Deepti Naval talks of laments, hope, books, films, piracy and more…
Between the two golden stars of the parallel film movement, it wasn’t easy for her to carve a niche. Yet with films like ‘Chasme Buddoor’, ‘Main Zinda Hoon’, ‘Kamla’ to last year’s ‘Memories in March’, Deepti Naval has continued to display her range.
‘Mad Tibetan’ is just one of the short stories from your collection but you have titled the book as ‘Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now’, does it reflect your fascination for Tibet?
Actually, I’ve not been to Tibet. And I am fascinated – yes. I have a fascination for Tibet, and I will go to Tibet soon enough but I’ve never been there. This is a mad Tibetan I confronted, I encountered in Ladakh, on the outskirts of Leh. He was somebody who lived in a roofless tent by the Indus river. On the way I, whatever I saw of him, later on I wrote about him in this short story. I encountered him – it’s my personal encounter with this man.
And the subtitle of the book, ‘Stories from Then and Now’, so are you trying to map a certain change in time? What is ‘then’ and what is ‘now’?
Yes, some of the stories date back to the 80s. Some are from the 90s and then – ‘Mad Tibetan’,’ Ruth Mayberry’, ‘Sisters’, these are stories I’ve written last – one year. So the eleven stories belong to different time frames.
The collection is unique in a way because Deepti Naval actively participates in some of the stories. How much of it is documentation and how much fictionalisation?
Five of the stories are from my own personal experience. ‘Balraj Sahni’ is a story from my childhood memory of him. Then the one about my meeting with Thulli, a prostitue in Kamathipura… I have tried to write as honestly as I could, tried to recreate whatever the scenario was at that time, but of course as a writer I have the liberty to fly (laughs).
What has been the kind of stories that you grew up with? The stories that stay with you – that also have an impact on your writing style and your content.
I like drama. Yeah (laughs). I love drama. I like something that – that, that makes you remember a moment, you know, something that makes you – that stays with you, you know something – sometimes it’s something really subtle, it’s not always overtly dramatic, but some elements – except for ‘Piano Tuner’, that’s very internal. Internal world of this piano tuner – piano player, actually, he has got the Parkinson’s, so his hands shake, he cannot really teach the piano anymore and he’s struggling with, you know, how to make a living by tuning a piano… he still has to survive. Apart from that story, I think a lot of the other stories are very ‘happening’ stories. If you talk about writers, then one astounding writer is Salman Rushdie. I love his works.
And Hindi fiction, like stories – childhood stories that you still remember?
I don’t even remember the writers that I read in my childhood, we used to read stories from ‘Chandamama‘ . I don’t know the names of those writers. I would love to go over the Internet to find out the names of the writers who used to send their stories to ‘Chandamama‘. I would love to trace them. ‘Chandamama‘ stories should all be put together now, you know? I don’t know who they were, but I used to read those… and then, there was another Hindi magazine, something called ‘Nav Yug’.
Ok, so poetry, fiction, travelling, trekking, cinema, painting, so where is Deepti Naval most at home?
Writing is the most intimate for me. It’s my take on life. It’s the way I observe life, not the way my director or my writer does. As an actor, I am an instrument in the director’s wanting to say what he has to say with the film. So I do what the writer has written, it’s his interpretation of the role – it’s not mine. It’s not me. I put a lot of me in it, to interpret the role from my own life experience. But ultimately it’s not me unlike what I write.
So when you do so many things together, is there a sense of restlessness?
Constantly. I think I’m doomed to be restless (laughs) always, I mean I have this calm exterior which is a complete facade (laughs). So you see, I am atleast good at one thing, acting!
So coming from there, I was reading in one of your interviews where you were saying that you’re full of contradictions. Explain.
If you go to my website, you will find a painting called ‘Contradiction’. It’s my self-portrait as a pregnant nun. You know, this painting has layers and layers of meaning behind it, this is not a nun who goes behind the bushes and gets herself pregnant – on the contrary, it’s anything but that explanation. These are the contradictions that I feel within myself. It’s me wanting two things as passionately, pulling me in two opposite directions. I want to give up everything – you know, everything about living a full life and at the very same time, I want to start all over again and I want to live a full life. And I want this to be the first day of it. I want to give up everything and just go into oblivion and never see – never talk, never give another interview and just disappear. And these two strong things keep pulling me constantly, at the same time as strongly. And I am constantly restless with that. And that’s a contradiction. Also the contradiction is that sometimes I fail myself, I surprise myself, I have a self-image but I do things contrary to my self-image and I kind of startle myself. Pregnancy is just a metaphor. It is the fullness of life that I want to live and nunhood is the renouncement of everything, is the moving away from everything which gives you fame, recognition, money, comfort – you know, the thrill of being Deepti Naval.
