Only few actors can boast of a resume as eclectic as Deepti Naval’s. She has always been unafraid to push boundaries and nailed her roles as the great boundary-breaking historic female characters in the past.
On Thursday evening, she was duly honoured with Excellence in Cinema Award at the opening ceremony of the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival for her “outstanding contributions” to the Indian cinema. “I am actually very nervous,” the actor, gracefully clad in a golden saree, began her speech after briefly and humbly receiving the award from Vishal Bhardwaj and Deepika Padukone.
“I always used to think, 'How does it feel to walk on the stage and get an award?' Now I know. It feels like this,” a visibly overwhelmed and emotional Naval said.
The heart-warming moment brought back the memories of so many jaw-dropping and versatile roles Naval has displayed in a career span of over four decades. The actor has built her repertoire on an incredible ability to transform herself each time she takes on a new role.
Naval was just two-films old when she managed to pull off arguably the most sublime performance of her career as Kalpana, a film star’s wife who falls deeply in love with another man, in Vinod Pande’s 1980 film Ek Baar Phir.
“Playing Kalpana at that time was really a bold step. Because in commercial cinema the heroines never wanted to portray a married woman who fell in love with another man and then got into a relationship with him while she was still married. It was kind of a taboo which was never to be done because it could shatter their image. But I felt that those characters had so much credibility to them. They were really talking about the real life stuff,” she told us in an exclusive interview before the opening ceremony.
“I remember NC Sippy called me over to his house after watching Ek Baar Phir. He said, 'You have brought in a breathe of fresh air and don't you ever lose that and don't you ever change because we need you.' Hrishikesh Mukherjee also said, 'Deepu, you may be tempted to run away back to America very quickly because the roles that you're looking for are few and far between, but don't get disheartened there's a place for a girl like you here, so hang in there.' He was like a father figure to me,” the actor added.
Naval, along with Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, was an ever-changing portrait of female strength of the 80s. She completely redefined the way female psyche used to be depicted on screen with her strong, earthy roles in films such as Kamla, Ankahee, Main Zinda Hoon, Panchavati and Mirch Masala.
“I chose not to play the regular Hindi film heroine on screen but to go and play these other women who the audience would hugely identify with. And this cinema existed at the time. I was really lucky that Shabana and Smita had already opened the doors to that and then I just kind of floated in. I was so hugely accepted that Shabana, Smita and I became threesome in this genre of the cinema among the females. So it was a huge compliment for me at the time that she was as good as these other senior actresses. I had come without any formal training in acting and knowing that what I could deliver but I had a belief in me that this was what I cut out for,” the actor said.
Those who worked with Naval said she worked hard to make it look so easy. The late Farooq Sheikh, who first collaborated with Naval in the iconic romantic comedy Chashme Buddoor in 1981 and subsequently in Saath Saath, Kissi Se Na Kehna, Katha and Rang Birangi, had said Naval made acting look so effortless that it made everyone on the sets wondered if she was doing anything at all.
“Farooq was a wonderful co-actor. The cinema that we made together was kind of middle-of-the-road cinema which was neither very artsy nor very formula-driven commercial film but they were entertaining films. Chashme Buddoor is a cult cinema of the 80s and it defines the youth of that time so beautifully-- be it their spontaneity, innocence or simplicity. Farooq always used to say, 'You deserved so much more from Indian cinema, Deepti.' He was very fond of my work and he did always make it a point to tell me in case I didn't know (laughs).”
However, Naval insisted her career was so much more than just her collaborations with Sheikh.
“I also hold all non Farooq Sheikh-starrers very dear to me. Films like Ankahee with Amol Palekar, Main Zinda Hoon with Sudhir Mishra, Kamla with Jagmohan Mundhra, Panchavati with Basu Bhattacharya are extremely close to my heart. Of course, the people loved Farooq and me on the screen together but I also wanted more from my career as an actor. I wanted more from myself as an actor. I didn't want to be just ‘the sweet, girl-next-door'. I wanted to make the audience think about who she was and what she was all about. I went out of my way to wait for those roles to come my way. I felt the roles that I played in Ankahee, Main Zinda Hoon, Panchavati and Memories in March were well defined and internally strong characters.
“Of course, I have never done 'the Jhanda wala feminism.' That was not what I was know for. I was known for quiet internal strength and then taking a stand when she needed to. The woman that I always played was not somebody who would succumb. So when people come and tell me how they loved me in Ghar Ho Toh Aisa in which I played such doormat, I always cringe a little. It's a role that disturbs me till date. Because when I was doing it and after doing it, I felt like, 'No, I don't want to project this. This is what women should never be.’”
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