Actor Deepti Naval traces her life beyond the movies in her new memoir

She is the first American-Indian woman to join the Hindi film industry and made her debut in 1980 with Ek Baar Phir, for which she won her first Best Actor award, and has since appeared in over 90 films


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Thu 28 Jul 2022, 7:39 PM

Deepti Naval is a multi-faceted personality — an actor, director, writer, painter and photographer. She has won critical acclaim for her portrayal of “sensitive and close-to-life characters” that delved into the changing roles of women in India.

Though Naval, 70, was born in Amritsar, Punjab, Northern India, she immigrated to the US in 1971, where she was educated at the City University of New York and received her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at Hunter College in Manhattan. She is the first American-Indian woman to join the Hindi film industry and made her debut in 1980 with Ek Baar Phir, for which she won her first Best Actor award, and has since appeared in over 90 films, including Chashme Buddoor, Katha, Rang Birangi, Saath Saath, Mirch Masala, Kamla, Andhi Gali, Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!, and Firaaq.

wknd. spoke with Naval about A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir, which was published recently by Aleph Book Company.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Would you agree that A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir is cinematic in its scope?

Yes. The book, my writing style, is visual, as you may have seen in my collection of short stories, The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now. And that’s the way I write. My book is, indeed, cinematic.

Why was your city of birth, Amritsar, called Ambershire in your formative years?

No, it wasn’t called Ambershire. We called it in jest. I went to Sacred Heart Convent in Amritsar, where we were taught by European nuns, and they were very strict. We were not allowed to speak in Punjabi or Hindi in school. So, we would jabber away in Punjabi. But once the nuns would be passing by, we’d quickly convert our Ambershir to Ambershire. So, it was like a joke. It was like taking a dig at this Anglicised version of Amritsar, which in Punjabi is called Ambershir. So, we made up its name in English and called it Ambershire.

Why is Burma or modern-day Myanmar central to your childhood? How is it connected to your family?

Burma is where my mother, Himadri Naval, or Winnie, was born and brought up. She studied there. They were a Punjabi family, and she went to the Jesus and Mary convent over there. She studied with British nuns as well and came to India in 1940. And right after that, during World War II, when the Japanese invaded Burma, that’s when all the Indian families, around half a million, fled. They crossed over to India by walking over undivided Assam, which included Manipur and Nagaland. Some people got away by steamer, and those who had money flew to India from Rangoon. But since my mother’s family were not so affluent and there were far too many members in her family, they couldn’t afford to come by flight. They came by steamer, even though the vessels had started being torpedoed in the Bay of Bengal by the Japanese. There was no choice left for Indians but to start walking over the Assam hills and reach India during those traumatic times. Burma features in my book a lot. It is important because as a child my mother always told me stories about her growing up years. My other friends knew the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and they heard all these stories from their parents and grandparents. But I didn’t know anything about Ramayana or Mahabharata. My mythology was stories from Burma as told to me by my mother. That was the only mythology I knew. I was fed on those stories, and they were very dear to my heart. She would repeat those stories, and each time I would feel that I’m as if I’m listening to them for the first time. Burma is important because of my maternal grandmother (nani), who had insisted on carrying her gramophone with her from Mandalay to Amritsar. She said, ‘I can leave everything else behind, but I can’t leave my gramophone and my 100 records’. So, I wrote a short story about my nani, and how she carried that gramophone with her while walking from Burma to India. It’s an essay that I wrote at my university in New York, which is called Little Woman and the Gramophone. You can read the rest in my book.

Recount your trip to junta-ruled Myanmar in 2001 with your mother, Winnie.

Yeah, I had to take her back. All her life, she yearned to go back to Burma. And I had promised myself, I’m going to take her back one day. She must return and see all those places. And we visited in December 2000 and January 2001. Initially, we flew to Rangoon, which is now called Yangon, and later we went to Mandalay, which is where she spent her formative years. She took me to all those places, which I had been hearing about when I was a child. I’d heard a lot about khow suey and Mactilla. I went to her schools in Mandalay, where I saw everything. I saw the Mandalay Palace with the moat around it. I was fascinated. And my mother was behaving like a little girl. Her energy was amazing. Her eyes were glittering. There was this strange unseen sparkle in her eyes because she was back in the country of her birth. She was recalling everything. And she was touching base with everything, which meant so much to her and to me also, because I’d also grown up on those stories. Her trip to Burma was important, and, I think, it was precious for me as well, because I could see the joy in her, which she must have felt when she was a little girl.

Elaborate on how your parents are your heroes.

I think everything that I’ve learnt in life is because of my parents. I’m indebted to the Almighty for being blessed with talent. My father was a writer. Writing is in my blood. So, I think that comes strictly from my father (pitaji). I call him piti because as a child I could never pronounce pitaji properly. I liked his adventurous spirit. He was always experimenting with his life. He was never afraid to take chances with his life, and, I think, I got that trait that from him. I learnt that you didn’t always have to play safe. Life has so many facets. You can always try something new. You can do things differently, and you can do them in your own way. And you can. You’ve lived a certain way. Now, you can try another way. So, his spirit of adventure has rubbed on me. For instance, he left India for America and started his life at the age of 48, which was pretty late, because he had his wife, two grown-up daughters and a son. Initially, he went to the US alone, and later he called all of us within a year. I learnt a lot from my father, who is my hero. And then, of course, my mother, because of my sensibility as an artist. She was a wonderful painter. The way she looked at life, the way she observed life, the way she reacted to things, her compassion, her empathy for people, the way she assimilated, and most importantly, the way she reacted. I’m blessed with painting because of her. I’m ever so grateful to both my parents for writing and for painting that I got in my genes.

When did your family emigrate to the US and under what circumstances?

My father had an excellent career as a professor of English at Hindu College, Amritsar, Panjab University. But he had gone to America earlier in 1961 and lived a year there. He had seen life out there. So, he knew that there’s another life that’s tempting. Maybe if he could migrate with his family, then his children will have better opportunities.

The US is a land of dreams. He had gone to Syracuse University in New York on a work-study programme. He was among the 10 people selected from India. And he had come back inspired and, I guess, this must have been his dream. After 10 years of coming back from the US, he decided we should immigrate. I was a teenager and was excited even though we had a four-storeyed house in the heart of Amritsar. We could never probably think of having that kind of a house in America. We’d have to start from scratch. But then there was New York, which opened immense possibilities for me. I was excited because there would be art school and there would be Manhattan. There would be all those people walking up and down the avenues, watching films, theatres and attending art exhibitions. It was a brave new world out there. My father immigrated to give a better life to his family.

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