On one hand many from the film industry, including you, have said that these are very exciting times for cinema because there’s so much experimentation, small films doing well – but last year, so many of these indie films including yours – ‘Memories In March’ – did not do well at all compared to, say, a ‘Bodyguard’…
Thank God for piracy, some people are seeing it (laughs).
Many have – I have downloaded it myself and have seen it.
(Laughing) I mean… so I think all small films deserve to be pirated and proliferated over the Internet so that everybody gets to see them. They’ll put me behind bars now for promoting piracy (laughs).
Coming back to the state of indie cinema…
It’s good and bad. You know, yesterday I couldn’t sleep a wink. I was so tired, I thought I just wanted to go back and crash out, and I couldn’t sleep after that. Whole night. And sometimes, around 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the morning, I said ok, since I can’t sleep, I’m struggling with this, let me – TV dekhti hoon. And I got hooked on to watching a film called ‘Ganga Jamuna‘. And what a film. What a film. My God, you know when I see films like that, I say what are we doing today, in terms of cinema? Where are those concrete subjects, where are those concrete – where are those subject matters, something – something really rooted… the greatness of acting, every character, and – and – a great balance of, you know, drama, music, action, storyline, everything is in such wonderful balance, there’s such a – everything has such a place for itself within the plot. Right now, the films that I see, they’re – you know, if they are musicals, it’s just overdoing with the music. All the publicity, promotion, actors have to dance in malls to, to get the people to see the films. I think some grace has gone out of being a star, being an actor, you know, that enigma is kind of, fast going. And I want that to come back. I want that enigma to be restored somehow, you know? Yeah, we don’t have to go around with a begging bowl – I made a film, of course we are doing that all the time, I mean I have made a film called ‘Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane ki Baarish‘ and I am sure that , Manisha, me, Rajat, we will also be asked to do the same thing. But… I don’t know what the answer is; I don’t know what the way out is.
You have shot this film some time back and, so, what was harder, directing the film or, now, trying to get it released?
Oh, now trying to get it released.
Tell me about the whole journey…
I got the money instantly to make the film that I wanted to make, without any kind of interference but then, after making the film, my financers, they clamped up. And they, you know, sort of sat back because recession hit America and this was an American firm that had put money in my film. I felt that was not fair to the product. If you’ve come this far and you have a product in hand, this is not the time to act coy and shy away from releasing the film. But now we are releasing it. I found a distributor, and we are doing it now.
So when is it releasing?
I think, hopefully, in another three months. You never know what happens to small cinema – it’s such a hard task, getting to release a small film which doesn’t have stars – I mean, if I had a Shah Rukh Khan, I mean, there’s Deepti Naval, Manisha Koirala, Rajat Kapur.
What is the title referring to?
‘Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Char Anne Ki Baarish‘. It’s about a lyricist and a prostitute. So this is a song a lyricist is trying to write. He’s struggling to write this song – two lines of this song, that’s the title of the film. In English the title is ‘Poet and the Prostitute’. It shows the life of a streetwalker – suburban Bombay, Juhu. What happens when you come out of your home and take three turns and you see a streetwalker and you say, “Oh my god, what kind of locality am I living in?” But that’s Juhu at night. And I made a film about one such woman. And the gay – struggling gay songwriter and a disabled child. But a happy disabled child, not an ailing, depressive child – smiling, happy, joyous. There’s no morbidity in the film. It’s got great music and it’s a kind of homage to old Hindi songs – my film itself, to old Indian lyricists. And it’s an uplifting film at the end of the day. It talks about these dark elements but it’s not a dark film. And it’s a progressive film about the state of women. I want to show the film to all the sex workers of Bombay.
Coming back to your films, tell me three of your performances that you think did not get the attention, they deserved?
Can we talk about thirteen of them, please? (laughs) I’ll tell you. My work in ‘Mirch Masala‘ by Ketan Mehta. ‘Ankahi‘, directed by Amol Palekar. ‘Main Zinda Hoon‘, directed by Sudhir Mishra. ‘Didi‘, directed by Tapan Sinha. ‘Freaky Chakra’, directed by V.K. Prakash. My performance – my role itself, it was a complex role, I regard that as a – I could be proud of that. My role in ‘Firaaq‘ . My role in ‘Leela‘, then ‘Memories in March’.Kitne ho gaye?
