Actress, writer, director, her career encompasses the big screen and television. A degree in Sanskrit, a passion for things Indian and for speaking her mind; she has lived and loved on her own terms. Her daughter is the brightest among equals vying for space in the fashion scene. With her star on the ascendant, her talent undeniable, she can now boast of being the youngest Creative Director in India as she takes on the role at Satya Paul this month.
Designer Masaba Gupta shares insights about her mother, Neena Gupta, and her father Viv Richards.
Firstpost: Has your mother been a strong influence on you?
Masaba : Yes, in many ways. Though we are in very different fields, I have learnt a lot about what I do from her.
What has been your reading of her as a career person?
I have grown up seeing her being extremely honest to her work, she has never compromised about it. She has taught me to be honest with those who work for me and with me. And has always told me that this is the best way to be true to the talent the God has gifted you with.
You are a talented designer. Has she contributed actively in honing this skill in you?
When my mother was younger, she developed this unique way of dressing up. She would go around picking stuff from a bunch of stores, and then mix and match and change things around. She would add a patch on something, or a border... Whatever it was, she would never wear a garment the way it looked when she bought it.
I think watching her do this, living with it, became a part of my design aesthetic. It it only natural. I too use the kind of organic fabrics she prefers and cottons and silks. If she had worn a lot of synthetics and bling, maybe I would have also only used that in my work.
But she was never into fashion designing, formally?
Fashion was a big part of her life. It de-stressed her to design her own clothes, create cuts for her blouses. She did it secretly, in the privacy of her own home, for herself. She never wielded a sewing machine, though I am told my grandmother did. But she told me that she would buy fabric and get her bell b0ttoms and tops stitched at a tailor's, so they would be different from off the rack stuff.
All of that rubbed off on you? And you decided to become a designer?
No, I never wanted to be a designer. My passions were music, tennis and dance. I so wanted to join Shamak Davar's dance group after learning dance from him, but Mom said no way. So I decided to chase music instead.
You went to London to study classical music. Did you mother like the idea?
She did not say anything, she let me go. But I know she fretted a lot, worried about me every minute I was there.
Was London a good exoerience then?
Well, I had not done my research prooerly, the course turned out to be part time , and was about voice training. More vocal techniques than music. Mom had let me do my thing. I learned that consulting others is valuable, it can prevent such mistakes. Anyway, Mom was so stressed about me being alone in London that when I came back for the winter break, I decided not to go back.
But when you came back, what did Neena want you to do?
I decided to try my hand at acting. It was but natural... So she said learn before you start work. I decided to join Anupam Kher's school. And then everything happened.
Your mother convinced you to be a designer?
No...she believes in letting one find one's way, learning from one's mistakes. Her own life has been led that way, and she thinks if it has worked for her, I should also be allowed to make my choices. I wanted to be in the limelight, to take short cuts to get there. I think she might have worried over this, but she gave me rein.
But when we were going to Anupam Kher's school to register... SNDT which is next door had this big board saying admissions open. Mom pressed on me at that moment, said why not take a chance? I agreed, we took a turn into SNDT, and two days later I sent in my form just before entrance closed.
Did she play a role in shaping your career as a designer?
To cut a long story short, yes, and no. I hated SNDT, once in the course, I was stuck, could do nothing individual, only toe the line. In my second year, my collection was noticed by Anil Chopra and Wendell, my mentor, who suggested I apply for Lakme Fashion Week. My mother was not quite so sure. She said should you not get your degree, finish what you began, before taking a jump? You have tried so many things and are leaving them all unfinished. Her way is to methodically complete everything she undertakes.
She consulted Wendell, who said, Don't let her intern with anyone, she will lose the style she has. I think Mom, with her own individual sense of style, understood that. And I realised that now I had to prove myself. I worked really, really hard for Fashion Week. It made her glad to see me finally working hard.
How did your instant success at Fashion Week affect her?
She was of course very happy...orders started pouring in. Then she panicked.
