June 22, 2021
Actor Neena Gupta was 34 when she danced to “Choli Ke Peeche,” one of the catchiest songs from Khal Nayak (1993). Paired with Madhuri Dixit in the song and dressed in a Rajasthani-style red padded choli and glittery ghagra, Gupta heaved her chest and sighed suggestively in a dauntless display of sexuality. If, as the lead heroine in the film, Dixit was more coquettish in articulating her desires, then Gupta, playing an older courtesan, was blunt. The song sparked outrage for being “vulgar,” but it was impossible to forget Gupta’s role in the song. She would go on to extend her magnetic presence across movies, plays, and television, which included writing, directing, and starring in Saans (1999), a hugely popular television show on infidelity that focused on the inner lives of women over 35. Saans ran for 179 episodes and was considered ahead of its time.
Yet, the next time Indian audiences truly noticed the actor’s prowess was when she was 59. In Badhaai Ho (2018), Gupta’s comeback lead role in a Hindi film, she played Priyamvada, a 50-something mother caught in the throes of an accidental pregnancy. In both films, almost 30 years apart, Gupta plays an iteration of the woman Indian society tries to punish: a woman who owns her desires, irrespective of her age or marital status.
Throughout Gupta’s four-decade-long — and going — Bollywood career, society has vilified her choices off-screen, and her career has felt the impact. Her relationship with a West Indies cricketer, a pregnancy without marriage, and raising a child as a single mother made her the subject of unrelenting tabloid gossip, misogyny, racism, and judgment. Most forgot that she was a gifted actor who had worked with auteurs Kundan Shah and Shyam Benegal; held her own opposite heavyweights Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Deepti Naval, Ben Kingsley, and Smita Patil; been part of seminal films like Gandhi (1982), Mandi (1983), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1992), Woh Chokri (1994); charted a career in television and directed Bazar Sitaram (1993), a National Award-winning documentary. This scrutiny didn’t let up, even when she married in her 50s. Looking back, Neena Gupta should have been a superstar, but a male-run entertainment industry kept her at the fringes for decades, undermining her talent, denying her a shot at stardom.