Just eight? (laughs) Ok, wait. Wait, I’ll tell you. I actually counted thirteen. ‘Kamla‘. Ok, that’s all I can remember right now.
Since you talk of ‘Freaky Chakra‘, isn’t it very strange that ‘Freaky Chakra’ is known for that one single clip that’s up on Youtube ?
I tell you, I lament that all the time. When you write ‘Deepti Naval’ on the Internet, that’s the first thing that pops up. Every time, it sickens me. Sickens me to the bone. I want to puke. It’s not fair. It’s not fair to do that to any artist. Not with the body of work like – the kind of serious work I’ve done, the kind of work that I’ve not done and let go of because I didn’t want to be typecast as, you know, one run-of-the-mill actress swinging her hips in front of the camera. I stayed away from all that and did a film- a role like ‘Freaky Chakra‘, and I mean, look at the range in that role. From a cantankerous forty-year-old, I become a… you know gooey-eyed, twenty-five-year-old. That’s the transformation of that character, nobody talks about that. Everybody just, you know, talks about that ‘Deepti Naval hot scene’ , I want to puke.
And does that speak a lot about the way sex is treated in Indian cinema?
It talks a lot about, not Indian cinema, it talks a lot about what the – how the net – Internet is really. Porn is so easily accessible. You know, you just – you just have to type three names, type the word ‘hot’ and you get millions of things which will pop up. You don’t even have to use the word ‘sex’. You know? I I don’t know what this is, I really don’t know. I will I could take that off. I wish I could ban that. I wish somebody would write about the role that I have played and the characters that I have played in so many films which have gone unnoticed. I wish there were more people to talk about that and less of these pop-ups, you know, every time.
At this point there is a lot of talk on how Internet should function… why curbs should be imposed on Facebook, Twitter… What’s your take on Internet censorship?
See, I don’t know, I think if some things disgust me then I would like, definitely, at least parts pertaining to me to be censored.
But that’s a very personal take…
I don’t know enough of Facebook, I don’t know enough what goes on Twitter. I am not of that generation who lives their lives off Facebook or shares their daily lives on it, “aaj maine subah chaat khaya.”
But basically the fundamental topic is on censorship, be it the net, cinema, literature… the quality of what should be censored is a different topic but your general views on censorship…
If you ask me right now, as I am sitting here complaining, I would love some censorship because I have been victimised by that. So I am one of the people who are always cringing, you know, cringing when I type my name on the net, so I would love for that to be taken off. You can go into further and further research and then say, “Ok, is there a scene like that she did?” But it cannot be the first thing. I feel completely cheated as an artist who’s done serious work all her life.
And does this personal disgust have to do with your Facebook status update that you want to deactivate your account?
That I said because so many people write to me and I can’t really write back, so then they get a little offended, and I thought – how is it – how am I helping anybody by being here? So visit my website. I want my fans to know what I am doing next. You know, people talk about ‘Chashme Buddoor‘ but I am nearing 70 films, and and yet you talk of only one film? That’s why those roles I talked about are very important to talk about. And I wish all those films would be pirated and put on the net so that every single person gets to see my work, if not when it was done, then at least now, twenty years later.
Paulo Coelho puts up torrents to his books on his website, so maybe you can be the first actor in India who can put up torrents of her films on her website.
Yes. Yes, I’m going to do that. (laughs)
Three recent performances, acts you really liked?
Hrithik Roshan in ‘Guzaarish’. Amitabh Bachchan in ‘Paa‘. Vidya Balan in ‘Dirty Picture‘.
And what’s next?
Farooque Sheikh and I have done a film together after twenty-six years. It’s called ‘Listen Amaya‘. We shot the whole thing in Delhi, and that is ready for release now, and I’m looking forward to it – for people to see us together again and see how they react. Of course, now we are a budhau couple romancing again in life. I am also going to do a serial with him.
And any new book?
First get me an award! (laughs)
Awards have their own place, I guess I’ve trained myself to, to kind of feel that ok, awards have their own place and I’ll just keep doing my work, which is fine with me, I guess, because people, who are tuned in to my work, they find my work somehow or the other… dhoondh lete hain.