Sach Kahun Toh: An honest reckoning of a remarkable life

By Rituparna Roy

Towards the end of ‘Sach Kahu Toh’, in Part 4, Neena Gupta begins a chapter (Bloody Mary) thus:

“When I look back on my past, I see a recurring theme. Neena gets shot down. Neena rises from the ashes. Neena overcomes her obstacles. Neena reaches great heights (though still not as the star in a big movie). Neena falls from grace”.

This is an honest person taking stock of her life in the clear light of lockdown-induced contemplation. It underlines the one quality she has in abundance: resilience. It’s a quality most people can guess about her even while knowing only the bare contours of her life. What few can imagine, however, are the extent of the obstacles she faced in battling which she grew resilient. And one common strain that emerges in those obstacles – often in the form of relationships – is betrayal.

Betrayals

What I found remarkable, but also saddening, is the number of times the actor had been betrayed – both in her personal and professional relationships. Time and again, she placed trust in the wrong man – boyfriend, long-distance partner, film director, TV producer; and in one case, a beloved aunt. Part of the reason, as she herself admits, was her own naivete – turning a blind eye to her actor boyfriend’s infidelities, waiting endlessly for a lead role in a Shyam Benegal film, to name two – but it still doesn’t explain many others. It is cruel how many people let her down, and how often.

Gupta recounts every one of them in a straightforward, detached manner, without ever bad mouthing a single person. Not one unkind word or salacious phrase is used, only facts given (with names changed sometimes). She seemed more taken up with protecting her betrayers’ identities than telling the story of her betrayal. Even while laying things bare, she thought more of the person who hurt her than the hurt itself. This is the quality I admired the most in the individual Neena Gupta as I read her life story – all the more because she has faced so much negative publicity herself. Not wanting to give it back to others not only shows a refined sensibility but also a generosity of heart that is rare to find. Indeed, it is the best form of positivity a celebrity can endorse/advocate for – far more than yoga exercises and beauty tips to stay young and feel good.

Legacy

I don’t think Neena Gupta understands her own legacy as an actor. Her memoir gives us a detailed account of her career, the leitmotif of which is her struggle in Bombay where she never got her due. But she was very successful on Television: a household name on DD in the 80s, and later, in the era of satellite television, especially on Star Plus. While this part is also dealt with, the enormity of that success is not dwelt on sufficiently, probably because the betrayal she faced later on from Star overwhelmed other memories.  

Throughout the memoir, Gupta emphasizes her struggle – and one can totally understand why – but she probably doesn’t realize the significance of her career as a whole. Her career, spanning four decades, in a way inscribes within it the trajectory of (a sizable portion of) India’s entertainment industry in that time. From the staid (but also quality) content of state-run television to the opening of the skies, from run-of-the-mill Bollywood fare to occasional whacky outings, from the ‘new-wave’ intervention and the synergy of international collaborations to post-millennial trend-setters and the liberating versatility of OTT platforms. 

Every phase of this trajectory is reflected in Gupta’s career: from a singing model rattling off names of dishes in a ‘Hawkins’ ad and a strong-willed Ketaki in Khandaan (1985) to a vulnerable housewife in Saans (1998-1999) and the rude anchor of the game-show Kamzor Kadii Kaun (2001-2002); from the ‘lallu ladki’ of Saath Saath (1982 ) to the raucous co-dancer of Madhuri Dixit in the hit-song ‘Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hain’ in Khal Nayak (1993); from featuring in several Shyam Benegal gems (Mandi-1983, Trikaal-1985, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda-1992) and Girish Karnad’s classic Utsav (1984) to being Gandhi’s grand-niece in Attenborough’s epic (1982) and a frustrated wife in Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of In Custody (1994); through innumerable supportive roles in film and television in post-millennial years right up to the U-turn with Badhai Ho! (2018) and playing herself in the Netflix series Masaba Masaba (2020). That’s a staggering range!

Since her work spans four decades, reading the book ends up being a personal trip down memory lane for many readers as well. I was surprised to find so many memories of my own childhood, adolescence and youth re-surface while reading: lisping the Hawkins jingle without effort in my primary years, being mesmerized by the occult element in Trikaal in high school, reading about Gupta’s relationship with Vivian Richards in a magazine around the same time, listening to my mother’s strong disapproval of both the lyrics and choreography of ‘choli ke peeche kya hain’ while in college, reading mixed reviews of Kamzor Kadii Kaun as a young lecturer… and after a decade of being out of touch with Indian television but keeping myself abreast about films, lapping up the comic disaster in Badhai Ho! and binge-watching Masaba-Masaba in lockdown-confinement.

I was honestly not prepared for this! One is used to linking the careers of iconic stars and authors one has been lifelong fans of with one’s personal memories (in my case, two such ready examples would be Soumitra Chatterjee and Amitav Ghosh), but one usually doesn’t give that credit to artists whose mark on popular culture is less obvious. I understood the true significance of Gupta’s legacy as an actor only after reading this book. I hope she does too!    

