Best known as the demure girl next door from Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Baddoor, Deepti Naval starred in some of the gentlest, funniest comedies—Gulzar’s Angoor (1982), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Rang Birangi (1983) and Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983)—as well as some of the hardest-hitting films of the 1980s: Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho (1983), Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985), Jagmohan Mundhra’s Kamla (1985) and Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1985). She returned to the screen after a long gap with a startlingly vivid performance as a housewife haunted by the 2002 Gujarat riots in Nandita Das’ Firaaq (2008). In 2011, we’ve seen her in Bhindi Bazaar, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Rivaaz and the lovely Memories in March. A prolific painter, photographer and twice-published poet, Naval can’t seem to stop finding new ways to express herself. Her first book, The Mad Tibetan and Other Stories, is a collection of acutely observed tales, including some real-life encounters—Balraj Sahni as a child in Punjab, a Nepali sex worker she once chatted with till 4 am, and a strange old man in Ladakh. An interview:
Q You were ‘foreign-returned’ long before it was common for Indians to have a slot in which to place NRIs or ABCDs. How did that experience shape you, going from Amritsar to New York, and back to Bombay?
A See, it worked both ways. The advantage was that I was very independent. I’d lived in New York, I knew exactly where I wanted to go with my career. I knew the kind of cinema I wanted to belong to, the kind of people I wanted to work with. But because I had come straight from New York, it was hard to gel. The industry was a little unnerving for me in the beginning. The studios in those days were very shabby, smelly; we had terrible toilets, too many flies (laughs).
Q How long had you been away?
A Seven years. My New York years were my blossoming years. I studied Fine Arts at Hunter College. I’d be in my white sari with red border crossing the street, and the traffic would stop.
Q You wore a sari to college?
A No, no. On occasions: on Diwali, or for dances. Anyway, in those days, most people in the industry were uneducated, other than directors and some actors. But luckily, I got the best of directors. So it was a dichotomy. But I’d always dreamt of coming back.
Q Was your relationship with the idea of India shaped by your going away?
A Well, thodi identity crisis toh thhi. When I started writing poetry, for example. You’re in America but you’re Indian. I thought hum toh apni zabaan mein likhenge, in Hindustani. I’m a great lover of old Hindi songs and Sufi poetry, so there’s something there. Later I outgrew that complex, and started writing in English. But in terms of coming back, there was never any doubt. I had dreamt of acting since I was seven.
Q Was that when you met Balraj Sahni, that remarkable moment you describe in the book?
A Yes. A wintry morning, Gandhi Ground, Amritsar: aur main dad ke saath, with blazer and socks and shoes and braided hair… But I wanted to act even before that. I never thought of my life any other way. Later, at 13, I thought I’d either be an actress or a nun.
Q So either you’d become an actress, or give it all up? Thankfully that didn’t happen. But how did Ek Baar Phir come to you?
A (Laughs) The idea of acting never left me. I never made it obvious to my family, I was very shy. But inside I had great plans that nobody knew about. When I finished college, I thought, ‘Now I can speak my mind.’ When my parents heard, they flipped. They said, ‘You want to go to Paris, study art, fine. But this?’ Both my parents have been teachers all their lives, so it was hard. I came to Bombay under the pretext of a holiday. I met Hrishida, I met Shyam Benegal. Then I went back, and my mother said, ‘Who told you you can go and become an actress?’ I was also getting a very good modelling offer. They were looking for an Eastern face. The head of this agency in NYC said to me, ‘Put yourself in my hands and I’ll make you the face of the decade’. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be this plastic face’.
Q Oh, you should have tried it out!
A Yes, I should have made my money then! I never made any money. But then I thought I’m born to emote, be an actress, not a model. So I never thought twice. Then I convinced my parents finally, and came back. I went to Doordarshan to audition for a play. I met Farooq Shaikh there. He was compering something. I was asked to co-host a programme with Farooq, which I did. Then I went off to shoot for Benegal’s Junoon (1979): I had three scenes. When I came back, there was a message from Farooq, saying that a director from London called Vinod Pande was looking to cast a girl with big eyes and long hair. That’s how I got into Ek Baar Phir (1980). That was the first big role. But Junoon was the big learning. See, I had never done a play in my life. I used to dance on stage. But life is so funny, I never got one role that required me to dance.
Q Dance is the one thing that’s not listed in your creative accomplishments.
A Yes, it’s not mentioned. But I was trained in kathak. I used to be good at it.
Q Do you see yourself as very rooted?
A I’m not rooted at all. My father’s family was from Lahore. My mother’s family was from Dharamsala and Jammu. My nana was a Dogri, and I have a great affinity for the mountains. That’s what I feel I have inherited. I’m a perpetual wanderer. You put me down in one place, and I feel, God, bhatak gaye yaar. And when I’m bhatkofying, I feel I’ve come back home. I get miserable if I have to stay put in one place.
Q And yet you’ve spent so much of your life in Bombay?
A I’ve only survived Bombay because I’m always getting away.
Q Returning to acting: there’s a remarkable honesty in your performances, even when it’s a character quite distant from you, like in Firaaq. How does acting work for you?
