Text by Ranjabati Das. Photographs by Asad Sheikh. Styled by Sarah Rajkotwala.
“Less Is More”, her black T-shirt proclaims in contrasting white capital letters, offering a glimpse into her psyche at the outset of our Zoom conversation (she is at her studio in Haripur, a tiny township in the Kangra district of Himachal). It coheres perfectly with the deliberate restraint that marks much of her work – as an actor, painter and writer – lending nuance while avoiding heavy-handedness. In her upcoming memoir, A Country Called Childhood, Deepti Naval continues down this path, steering clear of ostentatious language and, therefore, tedium, even though she packs it with exhaustive details, leaving nothing to the imagination, as is the wont of writers of non-fiction.
Charting the first 19 years of her life, in the vein of an origin story, the memoir is brought to a close just as the Naval women are about to begin the first leg of their journey, from Amritsar to America, to the much-bigger stage that is New York. It’s a cliffhanger of sorts, inserting the intrigue that is integral to the commercial viability of the next part that she is already contemplating. In a way, this juncture of her life serves as the bifurcation between innocence and experience, the before and after. “Going away to America brought about a different worldview. With this move, a very naive phase of my life came to an end,” says the 70-year-old Naval, a few seconds into our conversation.
That she wrote from the perspective of a young girl – the book comprises guile observations and is devoid of any form of post-mortem – is clever. Not only did this narrative device safeguard her from revealing the more intimate details she would rather not, but it also allowed her to paint a realistic portrait of her life in small-town India of the ’50s and ’60s, complete with the foibles, little victories, angsts and desires.
Naval’s real self is the antithesis of her popular “good girl” screen image; her innate urge to reframe societal expectation is almost palpable. At one point, she tells me about how her equation with her mother, “as in the case of most Indian girls”, empowered her greatly. It was thanks to her that Naval witnessed and internalised a pushback on conventional thinking early on: “While other children would hear stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata at home, I would instead hear stories about my mother’s girlhood in Burma’s Mandalay, where she was brought up. These never left me and sensitised me to my environment. I was forever looking for the beauty in little things, looking for aesthetics everywhere.”
It follows that her Instagram bio reads “artist” and not “actor”.
Edited excerpts from a conversation….
Are artists predominantly dreamers?
Undoubtedly. If I were practical and had a worldview, and not just my own little dream world inside my head, if I had asserted myself more and had been able to discuss matters with my parents — whether it was my experiences during puberty or my ambition about what I wanted to do later on — I might have been better prepared. My parents became my friends later on, not during my growing-up years. I was in awe of them; I loved them to death, but I couldn’t confide in them. For a long time, I couldn’t tell my parents that I actually dreamt of being an actor, nor seek advice on how to go about it. No way [her voice drops a notch as she smiles and stretches out the last word]. I couldn’t even bring it up.
My parents always maintained a distance. Certain things were never discussed. If only we were better prepared for relationships, marriage, life hurdles. I remember when Mama finally spoke to me about menstruation. She had left it to Didi and Munni [their neighbour] to tell me about it, and then she took over later when she knew I had been briefed.
In those days, we drew our own conclusions when we stumbled upon new territories. We were never told how to deal with attraction; instead, we were told not to have boyfriends. We didn’t know that the first attraction cannot be taken seriously, that this kind of attraction will happen again! [laughs] And to say nothing of the guilt that was induced in young girls for breaking the rules — for going to see a movie with a boy, which is such a normal, healthy thing to do! Back then, parents were concerned about society. Many lived out their marriages simply because “log kya kahenge?” [What will people say?]
This tendency to expect people to fit into a certain mould – does it push us to lose ourselves either way, whether or not we conform?
We perhaps do, but to not play safe all the time and explore life is a personal choice. It’s so easy to just remain constraints mein [in constraints]. And you can still lead a wholesome life. You will have many other deeper experiences and feel fulfilled. But there are some people like me who want to see what is on the other side.
It is. But that’s when I feel I can be my true self. To me, what is interesting as an observer and someone who has led life on her own terms is that I’m constantly watching myself react to situations while reacting to them as an actor. The writer in me is simpler. Here, I am confronting a situation and making a note of that. So that’s where I feel my work as a writer is a bigger challenge. What I knew as a child is what I put down in the memoir. It was a simple process. I didn’t want this book to be written from the perspective of an actor or a mature person. I didn’t want to analyse my childhood. The aim was to write it without alarm or trying to mould it in a different way. Anything that I learnt later has not been included. Nor did I let it colour my perspective.
Inward Bound. Black and White Self-Portrait. Charcoal and Oil Paint on Canvas. 17 in x 17 in.
Not many people remember their early years with such precision.
I may not be able to recall my film experiences in such detail, but when it comes to my childhood, I can write another 300 pages. Being a keen observer, I made it a habit to observe the residents in my locality from an early age. At that time, I was unaware that I would tap into this reservoir in my later life as an actor.
