In person, Deepti Naval is like the characters she has portrayed: reflective, inward-looking, and deep. She has agreed to meet me before her performance in her first play, Ek Mulaqaat , in Bengaluru. “I remember Hum Paanch ,” she says as we settle down for a chat. “We shot in Melkote... I would have liked to go there.”
As we talk about the city’s changing landscape, she reminisces over Girish Kasaravalli’s Kannada film Mane . “That was a very special experience. It was my second film with Naseeruddin Shah in the lead. Girish is a tremendous filmmaker. There is a much deeper meaning to each shot than what appears on script. In Mane, he explores the inner worlds of two characters. I remember the detailing of their internal landscape. The outer landscape is just one room and a bed—the couple doesn’t have much space. The noise pollution of the city starts to get to them; it affects their personal relationship. I was intrigued by how their inner lives unfold.”
Deepti’s inner world too is endowed with immense creativity that extends to acting, writing, painting, and photography. She has written a collection of Hindi poetry, Lamha Lamha, another collection called Black Wind and Other Poems , and recently in 2011, a collection of short stories, The Mad Tibetan . “Writing is very important for me. There’s a very strong need to write. That’s something I have kept doing. I have written much more than I have had published.”
There is no particular process to how inspiration comes to her, but she is observant and aware of the world around her. “When I was shooting for Ankahee , I had to visit the women’s ward of a mental hospital to study the role. I wrote a lot about those women when I came back. That came out in the form of poems in the last section of Black Wind and Other Poems . There are so many jottings that I have,” she says laughing. “Someday, you have to sit up and clean up those files and give the real stuff to the publisher,” her luminescent face lights up.
As a painter, oil on canvas is her preferred medium. “I have always been fond of painting landscapes. But also figurative paintings. A lot of self-portraits...” As she speaks, she takes a moment to look out of the window, pauses, gathers her thoughts, and says: “I have lived alone, by myself, for many years, so I feel I am my best company. I am my most available model,” she smiles, adding: “Self-portraits are more in-depth than landscapes. They portray the phase of life you’re at. It’s really taking into account my state of mind. As actors we have enough pretty photographs. That doesn’t interest me... But maybe I should paint one portrait at least where I am looking happy and not so contemplative,” she adds with a laugh.
Intense yet simple
The conversation veers to films again. Deepti’s charm lay in her effortless portrayal of intense characters, without much glamour, yet retaining a simplicity that touched a chord with audiences. How did she prepare for it? Did she go through a meditative process? “You need to get into the skin of the character, you need to imagine it,” she says, nodding, “Yes, you have to work on their body language and the way they speak. I don’t know if there is a particular way of doing it. I just think you have to be true in that moment you are in front of the camera, because at that point you are putting in all your life’s experiences as well. For me, that is how I do it because I am not a trained actor. I have never learned acting."
In Kamla , her unmatched performance received critical acclaim. “It was challenging,” she remembers, “At that time I was a New Yorker at heart. And I was acting in these roles that were very introverted. It was the role of the underdog. So I had to put myself in a place that was required for that film. I remember sitting down and repeating the way Kamla would say the lines, not the way I would, not the way Neha of Chashme Buddoor would.
And then, of course, there were more roles that were as challenging, may be more. Ankahee was hugely challenging. Main Zindaa Hoon was the most challenging because I had to open up areas in my head which I thought never existed. It was a role of a girl who loses her mind at the end. So those are the difficult moments in front of the camera because you have to emotionally bear yourself with everyone looking at you.”
She reminisces over her journey, graduating from Hunter College in New York, making her debut in 1978 in Shyam Benegal’s Junoon, and going on to carve a niche in Indian cinema.
“Because of my study in American theatre it was difficult for me to opt for the obvious commercial films. Though I grew up on regular commercial cinema in school when I was in India, when I came back from America my mindset had changed. It was realistic, parallel cinema that attracted me more.”
The roles still come
It wasn’t as though she couldn’t do commercial cinema, she points out. “But something made me decide that art films is what I wanted to do. It wasn’t easy because only a few films of that kind were being made. So you had to wait for the right role to come. I enjoyed my journey very much. It was not smooth all the way. I’ve had some disappointments. I wanted to do some films, but those were not being made or didn’t come my way. These disappointments… har artiste ke life mein hota hai (this happens in every artiste’s life). And the fact that till this date I am continuing to work means there are roles that still draw me.”
As if anticipating my next question, she says: “Sai is my all-time favourite (director). Why I say Sai, even though I love Hrishi da (Hrishikesh Mukherjee), is because Sai being a woman and a leading female director of that time carved her own place in this industry that no one can take over. She brought to you slices of life which were so endearing in both Chashme Buddoor and Katha .”
But Deepti isn’t too nostalgic about the cinema of the 1980s. “I loved films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I especially loved Waheeda Rahman, Meena Kumari and Nutan. But that was not the time I was born. I was born later. ‘80s cinema was a little different. There was no enigma. Either I liked the enigma of the ‘60s or I like the challenge of today’s roles. But in our time there was no challenge... people loved the ‘80s. But I feel I should have been born much earlier or much later.”
Talking of Farooq Sheikh, Deepti says that she and Farooq should have done many more films together, then pauses and smiles: “When I think back, I wonder… we did eight or nine films, we could have done another 10. He was very well-read and knew current affairs. And was very, very fond of shayari. The last film I did with him was Listen... Amaya ."
Of her recent films, in fact, Listen...Amaya and Memories in March are her favourites. Lion did not excite her too much initially. “I was so reluctant to do Lion because it was a small role. But I realised that it doesn’t really matter. I am the turning point in the story. From India, the boy gets taken to Australia and gets adopted. I am the person who makes the adoption happen. It’s a turning pivot.”
As morning changes to afternoon, there is so much to ask, so much to know about her, including her love for the mountains and her travels there, but there is only time enough to ask about her future projects: “I am going to do a short film, to begin with, in Calcutta. And then for BBC, I will be playing a typical Punjabi woman...and I am looking forward to that.”