchange views and be okay with it. ‘Haan bhai tera hai, theek hai, main toh aise sochta hoon (Let’s agree to disagree),’ and that was the end of the matter.

Deepti Deepti’s Bauji and Bibiji, paternal grandparents. (Photo Courtesy: A Country Called Childhood/Aleph Book)

They never tried to impose either ideology on my father. My father didn’t even believe in the existence of God in his early years. He, in his later years, of course, turned a lot to Christ in his old age, because he thought this was the only living example of practising what you preach. That He (Jesus), while being on the cross, is saying ‘forgive them oh lord, for they know not what they do’. He said, many preach but to practice while it’s happening to you, to still stand by that, there isn’t such an example. Forgiveness is the biggest thing and he caught on to that, went out of his way to ask for forgiveness and also forgive people who had wronged him in any way.


Your father didn’t want to be just another Sharma, at age 48, he left everything here to start a life in America. Your mother had to give up theatre and dancing, though she continued painting. Your trying out many things creatively (acting, poetry, painting, writing) and renewing yourself, does that come from them?
Yes, absolutely. I have no hesitation in saying that it’s my two parents who have been my gurus. They have not pushed me towards anything. My father did encourage me towards painting but my mother discouraged me from becoming an actress. Because they were living in America, she was worried how I would manage alone, that it won’t be an easy ride. She was not happy about that. Otherwise, she encouraged me to dance, paint, and sing. Later, as I kept on making my movies and they became so popular, Katha (1983), Chashme Buddoor (1981), Angoor (1982), Rang Birangi (1983), Kissise Na Kehna (1983), Saath Saath (1982)…when she saw Saath Saath especially, she was elated. And when my younger brother saw Ankahee (1985), he said, ‘Didi, you are an actress’. (Laughs.) No adjectives. Because earlier he thought I wasn’t even an…I mean I hadn’t had any training. That was the best compliment ever.

Talking of your films, Journalist Mohammed Zubair, who finally got bail, was arrested for his tweet of Honeymoon/Hanuman Hotel, a still from your film Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983). What did you make of the case?
That has to be taken…I mean, where’s everybody’s sense of humour? It was such an innocent thing. It was a scene in the film and it was used to just hoodwink that the newlyweds haven’t come for honeymoon, but rather to listen to bhajans. Hanuman Hotel was thus switched…it was meant as a fun thing. We need to stop arresting people, otherwise we’ll put the whole world behind bars. It’s a pity (that such films don’t get made any more). Of course, right now the situation has become so sensitive, it’s okay to lie a bit low and not do anything which is going to rake up any controversy. But in good times, I think things should fall in place. I hope they don’t go the other way round. That’s what I hope.


Having lived through the turbulent ’60s, where do you see the country headed today?
Kya bolein abhi… dil dukhta hai, it hurts. It’s like poison. There is no need…we have always co-existed despite Partition and the massacres. People need to pause and think: Where are we going? Where is this going to end up? It could be a disaster of a much greater kind. I think co-existence is the best way, let’s just all live and let live. Let the other person live. Bas khatam.

First published on: 25-07-2022 at 11:57:34 am
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