When I was writing A Country Called Childhood, I was flooded with memories and my head was reeling. I recreated – recalled, this is not fiction – and put them down as separate standalone units, whether it was about running away from home [in Amritsar] at the age of 13, the Indo-Pak War of 1965 or the chapter where I write about young girls’ experiences of dealing with the male gaze after puberty. I recounted them in the way that I understood them then. The harder part was to connect the different memories in order to structure the memoir.
The process started 20 years ago, although the concentrated work has been done in the last six to seven years. I remember minute details. For instance, I clearly remember leaning over the edge of the terrace of my childhood home one Diwali night, and taking in the rangoli and the diyas that lit up the mochi [cobbler] mohalla in the gali next door – as if from a top-angle shot.
Where do you feel most at home?
Either when I’m in New York City, where I habitually take long walks down the avenues. Or when I’m hiking out in the mountains. This is when I can hear my inner thoughts that tend to get fogged out by day-to-day living. For me, these are very serious rendezvous with myself.
In the memoir, you mention that it was particularly difficult for you to write about running away. Did it take an emotional toll to excavate and access those memories?
It’s very strange. That night I spent on the Pathankot railway platform after running away, I was able to write about it in one go. But before that, all my life, I’d never been able to talk about it. It’s only after writing it down that I actually found myself confronted with it. I wrote it in a flow, and I remembered every detail; the whole night played out like a film reel in my head.
Had you previously blocked it out?
I spoke about it only once, to my parents, after I was brought back home in the morning. I had reached Pathankot the previous night and was at the station till 5 in the morning. I was so embarrassed about the episode because I had no good reason to run away. I felt that it won’t be looked at as normal [laughs]. Like I write in the book — whoever runs away from home to see the mountains? I just wanted to go to Kashmir.
Is that why you chose the format of a memoir — for catharsis?
I chose to write about real life because it is challenging. You’re putting out your most vulnerable self and not hiding behind a character or role. Here, I have no guard, nothing to protect me.
I’m not that eager to write an autobiography, where you write about your whole life. I may not be so comfortable writing candidly about the latter part of my life — there are topics I may not want to lay bare. Luckily, this logic doesn’t apply to my childhood.
But if you read Black Wind & Other Poems, it’s completely autobiographical. It’s all about the darker side of life that I have experienced, and it’s very real. Those poems were written at a time when I was down and out, and going through a large trauma. Nothing seemed to be working out – my marriage had gone wrong, and nothing was happening on the career front. I was plagued with self-doubt. I found myself at a dead end. When I wrote the poem Black Wind, I was drowning in suicidal thoughts. I knew I was hitting rock bottom. Although my study of psychology came to my aid, I struggled for months.
Self-Portrait with Burnt Sunflowers. Mixed Media on Canvas. Pencil, Brush and Knife Work. 79 cm x 102 cm.
Did poetry and the study of psychology play a part in your understanding and expression of the human condition?
I have written about my brilliant school friend Neetu, who I saw committed to a psychiatric institution and suffer. She was prone to testing boundaries; I was intrigued by what went on in her mind. I felt the need to understand this zone of human psychology, and it led me to study the subject in New York. It was called “abnormal psychology” back then — maybe the term has changed to something better now.
Years ago, I wrote a screenplay about an actor tasked with playing the role of a mentally unbalanced woman. The filming process leads her to confront her inner demons, and by the time the shoot comes to an end, all the masks and facades drop. I couldn’t raise the money because producers found it too dark. While I was writing about the character, I went and stayed in a woman’s psychiatric ward, and it was an eye-opener. I desperately wanted to share my experience and the deeper understanding I gained of the women inside, the ones we put away and discard. I try to show what I experience as a writer so that you can share in those experiences. That’s my style of writing.
The last 24 poems in Black Wind, under the section called The Silent Scream, are all about these women. I spent years putting that script together – the screenplay is called Split. My friends would ask me why I put myself through the ordeal of repeatedly visiting the ward when I always came back disturbed by the experience. But I had to do it. There’s a poem called The Stench Of Sanity in the section. It is from the perspective of an inmate. She is essentially saying, “You’re going to rot in this ‘sanity’ of yours – what you call sanity will finish you. Keep playing sane and never touch life.” It’s a very hard poem for me. This poem was the outcome of my constant encounters with her in the wards. She challenged me as the outsider, the so-called sane person.
Could you relate to her in some way?
I understood her. I was going in there to look at these women, to observe them, take notes, write my scenes. She would lash out at me because I had the audacity to do that — to enter their world — because she considered it a privilege to be labelled insane. And me with my sanity, go to hell [laughs wryly]. She was telling me, “You will never know”. When I came out, I never looked at life in the same way.
Did your diverse interests in the arts help you to overcome turbulent times and provide the groundedness that is so essential to face the ups and downs of an acting career?
During traumatic phases, it is only painting and writing that helped me. Otherwise, I would have cracked.
I always felt compelled to express myself creatively one way or the other, and I could choose to paint or write when I was frustrated with not getting challenging-enough roles in the industry or disillusioned with playing the sweet-girl-next-door – I thought I had so much more to offer. I longed for layered, intricate roles and narratives to come my way, but they were few and far between. I could have been working every single day of my life if I chose to do whatever comes my way, [if I thought] bas karte jaana hai, acting karna hai [I just need to keep acting]. That wasn’t my objective. I wanted my work to somewhat reflect my take in life.
