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.
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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