There wasn’t really a moment when actress Neena Gupta sat down and told her daughter Masaba that she was a love child; that her mom had never married her dad, West Indian cricket icon Vivian Richards.
“She knew everything as she started understanding things. She was told the truth. Iss ghar mein sab kuch normal tha. We talked about everything,” says Neena. “Actually, we are the ‘normalest’ people we know. No wonder we don’t have many friends.” And then they both laugh.
Neena and Masaba are sitting on the couch in their Juhu apartment, trying to understand why their “situation” seems so intriguing. In a society that still thinks single women are out of the ordinary, what Neena Gupta did 26 years ago was quite revolutionary for her time. Or any time.
The National Award winner (known best for her 1998 TV show Saans) had a relationship with Richards, then had his baby without marrying him, then raised her child single-handedly. She also never hid it.
The baby, Masaba Gupta, is now one of India’s most famous and influential young fashion designers. Their relationship comes across as being mature and completely honest. No wonder everyone is intrigued.
The daughter of a government officer and a teacher, Neena Gupta didn’t have any sort of radical upbringing. She wasn’t even allowed to go to a movie with her girlfriends in college. "My mother was a Gandhian and very strict," says the 55-year-old who completed a Masters’ degree in Philosophy in Sanskrit from Delhi University.
She moved to Mumbai in 1981 to become an actress on the strict condition that she’d stay with her mother’s best friend. By the time she was pregnant with Masaba in 1989, her mother had passed away.
Not without my daughter: The bond that they built has helped them work together as well. Neena manages the financial side of Masaba’s business.
"My father obviously didn’t approve of my decision, but he knew he had to stand by me. And he did," says Neena. "He shifted to Mumbai to live with me. I believe that you need your parents the most. That’s the most important thing."
Neena’s belief has led her and Richards to make sure their daughter was never made to feel like she was "different" or that there was something wrong with her family. So Masaba never knew that hers was what society considered a "dysfunctional" family unit.
She never thought there was anything strange about the fact that her parents weren’t married to each other and never had been; that her father had been married to someone else at the time of her conception, separated but never divorced. None of this struck her as extraordinary at all.
"I think it had a lot to do with my school, Jamnabai Narsee, where many students were celebrity kids," says Masaba. "Mine was the most usual upbringing, I swear! I knew a girl who could only wear full-sleeved clothes. They had weird restrictions. My life was great."
She remembers having a conversation with her father the year she turned 12 about her birth, and being completely supportive of their decision. "There was no one trying to hide anything, no one putting on a show," says Masaba. "My friends were raised by their maids. They didn’t see their fathers, who used to travel for work, and there were facades of family vacations. I have grown up to be completely intolerant of fake relationships. That’s because of how my parents were."
Even though Masaba was based in Mumbai, she visited her father in London and Australia (where he was based then), every chance she got. And they all went on family vacations together.
"My father was as involved as he could be. He was busy, but called me every day. He knew what was happening in school, and even came for my tennis matches," she says. "Till today, he calls when he can. But he is not intrusive. He doesn’t even have a cellphone! So if he reads something somewhere, he will call and talk about it. He is just that way."
Friendly ties: Neena Gupta says Viv Richards still visits her home. "He asks my maid to cook him stuff she used to before," she says. (Photo (left): Amlan Dutta, (right) AFP)
Every time Richards visits, they go out for dinner. Neena even talks about him visiting her home in Delhi, which she now shares with her husband Vivek Mehra, a businessman she married in 2008. "He still asks my maid to make him what she made him years ago to eat. I said na, we are completely normal," Neena says.
They do remember things being written about them and their "situation," but they both say that they laughed it off. "I think it’s much worse to have an extramarital affair. I would rather you didn’t get married and just had a love child," says Masaba, who discusses a recent magazine article talking about love children.
"The headline said, ‘The Life and Longing of Love Children’. Where is the longing? We are not dying. I felt sad that they were feeling so sad for me. We are not orphans, we are just love children. Relax!" That’s when Neena interjects, "Achha achha bolne se magazine nahin bikti. Anyway, that journalist was just doing her job." A reality check
Masaba’s childhood friend Anusuya Tandon recalls going to the Gupta household and playing Playstation all day. To her, the father figure in Masaba’s life was Neena’s father, who took care of the girls when Neena was away. And she feels that Masaba turned out the way she did because Neena let her explore all her choices.
"She wanted to be a tennis player, so she was sent to a great coach. She wanted to be a musician, so she took music classes. There was nothing lacking in their household. It was all about not being afraid of anything and making your own choices. That came from how Neena aunty raised her," says Anusuya.
It couldn’t have been easy though, raising a baby while trying to make a career and ignoring all that was said about her in the society or the papers. Neena does talk about being bothered by the negative publicity but says she got used to it.
"You need good friends and good parents. That’s all," she says. Film journalist Rauf Ahmed, remembers Neena well. "She was always an independent firebrand. So no one was really shocked at what happened. She wasn’t a big star at that time, and by the time everyone came to know of their affair properly, the baby was already born," he says.
Her friend, the actress Soni Razdan, was shocked when Neena told her she was going to have a baby out of wedlock. "Neena was always a risk taker. But you need courage and she has lots of it. Somehow the fact that she was a single mother has made her and Masaba’s bond much stronger. There is less you can take for granted when there is only one parent involved," says Razdan.
