Actress Neena Gupta back on stage after 10 years

TV and film star Neena Gupta says that she enjoys the immediacy and instant reactions that theatre offers

Neena Gupta (right) and Anupam Kherplay (left) ex-lovers in the play We Never Say What We Mean, to be held at the Esplanade on May 29. -- PHOTO: TEAMWORK PRODUCTIONS
Neena Gupta (right) and Anupam Kherplay (left) ex-lovers in the play We Never Say What We Mean, to be held at the Esplanade on May 29. -- PHOTO: TEAMWORK PRODUCTIONS

Veteran television and film star Neena Gupta, who sizzled on Indian television and film screens in the 1980s, is making her return to the stage after a hiatus of almost 10 years.

She takes centre stage in the play, Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha (We Never Say What We Mean), along with Anupam Kher. They play ex-lovers who meet after 35 years to find out the truth behind their separation.

While she had many acting offers, Gupta, 60, says that none excited her until the play's writer and director Rakesh Bedi narrated the script to her. She immediately said yes.

"A lot of the roles I am offered are cliched. They want me to play a dominating woman, even a grandmother. I say 'no' all the time," she adds.

"What drew me to this script were the layers and nuances. It challenged me as an actor. Also, it is very hard to find good plays in Hindi. It was an instant draw."

She points out that there are just so many shades in this play. "There are lots of emotional ups and downs, lots of drama, lots of sadness and lots of happiness. It is a lot like life itself."

She is speaking to Life! on the telephone from Mumbai, where Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha opened in March to rave reviews, with critics calling it "a must-watch for all theatre lovers".

The production will be staged in Singapore at the Esplanade Theatre on May 29.

Gupta says the response to it in Mumbai has been most encouraging and it is great to see international interest in it so soon, but she is convinced that it has nothing to do with her own star power.

She is perhaps best known for getting pulses racing in the 1984 film Utsav (Celebration) with what was then considered a daring love-making sequence.

She was also popular for her roles in long-running television series such as 1985's Khandaan (Family), in which she debuted as the smouldering siren named Ketaki.

In 1994, she won India's National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for Woh Chokri (That Girl).

However, she says television work is out for her these days because of the daily deadlines.

"If you commit to a TV series nowadays, you are on set nearly 25 out of 30 days. Your whole life is gone because episodes are aired daily. It is not something I wish to do," she says.

Like most actors, it is theatre that excites her. She says she enjoys the immediacy and the instant reactions that theatre offers.

"What I find charming about theatre is the immediacy. If you are losing the audience, you know it. If you are connecting with them, you know that too. If you have a sore throat, the audience knows.

"One night, I twisted my back on stage. At our age, these things happen," she jokes.

Yet she has an energy that can be felt over the telephone, even now.

When told she does not sound 60, she promptly responds: "That is because I am young at heart."

In her heyday in the late 1980s, she became the subject of much controversy in India when she had a child out of wedlock after an affair with West Indies cricketer Vivian Richards. Their daughter Masaba, 25, is one of India's leading fashion designers, known for her spunky creations from smartly cut jackets to catchy, colourful sarees.

Gupta is not afraid of addressing the issues that turned her private life public.

"Everyone makes mistakes," she says matter-of- factly. "Who knows? Maybe I will make another one soon. There is no point being bitter about what you have done. There were enough people who gave me a hard time, but I would rather remember all the people who stood by me and count my blessings."

And she counts motherhood as her greatest blessing.

"It has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I am extremely proud of what Masaba has achieved. She is extremely hardworking, sincere and committed," she says of her only child.

"To her, design is something that comes from within and what I like about her is her ability to listen to her heart. She refuses to change her style just because people tell her a bridal line sells faster in India and that is where the money is."

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