A I’ve always felt when I am acting is when I’m exposing my innermost feelings—and not acting, actually. When the camera goes on, it all becomes real. I find a connection to something and I just relive that. To that moment I am totally honest. I’m never putting on an act. I had gone to Ahmedabad after the riots: Dolly Thakore, Nafisa Ali, Anjolie Ela Menon and myself. I remember visiting the refugee camp, and I was so badly hit. Nafisa Ali told me, ‘It’s okay, you can smile for the camera.’ But I just couldn’t. I’m not made like that. I’m not an attention seeker in real life. Only on screen I want full attention, because I’m living a real moment over there.
Q What about vanity? Was seeing your own face on screen part of the fascination with acting?
A Apna chehra toh hai, it’s a big thing. When I was little, I would watch B&W morning shows of old films with Nutan, Meena Kumari, Nargis and think, ‘That’s what I want: I’ll be emoting over there and all these people will be affected by what I’m feeling’. I wanted to affect people.
Q You worked through the 1980s and returned to the industry in the 2000s. Has Hindi cinema changed?
A Some exciting stuff is happening. But there’s a loss of depth, too much froth; I’m not talking about films like Guzaarish, Raajneeti, Satya or Dil Chahta Hai; I love those. And the women don’t look Indian any more. Though many are hugely talented: Kareena, Priyanka… I wish they’d try to retain their individual traditional look, charisma. I was happy to see Aishwarya Rai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. And now Vidya Balan. Hats off to her for doing the role she’s doing now. I like women who are traditional in appearance but have a mind, an attitude that’s universal.
Q In your story Thulli, you describe meeting a sex worker because you were going to play one in a film. Did that ever get made?
A No, it didn’t. But I’m glad you brought it up. Years later, I did a film for Tapan Sinha based on Premendra Mitra’s story Mahanagar, about a boy tracing his sister to the red light district. Now that title had already been taken by Satyajit Ray’s film, so Tapanda used the title Didi. It was only after the film that I realised that my reference had always been Thulli. Subconsciously. And ‘thulli’ in Nepali means ‘elder sister’. Four stories in the book are from real incidents. I used to keep a diary. When I was writing in the last two years, I looked up my notes and then recreated them in laborious detail. I met the ‘Mad Tibetan’ in 1998. Shabana [Azmi] asked me at a recent Crossword interview about taking risks, meeting this mad Tibetan in an empty Ladakh landscape. You feel scared at first, but as you see him in another light, another moment, he becomes a concept. I just trust people. I trust myself to evoke good feelings in them.
I don’t feel scared. For many years I did nothing but drive around the mountains and stay in the passes where Tibetan women run dhabas. First it was with Vinod Pandit, my fiancé—we bought a Sumo. I didn’t want a car in which I would step out wearing a sari and high heels. I wanted something for the roughest terrain, cross-country driving. In 1993, we went for a week and stayed for two months.
In 1998, I went alone. I wanted to see the colours of winter there, take photographs.
Q When did you start taking photographs?
A Oh, a long time ago. But I’d never shown my work. Painting I graduated in, that was official. Photography was a hobby. I love it because doing landscapes took me away from cities. But when the prints from this 1998 trip were being made at Colour Art Lab in Bombay, two photographers saw them and asked Mukund Patel whose work it was. Mr Patel told me, ‘You should show this work.’ So I had my first exhibition: In Search of Another Sky. Then I did other series: The Road Builders, Shades of Red.
Q How do you choose which medium to use?
A If I have not been able to say something one way, then it gets extended into another medium. I’ll give you an example. My first painting in India was done at a very disturbed time in my life: it’s me standing on my balcony, a monsoon night behind me. But nobody understood ki kya hai. ‘Really dark, ya,’ they said. So I wrote my poem Black Wind, about a suicidal moment. With the mad Tibetan, too, I took photographs, but they never did justice to the impact he left on me. Perhaps a short film would have worked. But some things need to be written.
Q You’ve recently made a film, too: Chaar Paise ki Dhoop, Do Paise ki Baarish.
A Yes, hopefully it will release in India in March.
Q You’re a painter, photographer, director and now writer. Do you still feel like an actress first and foremost?
A I’m in my own skin when I’m acting. I feel I was born to be this. But there I’m a tool in the hands of the director or writer. It’s their concept, their take on life. What about my take on life? Acting is not first hand who I am. This—writing—is much more intimately who I am, first hand.
Q You give the impression of being totally at peace with yourself.
A It has been a long journey till this point. There have been times when I’ve not known how to control my own anger. But those days are long over.
Q Do you see yourself as political?
A I think to be successful in politics, you have to be a manipulator. I don’t see myself having a platform. But I do feel gratified by contributing something to people’s lives. So social work, yes; politics, no.
Q You run a trust for the education of girls.
A I’m not an activist, I’m not committed to the cause enough that I would drop all these things for it. It’s a gesture. I want to start old people’s homes, for people like the bent old coolie at Amritsar station who begs me to let him carry my luggage because only then can he earn. There should be some dignity in old age.