For her, an Aza placing an order for my clothes was HUGE! She shopped there herself! And suddenly she realised that she was not prepared for this. And I was not either! It was a tough time for us.
But you ralllied?
She told me, you know nothing about pricing, you don't know the drill. She took things in hand.
We took each day as it came, Mom set about looking for cutters, for a work space. We suffered a lot, she spent sleepless nights worrying, working, ensuring we met the deadlines. We would have to send 30 outfits to one store. It sounded very grand, but we soon realised that the outfits were on consignment, and when they were returned, we had very little earned from the exercise except a lot of dead stock.
But Mom was a manager par excellence. Though she had no experience of the fashion world, she set up the unit for me, managed the workers, the financials.
In what ways are you alike and different?
We are both very vulnerable. We look tough on the outside, but are soft inside. Very emotional. We can both laugh at ourselves, though I am hot tempered unlike her. But like her, I keep a lot of stuff inside me.
While she was going through the trauma of being a single mother, and the troubled times before she married your step father... Did she share some of that with you?
Not really. Like I said, she keeps things inside. So there was never a let us sit down and talk, or I am emotionally troubled, so you must be good... business. However, I could see what was happening, it was in front of me... But I kept away from her problems. Perhaps because I did not know what to say. I think she also preferred it that way.
Did you ever talk to her about the media storm that occured soon after you were born, and all the gossip and conjecture? Did she talk to you about it?
Never. I Googled myself and read all about it, so I knew, but though we are close, we never spoke on these things.
What did Neena do to protect you? While in school, it must have been tough. Kids can be so cruel.
Luckily for me, Narsi Munjee where I studied was good. My circle of friends never asked questions, I was lucky, I know my childhood could have been rough. At home, I had so much from my mother that I was always loved and safe.
Even when it was admission time, I know that (actor) Satisk Kaushik offered to sign on behalf of the father, but luckily for me, none of that was necessary, as my bua (aunt) was one of the teachers, and admission was smooth. And my Dad came around that time too, so that helped.
Do you have good memories of your father?
I have deep respect and love for both my parents. They are both their own kind of people, successful and yet not running with the herd. Through the time when I was between 8 till I turned 14, I remember my holidays with my Father. He was very active in commentary then, travelling the world, and he would come to India quite often. I never really stayed with him, but Mom and I would go for holidays with him.
Are you close to your father?
Yes, we are alike in many ways. For one I have his short temper. And we are both very selfish people. Well, selfish is a strong word, but we do come first. We matter the most to ourselves. We have the same view about the world. I think I inherited this, though we also talk things out and I realise his view of life is close to mine.
For one, he always tells me, family is important; there is no such thing as a friend. If you have one true friend, it is a big thing! And Mom and Dad are both similar in their focus on what they do.
Is Dad your hero then?
I am lucky, I have a lovely man for a step father, he includes me in everything, is so caring. And my own father is a typical father. Free with advice that worrying fathers think they should give : don’t drink from a drink left on the table, be careful when partying... That sort of thing.
Actually, he is larger than life. I have never seen him play, watched videos and stuff and admire that here is a man who could strike fear into an entire team.. He is The Best. yet, knowing him, I know he is kind, communicative, and light hearted in a way only Caribbeans can be!
How do Mom and Dad influence you now in your career?
Dad helps with advice. He has had a big role to play in my success. And Mom is always there with support, real and emotional. I learnt from her not to do things that are not natural to me. In her career she stopped acting because television serials went in a direction that she saw herself not part of, she said I don't want to go there, better not to compromise.
The same way, when people tell me the real money is in bridal, why am I doing pret, I don't hear it. I know bridal is not my style, I don't want to go there. And Mom and Dad do discuss me, I know that, and sometimes her advice for me is guided by her conversations with Dad.
What is her advice about your new assignment?
She completely agrees that I am on the right track there. My parents were so proud when I got the assignment... There were many seniors in the run along with me; that I was chosen makes them believe I am alright!