Deepti Naval is a basket of contrasts. Despite having lived a large part of her formative years in New York, she slipped effortlessly into strong, earthy roles in films such as “Mirch Masala”, “Damul”, and “Kamla”. Yet for many of us, she's etched in our hearts as the cheerful Miss Chamko from “Chashme Baddoor”. She has stayed off acting, wandered off into the mountains, done some serious photography, painted, written poetry, made many a successful comeback — she was the quiet rebel.
In short, she's not your quintessential Bollywood “actress”. “I was perceived as a girl who was independent — a no-nonsense girl. My dealings were straight. I attracted a lot of subjects of internally strong women who may be going through some trauma on the surface, but always come out strong,” is how Deepti describes Bollywood's perception of her. “I was never a hard-core feminist. My image was of being very feminine…I liked my image at that time,” she says with her thousand-watt smile.
She was in Bangalore this week to launch her book of short stories “The Mad Tibetan: Stories From Then And Now” in association with Renaissance Gallerie; a collection of art from the Gallerie was on view.
But even before Deepti became a part of the Hindi film industry, back in New York (where she went when her father migrated), the greats of Hindi films had walked into a local radio station, to be interviewed by her. “I met some lovely people out there — Sunil Dutt saab, Hemant Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Saira Bano, Mehdi Hassan, Dev saab (Dev Anand), …they were all lovely people.” When she came to Bombay to join the film industry, she says the people were not different, but the environment definitely was. “I met a whole lot of people I enjoyed working with. But the studios were rundown and had no A/C, work conditions were shabby. Bombay's heat and humidity got me real bad… but once I got into my role, all this didn't matter. I thought the industry wasn't exactly like how people outside perceived it…” She had wanted to be an actor since she was seven. But she majored in painting at the Hunter College of the City University of New York because “I didn't think I'd be allowed to act in films!”
While most actors obsessively concentrate on their career once they break in, Deepti didn't. “I should have!” she responds impulsively and laughs. “Not really,” she continues. “I had pure interest in many things apart from acting. There comes a time in films when you're expected to repeat yourself; there's no growth in that. Moreover, the parallel cinema movement fizzled out at a certain point. In realistic cinema, the roles no longer enamoured me.”
But why, despite the serious cinema she's synonymous with, is she still remembered as Miss Chamko? “Oh! It was a cult film of the youth of the 80s. You could never reproduce that. It was everybody's ‘that one film of your youth'; no one got over that.” In films such as “Saath Saath”, “Rang Birangi” and “Kisi Se Na Kehna,” Deepti admits were her “sweet, girl-next-door, fun film phase. Then came the intense, grass-root roles in ‘Kamla', ‘Ankahi', ‘Mirch Masala', ‘Main Zinda Hoon' and ‘Didi' — my all-time favourites of that phase. These were films which had lots to say and less to entertain. I got something to dig my teeth into.”
She then took a sabbatical from acting; her personal life too had taken a bad turn. The mountains had been a place she had always embraced since her childhood, walking the Himachal with her parents, and later friends. A lot of her photography, painting and writing is nestled in the lap of these mountains. She has two books on poetry to her credit — Black Wind 2004” and “Lamha Lamha”. Through her art and writing, she laid bare her inner self and her turmoil — again unconventional in a world where actors cloak themselves in an image. “I'm not just an actor.I'm a writer and painter…someone who thinks. I'm supposed to interpret life through whichever media — that's my calling. It's not difficult to lay open your inner self if you don't have much to hide.” And then, she adds, “Even in films we are revealing our inner self; but there it's on the pretext of playing another role. You can't just enact, you have to draw on your inner self.”
Her first film as writer, producer, director “Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish” will have an India release in March 2012 (the film has been winning critical acclaim on the festival circuit). She's also finished work on “Listen Amaya” where “I'm working with Farooq Sheikh after donkey's years, but on a new platform”. Talk wanders back to “Chashme Baddoor” and its remaking attempt by David Dhawan. “I'm sure he'll make something that's exciting, trendy and today. But the innocence of that period won't be there.”