Deepti Naval, torchbearer of a lost generation of Hindi cinema

While on the one hand, it’s difficult to imagine a young woman with a graduate’s degree in Fine Arts and Painting as her major subjects and English and Psychology as her minors to be at home in the Hindi cinema of the early 1980s, it’s perfectly plausible to picture Deepti Naval in both roles with equal ease. Born to an English professor and a teacher, painter mother, Naval’s background that includes migrating to the United States in 1971 along with her family and then graduating from Hunter College in New York is the perfect antithesis of the image of a traditional Hindi film heroine. Naval wasn’t an instant star like Zeenat Aman or Hema Malini, neither was she someone who advanced from being a child artiste to a leading lady like Meena Kumari or Neetu Singh, nor was she a trained actor all set to change the order of things a la Shabana Azmi. Yet Deepti Naval stood out from the very first time she faced the camera. In fact, she almost effortlessly came to embody an entire generation of viewers with a handful of performances. What makes Deepti Naval a far more interesting artist to study from an anthropological point of view is that she was the torchbearer of what could be best called the lost generation of Hindi cinema, which beginning in the early 1980s showed immense promise of a change but more or less ended up succumbing to the demands of the old ways.

In the 1980s when popular Hindi cinema was grappling with an identity crisis of sorts there were very few actors who could rise to the occasion and break the mould. Considering the set-up of the industry it was hardly intriguing that the men of this era that stood out on either side of the art-house and popular divide were celebrated much more than the women. A Naseeruddin Shah or an Om Puri attained celebrity status and were feted by filmmakers across the band while in spite of adulation and accolades a Shabana Azmi or a Smita Patil were rarely seen in the same league when it came to attracting roles. Interestingly enough, even though Shah, Azmi, Puri, and Patil balanced popular and art-house or parallel cinema outings and blended beautifully in commercial films that weren’t their ideal calling, they couldn’t escape being conspicuous by their presence, at least in the minds of the audiences. In that aspect even with the stature they enjoyed, Shah or Shabana weren’t able to ‘create’ a specific kind of cinema the way icons say Amitabh Bachchan or the Khans did.

Unlike this quartet, Deepti Naval appeared more at home irrespective of the set-up. Even though she wasn’t what one would typify as a ‘regular’ heroine, she barely missed a beat across popular, art and even middle cinema. The ease with which she etched out a special place for herself right from the time Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1979) revealed her to the audiences, following it up with a sensational first major role in Vinod Pande’s Ek Baar Phir (1980) and then the very next year with Sai Paranjape’s Chashme Buddoor (1981) made her the very face of middle cinema. A term essentially created to highlight the seemingly ‘simple’ cinema epitomised by Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee via films such as Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti Si Baat (1975), Chitchor (1976), Swami (1977) and Gol Maal (1979), Khoobsurat (1980), Rang Birangi (1983) and Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983) to name a few, Middle Cinema essentially filled the space between popular escapist fare and the parallel or art-house cinema. These were films that used almost unknown names like Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha, Dinesh Thakur, Vijendra Ghatke and transformed them into stars in their own right while at the same time they could take some of the biggest stars of the time and imagine them as regular people such as Dharmendra and Hema Malini in Dillagi (1978), Amitabh Bachchan in Manzil (1979) and Jeetendra in Priyatama (1979).

No other actor came to be associated with Middle Cinema as much as Naval. All through the 1980s, which could be called the last of the halcyon days of the genre, she featured in one standout performance after the other. Beginning with the bubbly Delhi University girl Ms. Chamko in Chashme Buddoor, Naval’s filmography of the decade is peppered with some of the most remarkable films of the period— Saath Saath (1982), Angoor (1982), Katha (1983), Rang Birangi (1983), Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984), Kamla (1984), Hip Hip Hurray (1984), Damul (1985), Mirch Masala (1987), and Main Zinda Hoon (1988). Naval displayed an unabashed effortlessness in breaking the shackles of genres, length and definitions of roles and even unavoidable trappings of the script and portray an urban college gal, the demure lass living in a chawl, a fiery sex slave being used by a journalist to further a story, a homely housewife or a peppy secretary with great naturalness. This trait was perhaps what endeared Naval equally to the audiences as well as her colleagues.
Swara Bhaskar, who worked with Naval in Listen… Amaya (2013) and Aurangzeb (2013), recalls what Farooq Shaikh, one of Naval’s oldest co-stars, said about her. It was during the initial screening of Listen… Amaya that Shaikh, who also featured in the film, expressed the effortlessness with which Deepti Naval did every scene—right from the moment she started preparing for it to the time it was shot—would waylay him into thinking that it wasn’t anything great and that she was hardly doing ‘anything’. But when you watched her in the same scene on screen, you suddenly realised that there was something tremendous in the impact that she would end up creating. This was something that many like Bhaskar, who hailed from a different era than Naval’s ended up experiencing about her.
For writer-director Atul Sabharwal, Naval was the first and perhaps the only choice for the mother’s role in his urban crime thriller, Aurangzeb. The young filmmaker gave her every possible reference, from Lady Macbeth to Laura Linney’s role in Mystic River (2003), but Naval didn’t budge. Then, suddenly, one fine day a month or so later she agreed. Naval had just two scenes in the entire film and even though much to Sabharwal’s chagrin he had to do away with her big scene in the final cut, the manner in which he used Naval’s enduring screen image to distract his viewer for what was to unfold revealed a facet of the actor that was rarely utilised. Sabharwal feels that although NH10 (2014) used the distraction better Aurangzeb’s dining room scene where Naval spars with Rishi Kapoor is the one that fetched him most compliments.

Between the passing of the numero uno baton to Sridevi and the advent of Juhi Chawla, who occupied the space at the other end of the spectrum, Deepti Naval was the ideal foil for filmmakers to carve a new narrative for the leading lady in Hindi cinema. Although she never achieved the same stature as Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil, Deepti Naval’s roles are as memorable. One of the biggest reasons for Naval not being able to transcend them, even though she was tailor-made to fit the imagination between the typical heroine and the mother/ elder sister / bhabhi template, was the inability of the so-called new Hindi cinema of the mid and the late 1990s to imagine her in a new avatar. The failure of the then young filmmakers (Subhash Ghai, Rahul Rawail and later Vidhu Vinod Chopra or even Mansoor Khan) to push the envelope vis-à-vis the heroine made Naval a misfit. Unlike the others from her generation, who are often speed-dialed to add gravitas to tent-pole productions, Deepti Naval has still managed to remain organic and somewhere the trajectory of her career shows how popular Hindi cinema, new or old, regularly fails to do justice to the great ones.