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Deepti Naval on playing strong female characters and her new film Mother Teresa & Me

This news story was first published in The Telegraph Online by the same author.


Veteran actress Deepti Naval is gearing up for the release of her first feature film in seven years after Lion (2016) co-starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman made a lot of waves internationally. In Swiss-Indian filmmaker Kamal Musale’s feature film Mother Teresa & Me — releasing at cinemas on May 5 — Naval plays the elder version of the first little girl that Mother Teresa adopted back in the 1950s.


When asked what her reaction was when the film was offered to her, Naval said, “Initially, I didn’t think there was anything for me to do in the film. But when I read the whole script, I liked it so much that I decided to become a part of this film.”


Talking about Deepali, the character she plays in Mother Teresa & Me, the 71-year-old actress said, “Deepali is a nanny to Kavita, played by Banita Sandhu. She is a very gentle and tender person, full of compassion and inner strength. She stands by Kavita when she goes through her inner conflict. She has also worked with Mother Teresa, so she’s like a support system for Kavita. It’s a simple character.”


Naval made her debut with Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978). A couple of years later, she did her first film in a leading role — Ek Baar Phir (1980). Since then, the actress has played a range of strong characters in her career of 45 years.


Naval played strong female characters way before it became a ‘thing’ in mainstream cinema. “I got to play some internally strong characters. That change happened then only. That’s what Shabana (Azmi), Smita (Patil) and I were doing those days. We were playing these internally strong characters and bringing that change. Today, it is looked at as something new but we had done it back in the ’80s and ’90s.”


“My first lead role was that of a woman with quiet inner strength, going through conflict but coming out strong. Ek Baar Phir was quite a feminist film and created waves,” said Naval, who has parallel cinema gems such as Kamla (1984), Katha (1983) and Mirch Masala (1987) to her credit.


Naval ventured into OTT with Zoya Akhtar’s Amazon Prime Video series Made In Heaven and also acted in Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors on Disney+ Hotstar. Before that, she also made special appearances in films such as Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, B.A. Pass and NH10.


So, what excites her to face the camera at this stage in her life? “It depends on who’s making the film and what they are saying through that film. For example, Zoya’s film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. I’m always looking out for good directors to work with. A good director is very crucial,” she said.


No matter the length of the role or her character’s place in a film, Naval has always added a sense of dignity to her characters. “But I don’t think I’m conscious of it or aware of it when I am acting. I guess your own persona reflects through your way of interpreting a character. It’s not something that I design,” said Naval.


While playing strong characters on one hand, Naval also appeared in slice-of-life comedies such as Chashme Baddoor (1981), Angoor (1982) and Kissise Na Kehna (1983). Naval and the late actor Farooq Shaikh became quite an iconic on-screen pair in such movies.


When asked about her pairing with Farooq Shaikh, Naval said, “That pair was liked by people. They loved the two of us together on the screen. But out of 100 films, I have done only five-six with Farooq. I have worked with Pankaj Kapur, Naseeruddin Shah and so many other actors. I worked with Pankaj in Main Zinda Hoon (1988) and with Amol Palekar in Ankahee (1984).” Both are award-winning films.


Reflecting on the change that she sees in the film industry of today, Naval said, “Films have become technically superior. The subject matter is great in some films whereas in other films it is forgettable.”


Today’s actors are competent too, she feels. “The actors of the younger generations are very skilled at everything. I learnt as an actor on the job. But today actors come trained and super-confident. I gained my confidence by doing one film after another,” signed off Naval.

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