ART FOR HEART'S SAKE
Deepti Naval unexpectedly stormed into my life earlier this year through a film called Memories In March. It’s not as if one wasn’t already an admirer of her work in Ankahee, Main Zinda Hoon, Panchvati and Mirch Masala—and her more popular films Chashme Baddoor, Katha and Saath Saath. But this performance was unsettling because of its poise and calmness in a situation that warranted a far more overt display of emotion. The restrain was disturbing and moving at once.
A middle-aged woman grieving the death of an only son in a drunken accident, Aarti travels to Kolkata to collect his remains and stumbles upon a secret that shatters her—that he was gay and in a relationship with an older colleague (Rituparno Ghosh). As she tries to make sense of this revelation and cope with her grief, she conducts herself with remarkable grace and maturity; even when she has an angry outburst, she’s impassioned without being hysterical.
To the actor’s credit then that Aarti’s anguish cuts through the external stillness so evocatively, it hurts. “That woman isn’t like me, but appealed to me a great deal because she had all the shades and complexity I look for in a character. It was also comforting to interpret her because I was playing my own age—I could bring a lot of my life experiences into the performance,” she says, over cups of piping tea one rainy July morning.
The journey from that film to Deepti’s house was amongst the most purposeful ones I’ve undertaken as a journalist. It was an enriching experience at a personal level, because looking for her interviews online led to the discovery of her website, www.deeptinaval.com. And the site opened the doors to a multi-talented artist and a sensitive soul. It wasn’t just her versatility as actor, writer, painter, photographer and filmmaker that made such a favourable impression. It was the honesty and openness with which she had shared herself—through her work and through numerous press interviews which are archived on the site, along with reflections and notes about the creative process and the dilemmas of existence. You can’t but marvel at such refreshing candidness.
Her paintings, in particular are a window to her inner self, “I think I’m best at self portraits and I paint the faces hard, lonely and morbid. They are hard because they reflect what goes on in my head,” she writes in her introduction to the section (the site is an impeccable catalogue of her life’s work—comprehensive without being showy). Although she continues to paint on a regular basis, she has never sold anything after the first sell-out exhibition in the mid-1990s. Instead, she started giving it all away to family and friends.
Interestingly, while Deepti pursued a career in acting very purposefully, she holds a degree in art from New York. “I knew I wanted to be an actress when I was seven years old,” she says with a slightly self-conscious smile, like she knows it sounds preposterous. “I used to go to the movies and as the theatre got dark, watching those B&W images on screen made me feel like that was real life. Everything else was irrelevant—this make-believe world was an island.” She remembers watching Teesri Kasam, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Sangam. “I was a big Meena Kumari fan and I thought I should try and impact the audience the way she did on a child like me. When I became an actress my philosophy was simple—I wanted to touch peoples’ lives and thought if I emote with sincerity, it’ll connect with them and make a difference.”
In the wake of my renewed fascination with Deepti Naval the actress, I revisited some of her films and watched a few like Ek Baar Phir, her breakthrough performance, and Kamala for the first time. She was part of the parallel cinema’s trinity alongside Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, but somehow didn’t attain the same degree of stardom as the other two. There’s no logic to this because both in terms of diversity of roles and versatility, she was their equal. “I am a little laid back—not lacking in enthusiasm or energy, but perhaps not ambitious as I should be,” she says, although not in the context of comparison to her colleagues.
But what sets Deepti apart from her contemporaries or indeed most actors is her ability to walk away from it without missing a heartbeat. “I’ve acted in about 65 films, but could have done 250 like some others. I realised that if one just kept working in front of the camera, one would become repetitive. Fortunately, I never got to that point, but I could see it coming. Besides, I also wanted to explore other aspects of life.”
In the 1990s, she put her acting career on hold for personal reasons, but simultaneously, she took up painting, writing and trekking in the Himalayas. Her travels brought about two photography exhibitions and her Frozen River trek in Ladakh in 2004 has resulted in a book of poems which will release shortly. “I was trekking and taking pictures, but there was so much more to say about the experience; ultimately, one has to fall back on words. Writing may be the most essential part of me—it brings me closest to myself,” she says on a pensive note, looking out at the showers from her terrace flat and breaking off mid-sentence to admire the quaint charm of Mumbai in the rains.
The diversity of Deepti’s writing in quite astonishing. In the ‘90s, she wrote, directed and acted in a television serial called Thodasa Aasman. While preparing for her role in Amol Palekar’s Ankahee and Sudhir Mishra’s Main Zinda Hoon, she visited a mental asylum and later, she went back for a longer stretch to research a script she was writing. She came back with a collection of poems called The Silent Scream. “I realised that the world of the mentally disturbed was also the world of the starkly real… the world of the hyper sensitive… the world of the unabashedly honest,” explains her foreword to this collection.
There is something rotten - inside of
You, in your flesh, the stench of
Sanity. It breathes in your
Eyes, this thing…
Something decadent, in your
It will be too late - you will
Die of it!
(from The Stench of Sanity)
Watching Ankahee, arguably her best work as an actress, brings you face-to-face with the same intensity. In Indu, a young girl from a small town who is brought to Mumbai for psychiatric treatment and is married off to an architect (Amol Palekar) only as a scapegoat, Deepti’s vulnerability and her vitality combine perfectly. But the role she believes was closest to her real self was that of Sadhavi in Basu Bhattacharya’s Panchvati, a film that sadly never got a theatrical release, but was screened on Doordarshan a few times in the 1990s.
She’s recently made a comeback on television as another kind of sadhavi in the popular series Mukti Bandhan. “Television gives you that instant connect. People don’t need to ask me where I’ve disappeared.” But it’s her directorial debut, Do Paise Ki Dhoop Chaar Aane Ki Baarish that she’s most obsessed with right now. The film which she has also written, features Manisha Koirala as an aging prostitute, Deepti’s nephew Sanaj as her disabled son and Rajit Kapur, as a gay songwriter who comes in contact with the duo. “I don’t think Manisha has played a mature, complex, layered role before. She’s a director’s actor and surrenders completely.”
Also ready for release is a collection of short stories called 'The Piano Tuner' and Other Stories. Deepti is able to switch between her different pursuits with amazing fluidity. “Although when I’m in the middle of writing something and I’m summoned for a shoot, it’s most upsetting. But I’m not aware of the process of moving from one thing to the other.”
Besides, when the call of the wild and of taking off at a moment’s notice is so strong, it’s the spontaneity that ultimately takes over. “In between my Mukti Bandhan shoot, I’m planning to go to Srinagar, where I have a little houseboat, to write or paint small canvases. I can’t sit still.”