[Pauses] The sweet girl next door is not me. You read this book and you know — this is not a memoir of that girl. I started with those kinds of characters in Chashme Buddoor and Katha, but very quickly I was playing women who knew who they were and who were ready to assert themselves. One of my favourites is my character in Panchvati [where she played a painter who ultimately decides to leave behind the material world].
Having different mediums of expression at hand kept me afloat. It has been my survival kit, especially writing. Whenever I was confronted with trauma, it was the writer in me that would take over.
You’ve always been against stereotypical portrayals of women, choosing to do films like Leela, Freaky Chakra and Listen… Amaya – stories that need to be heard.
It surprises me that my fans don’t talk about the roles I consciously picked in order to tell the stories of strong women – including those in Main Zinda Hoon and Ankahee. It disappoints me. These roles are worth talking about.
Maybe because they are not easy to consume….
I get upset – why don’t they talk about Andhi Gali, Saath Saath, Mirch Masala. These are the characters that should really matter. My role in Kamla. If you’re an actor, your popular films establish your screen image. People think, “Oh, she is an actor, and she also writes.” That’s the price I’ve had to pay for being a known face. For an actor, everything else gets dismissed. Yeh “also” jo hai [this “also”]…I don’t look at my work as “also this” and “also that”. I act, I write, I paint. That’s who I am in totality. And if you really want to know who I am — I write and I paint. The acting part of me is in collaboration with other people…the director, writer, editor and so on.
Is social media also a tool you use to connect with authenticity – introduce the real you, your other passions – while many use it to achieve the complete opposite: to create and maintain a fictional image?
Hemaji [Malini] once said to me, “Despite the number of films and roles I have done, my fans choose to remember me as Basanti of Sholay.” After 30 years of cinema, my fans still profess their love for Miss Chamko [her character in Chashme Buddoor]. And I thought, “The artist in me will never see the light of day, it will be stifled, all because of one successful celluloid image of a girl selling soap door to door. This will be my biggest tragedy.” I was frustrated, and this is why I took to Facebook. I use social media so that people can essentially get to know me.
Was writing this book a liberating experience?
Very. I could have gone on and on, delving into my memory, matching it [to the text] exactly, and cross-checking…I was very concerned about [not] misrepresenting my memories.
Do you feel drained after writing with such immersion?
The process is draining. I feel lighter after having written. Bol diya hai, ho gaya [I’ve said it, it’s done] — it’s out of my system. It had to be spelt out, and I’ve done exactly that. I took a huge sigh of relief when my publisher said, “Not a word can you change now, it’s going to print.”
One instance from the book that stayed with me was what you engraved on the pillar of your veranda, after Neil Armstrong’s moon landing: Deepti Naval, Chandraavali, Katra Sher Singh, Hall Bazaar, Amritsar, India, World, Universe, Cosmos, SPACE. It was a subtle way of claiming space. It’s a sensibility that you have very much owned.
Except at that point when I was writing it I did it spontaneously. I was curious about my place in the brahmaand [universe]. I remember thinking, “Maybe I’m a speck but I am part of it.” And that could mean immense possibilities.
You have a flair for drama. I was intrigued by the burning of your diary before leaving Amritsar…
[Laughs] I was always drawn to drama. People would come back from watching a movie and discuss all the lighter parts, but it was the intense scenes that I retained from the movies and songs, the ones that philosophised on life. Those made a deeper impression on me. The entertainment factor of cinema and music never appealed to me.
Does your upcoming film Goldfish, which talks about dementia – a condition your mother suffered from, along with Alzheimer’s – hope to create a deeper understanding of the disease? Was it unnerving to relive the experience?
It doesn’t deal with it at great length, but wherever it does, I felt I could bring something real to it. After Mama passed away, all I have been doing is working on the book. I did a web series or two – nothing thought-provoking – and I was waiting for a subject to sink my teeth into. Then I heard about the premise in three lines. Rajit [Kapur] called me and said that the unit is ready to shoot a film, and they have a role for me. I was being added at the last minute. When he briefed me about the role, my first reaction was that I wanted to write a whole film about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. It’s a mother-daughter story, and I asked who’s playing the daughter. He said Kalki [Koechlin] had come on board. This was one film I said yes to without my usual line: “I’ll read the script and then I will decide” [laughs]. I wondered why it came to me. There is probably something from my experience that I can bring to the role. I felt compelled to do it.
What will your next book be about? Will you ever write about your life in New York and as an actor?
I will. Someday I would also like to do a travelogue. In my short story The Mad Tibetan, I’ve written about crossing this very stark terrain between Leh and Stok, where I encountered a Tibetan nomad, who lives by the Indus riverbank in a tent. He is “mad” in a delightful kind of way. In a kind of way that every artist wants to be.
Have you experienced this?
I indulge in it very often.