Namaste. This is going to be a long letter. There is so much I feel about and for you that I have kept bottled up over the years, I am afraid it is going to shamelessly flow. Therefore, even before I get into what I want to say – I am going to offer you this disclaimer and an apology if this comes across in places as “too much emotion”. There is more to it than mere fan-love, and in offering this letter I hope it throws light into the incredible body of work you have achieved, and the wonderful person you truly are.
My first experience of you was watching Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). You played the ditzy secretary Priya. You stood next to D’Mello in your floral dress, coyly smiling, as he fawned over you, lasciviously grabbing your hip. Your effortless portrayal and good looks left a mark. It was a bit role, but each time you were on screen I could not take my eyes off you. I remember your white peasant style blouse with pinstripes and a string bow, fashionable in the eighties, and even now, your style has always been like that — timeless. I learnt how to drape my handkerchief scarf from you.
I watched Saath Saath (1982) much after Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, once again you were featherbrained, however, while in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro you were conniving and sinister in this movie you were more of an airhead. Your naivete was hilarious. You added a strange accent to the character making her stand out.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Saath Saath I watched as a child, and I loved you inexplicably. As a teenager, for those days no one cared about parental ratings, I saw you in Mandi (1983) and Utsav (1984). Transgressive as those films were, your choices stood out, from an evocative dancer to dutiful servant, you did impeccable justice to those parts. But, no one really said they were a fan of Neena Gupta. Everyone acknowledged your tremendous acting, nevertheless, there was never a substantial thrust towards stardom. The eighties were such a powerful time for Indian cinema and your contribution towards that went shockingly unnoticed. But, I did see you Neenaji.
The magazines became fraught with news of your personal life, allegations were levied, and slander tossed at you. You prevailed. I am sure it must have taken a toll on you. I cannot even imagine the turmoil it must have caused. Thank you for undergoing it. For a girl growing up in India,it exposed the deeply ingrained prejudiced, patriarchal mindset everyone shared. The collective heteronormative hypocrisy was appalling to me. You shouldered it single handedly, and I applaud you for paving the road. Neenaji, you revealed to a young me that life could be lived devoid of structural slavery. I did not need to adhere, I did not need to fit in. The compartments made for me would be tough to break down, but it could be done.
When Saans (1998) came on the television it helped me decipher my parents’ disintegrating marriage; it made me see them beyond mother and father, as woman and man, who once loved, and moved on. How bold it was for television, how important, to see that love was multilayered, it changed, and evolved. You were so still in your portrayal. There were languid shots of your face. Of course, you were a stalwart of television, having successfully starred in Buniyaad(1986), Khaandan (1985), and Bharat Ek Khoj (1988); each celebrating your stellar talent.
Neenaji, I recently watched you in Badhaai Ho (2018). Finally, you are getting the adulation you so rightly deserve, albeit, it comes disastrously late, but here it is. Your controlled performance of Priyamvada is sublime. I could feel her fatigue. My bones ached as she trudged. Fashionably, you are also now on Instagram. I unabashedly devour every picture you put up. How beautiful you are!
The labyrinth of your life and work spreads beyond the traditional, you took a different route, and you managed to live through it with dignity and grace. Thank you for this valuable lesson, Neenaji. I hope I can be a good student of your school.
More power to you.
I love you, Amrita