Masaba herself says that the greatest lesson she learned from Neena was how to be her own person and stand by her own decisions. "Just the fact that she had me at all is such an inspiration," says Masaba. "She never became bitter, despite what was said. There were no tears in this house. And that made her a great mother."
Neena says everything she knew about being a mother, she learned on the job. "You can’t come with an agenda about what kind of mother to be," she says. "It’s all a process. You just learn and then adapt along the way."
Another friend, and colleague, actor-director Satish Kaushik remembers Neena as being the hottest girl during his college days in Delhi University.
"She has that rare mix of talent, intelligence and beauty," he says. "But the stand-out trait is her strength. I have known some strong women in my life but Neena is the strongest. She has brought up Masaba in such a way that she is a modern girl who has retained her sanskaar. That’s the reason Masaba is where she is today."
Peas in a pod
As you watch them, Neena fussing like a typical mother – “Haye Masaba, hamare time pe bra strap nahin dikhta tha!” – and Masaba being the typical child – “I was scared to make the boys I liked meet her” – they come across as being extremely close. It also seems as though they have no secrets from each other. And that, they say, is the best thing about their relationship.
“Parents saat khoon bhi maaf kar dete hai,” says Neena. Both women say they have never felt the need to “bond”. It just happened, living in the same house. If there were skirmishes, they were about such teen dramas as Masaba wanting to straighten her hair.
When Masaba decided to launch her fashion line from home, Neena was involved from the word go, taking care of the nitty gritties and leaving Masaba to manage the creative side. That has brought them even closer. “We share much more now!” says Neena.
Masaba laughs. “That’s because she had a very funny way of dealing with things when I was growing up,” she says. “She used to tell me, ‘If you want to go with boys, go. I will tell you all about them’. And I was like, ‘No! I don’t want to hear all that. I’d rather not see any boys!’”
They recount a time when Neena went to the house of Masaba’s ex-boyfriend in her night suit and screamed at him for troubling her daughter and making her cry.
When she was leaving, she asked him, “What do you want to do in life?” When he said he hadn’t a clue, she said, “Oh Masaba, he has no ambition, that’s why he runs after girls. I got it! Never mind.” She then looked at his parents, whom she had just screamed at, and said, “I will see you for tea someday.”
Mother and daughter seem very similar but different at the same time. They say what they feel, and they don’t care who thinks what about it. That could be why, when asked to describe each other, they both say, “honest” first.
But then Neena adds, “Masaba can also laugh at herself, is ambitious but won’t kill anyone for it. She is also really hardworking but lazy at the same time – she can stay awake all night and work on a show, but won’t get up to get a glass of water.”
Masaba laughs sheepishly. “My mom is really naïve – she thinks that because she is honest, other people will be honest too. That’s not the way it works,” she says. “But it’s better being naïve than a cunning fox! And she has stuck to her guns. I love that about her.”
Life as they know it today
Today, their life, they say, is as good as it gets. Neena is best known for writing one of India’s most progressive TV shows, Saans (about the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress). She also played a dominant role in the parallel cinema movement of the Eighties with roles in Gandhi (1982), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) Mandi (1983) and Utsav (1984).
In the Nineties, she appeared in the infamous Khalnayak song Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai. She now manages the finances of the Masaba brand, she also recently acted in Anupam Kher’s play Mera Matlab Woh Nahi Tha, which is now set for a two-month US tour.
“Well, Masaba is getting married soon, so she is busy. So now I can concentrate on my work,” says Neena. Masaba, who recently got engaged to film producer Madhu Mantena, is busy creating a business plan for her brand. “I am doing collaborations and just figuring out the way ahead. It’s taking time. I just want to do clothes that people can wear.”
Masaba can sit back and do that because she is easily India’s most recognisable young designer. She has made a mark with her quirky prints (the cow, the palm and the camera) and has been credited for making the sari hip again.
Her clients include Sonam Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor Khan amongst many others. Her good friends, swimwear designers Shivan and Narresh, say Masaba’s biggest strength lies in her ability to understand her young customers.
“This is reflected in her ability to make them relate to her through the prints she has developed, apart from her own sense of style, which is fierce, bold and extremely individualistic,” they say over email. “We share a strong friendship with Masaba. She doesn’t let external thoughts and views cloud her relationships and that, in our industry, goes a long way.”
Even where work is concerned, Masaba and Neena turn to each other for approval and inspiration. “I think mom is such an underrated actress. I don’t think she utilised her talent or went out and got enough work. I watched Saans and I remember going to school and telling my teachers what would happen in the next episode,” says Masaba.
Today when Masaba needs to design a new collection, it’s her mother’s opinion she seeks. “It’s my mother who was my inspiration. Her love for saris made me reinvent the sari with my prints,” she says.
“When I put together a theme and plan prints, I ask her what she thinks. As a designer, you can’t judge if you are moving forward or not. It’s all about being progressive. When you are being copied as much as I am, you need to be three collections ahead.”
It’s this progressive streak that could be the defining characteristic of both mother and daughter. But as Neena says, “We are not ahead of our time because we are trying to be that way. We just are. It’s always been there. We don’t think ‘let’s do something new’. It just happens. And we will always be ahead of the times.”
Photos by Satish Bate
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From HT Brunch, May 10
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