Tale/Telling

I wasn’t looking for a literary masterpiece while reading this book, but I didn’t expect it to be ghost-written either. A very articulate actor and successful script-writer (with an M.Phil degree in Sanskrit literature to boot) wouldn’t need that, I guessed. Sach Kahun Toh turned out to be a breezy read, written in a conversational style that would it make accessible to a wide readership. Gupta’s honesty and candour shines through it, allowing us a peek into what an actor’s life really entails – enormous struggle and continuous uncertainty – rendered even more precarious in her case with being a single mother. While I liked the book, I found it uneven in parts; and the tale more interesting than the telling, overall. The chapters in Part 1 were the most arresting for me.

One memorable section in it is where she evokes the sonic memory of her childhood:

“Summer also meant that jamuns would be in season, so we’d wait for the evening when the jamun wallah would come around singing, ‘Jamun kale kale aah; jamun bade raseele aah.’ The minute we’d hear this melodious call, we’d run out into the street to buy them. (…)

“It wasn’t just the jamun wallah who had a song. There were numerous vendors who visited Galli No 1 to sell a variety of treats to the residents. There was a man who sold moong dal pakoras on a cart that he served with mooli kas and red chutney. The dal moot vendor also sold moong sprouts dyed yellow with turmeric and tossed with lemon, onion, tomato, coriander and a very special masala. Then there was the man who sold sugarcane juice which was an absolute favourite with the kids because it was fascinating to watch him extract the juice by turning a lever on – a tedious job – on his hand-operated machine.”

Anchors

Sach Kahun Toh is divided in five parts: the first four are a chronological account of the actor’s life and career, and the last a series of essays on the five dearest people in her life – her parents, brother, daughter and husband – beautifully prefaced in each case by the sketch of a tree (that symbolized the nature of her relationship) and a descriptive caption.

The last part was probably an afterthought: somewhere the actor must have felt that in recounting her life, she probably didn’t give enough space (or as much as she had intended to) to these relationships. Hence, the shift in narrative spotlight on people (in this part), rather than a phase of her life (as in the others). It could also be that, looking back on her 60 years, she felt that these relationships were actually all that mattered to her – after a lifetime of working hard and giving her best to her chosen profession. There is no contradiction in this realization: we are anchored in our relationships, even as we are identified by our work. It could be vice-versa as well. The important thing is to know where we stand with both. This book is a reckoning of that.

In that reckoning, what stands out is her relationship with her parents – Shakuntala Gupta and Roop Narain Gupta.

At the heart of her life lay a dark secret – the unusual family situation she was brought up in – her father having two families and his dogged loyalty to both. It was occasioned by her grandfather not accepting the first (love) marriage with her mother and forcing a second (arranged) one upon him. This suffocating grip of parental authority is almost unimaginable now, but in Gupta’s father’s generation, it was a reality – with couples having to live through marriage solely as a social and family obligation. Both her parents were damaged by this arrangement: her highly educated mother unable to make peace with this peculiar mix of regressive tradition and postcolonial modernity all her life; her father completely drained by the continual effort to do right by both his families. He would spend the day (minus his working hours) with his first family and the night with his second; he didn’t change this routine ever… liberated from it finally with the death of his first wife.

Her mother fuelled her ambitions, inspiring her to pursue higher studies and aim to be an IAS officer when she herself wanted to train as an actor at NSD. She studied up to M.Phil just to please her mother, and it was owing to the lack of a supervisor for her Ph.D that she could finally apply at NSD. Her mother conceded reluctantly. Though she didn’t approve of her daughter’s choice of a career, she supported it wholeheartedly for as long as she lived – from buying her a house in Bombay when she was finding it difficult to scrape a living to coming and nursing her when she had measles.

Gupta’s relationship with her father blossomed much later in life – after her mother’s death; especially after she had Masaba. It was he who supported her during her pregnancy (even though he initially didn’t want her to have the child) and all through her years as a single mother. He lived with her, taking charge of things at home while she tried hard to earn her living as an actor. He was the man she could always bank on.

My personal motivation in picking up this book was to have a deeper insight into the life of a single working mother (who happens to be a famous one) – vis-à-vis her relationship with her child. What I got instead was a reiteration of a fact I already know – that single parenting is not possible without the support of at least one parent. In Gupta’s case, it was her father.

I wish he were alive to read this book.

Rituparna Roy lives in Kolkata and is messily divided between writing, teaching, steering a museum project and growing up with her daughter – not necessarily in that order. She has authored two academic books and a collection of shorts, ‘Gariahat Junction‘ (Kitaab: 2020), about equally messed-up women who don’t know where to go or what to do and try to figure those out. You may visit her at http://www.royrituparna.com/ – the only home she owns; or find her @gariahatjunction. 

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