How Masaba Gupta, Neena Gupta, Neil Bhoopalam straddled their real and reel lives for Masaba Masaba
In conversation with Firstpost, fashion designer-turned-actor Masaba Gupta talks about taking her real life to celluloid, while mother Neena Gupta opens up about never getting her due in films, and finally being in a 'better space' after Badhaai Ho
"Oh bhaiyya, yeh toh mera print hai!"
"Areh madam, yeh imported maal hai...Masaba print hai!"
"Aur Masaba kaun hai?"
"Woh country hai Africa mein."
...is how the trailer of Netflix's Masaba Masaba concludes, leaving the titular character of the fashion designer wide-eyed with shock and amusement. Premiering on 28 August, the show marries fact and fiction to give an interesting spin to the lives of the mother-daughter duo, Masaba Gupta and Neena Gupta.
Masaba Masaba — directed by Sonam Nair (of Gippi and Kaafir) — also stars Neil Bhoopalam, Rytasha Rathore, Satyadeep Mishra and Samran Sahu in key roles, with cameos by Kiara Advani, Suchitra Pillai, Gajraj Rao, Farah Khan, Pooja Bedi, Shibani Dandekar and Tanuj Virwani.
In a Zoom conversation with Firstpost, Masaba Gupta, Neena Gupta and Neil Bhoopalam talk about straddling their real and reel lives on the sets of the show, the reason behind the series' unique name, and how Masaba Masaba celebrates the simple things in life.
Masaba, what triggered the idea for this show, and for how long has it been in the works?
The producer of the show, Ashvini Yardi, reached out to me maybe two or three years back, and she said I love your Instagram, I think you're super funny, and I think it's got a lot of content. Just you being you is a lot of content that's being created on its own. She said I have an idea — why don't we do a show that's based on you, where you play yourself, and your mum plays herself. And I said, oh! You're planning a reality show. So she said no, we are planning a scripted series, where you and your mum will play fictionalised versions of yourselves, and we will pick up instances from your real life, from your work life, from whatever it is, and make it a fun show. So I said that's a new format for India. It was nothing that I had seen before. I hadn't ever even imagined that my life would be so interesting that someone would want to make a series on it.
But, she just said that be your own candid, fun self, and I think we can pick up from there. So next thing you know, we were scripting and we were hoping — fingers crossed — that Netflix would pick it up, and they did. And here we are! I think it was great fun — I think we worked on the script for about two or three months. After the initial bit of writing, mom and me jumped in and said we should make it a bit more authentic in terms of the voice, the dialogue, the instances. So, if you see the lingo in the first two episodes, it's very basic; it's like how you and I will talk with our friends or family. So yeah, here we are!
Do you have butterflies in your stomach, considering it's your first project where you are acting?
I did not sleep the night before the trailer came out, that's for sure. I don't know if it was butterflies or if it was just excitement. I have to say I am more excited than nervous or scared, because I just made up my mind — and I think that this is something the lockdown has taught all of us — that you have to just be in that moment and enjoy the hell out of it. So I am going to enjoy all the praise coming my way; I am very very open to criticism. I take what I must from people who say something negative as well, but mostly it has been positive. So that's a good thing. And I really want to enjoy the process; I don't know when I will get the chance to do this again.
Neena, how much of your character in the show is the real you, and how much of it has been fictionalised?
Mine is mostly real; but for a scene which is a reality in my life — we have written it in a different way. It's not like if I am going for an audition for a film...there are many characters [introduced] in it. It's not what actually happened in real life, but that incident happened. So, it is quite real; Masaba's character is more fictionalised, but mine is almost real. Like what you saw ke main subzi khareedne jaa rahi hoon, and I'm saying [bargaining hard] — I don't do that [laughs]. But this is a typical Delhi mentality, you know. So there are some things which are added, but they are not very important. It's there to just make a character look more real.
And when it comes to playing yourself, this is the first time you're doing a project like this, if I am not mistaken?
Yes, it's the first time I am playing myself.
How was it playing yourself? How did you understand when you had to step out of your real skin and add some elements to your fictional self?
I never did any of this. What I did was what I do when I go for any other role. For me, acting is meaning your line and listening to the other actor — what he/she is saying. I was a little worried ke main real-self mein kuchh zyada na kar du, kam na kar du, artificial na kar du. But once I was on the set, I was in my costume, I had my lines which I had rehearsed, then it was like playing any other character. I was meaning my lines and I was behaving like that particular character. There were certain scenes which are not part of my life and I do not behave like that, so I did them like I do any other part. That was not very difficult actually.
Neil, out of the three of you here right now, you are the only one who does not play yourself in the show. What about your character Dhairya Rana and the show piqued your interest, and made you say yes to the project?
Precisely how you opened the introduction to this conversation — that you have not seen something like this on Indian television before. I always want to be part of new-age cinema, new-age camerawork and storytelling. Aur yaha pe it is a fact that a story like Masaba Masaba could not have come out five years or 10 years ago; the timing for it is perfect right now. I got an opportunity to be a part of this story, and that was huge enough — I was like wow! And I have a fairly integral part called Dhairya. I am like wow — investor, who is integral to the foundation and all of that jazz. I love it.
I love comedy, I love humour, and I love people who are funny...people who don't take themselves seriously. Yaha pe not only are the performers like that, even our director Sonam Nair is very similar to how we are right now. She has a quirky nazariya on humour. Basically, I am just tagging along for the success of that [laughs].
And is Dhairya based on someone Masaba and Neena met in real life, or was it completely fictional?
Neil Bhoopalam: Masaba Gupta, do you want to come in on that?
Masaba Gupta: You know, Neil's character Dhairya is very interesting, because it's such a big mix of at least 10 people I know and have dealt with. He is somebody who is a little bit more caricature-ish; somebody who is not sure of themselves but is always trying to be confident, or is trying to overcompensate for that under-confidence by being a bit of a jerk. But there's also this side of him, which is super soft. So there are these mix of people, because I have observed, ever since I was 23 actually, the pros and cons of a corporate set-up being a creative individual. And I think this is something that a lot of creative houses, creative people, or people in general don't know about fashion, because they think ki, achcha designer hai, aur woh aati hogi office mein, aur bolti hogi aaj main isse inspired hoon, isse inspired hoon. They don't know that there's a whole machinery behind it, which is driving a lot of the decisions that you make.
So that's the character that Neil plays — somebody who I have to deal with, but I don't really agree with on a lot of things. But at the same time I am like he is kind of cute. There are all of these things — it's a multifaceted character with lots of layers, which will slowly unfold. So that's who Dhairya is, I guess.
When it comes to the bit you mention about caricaturing people you've met in real life — it's quite evident from the way Kiara Advani is presented for the small bit that she is there in the first two episodes — it does seem like an exaggeration of the way actors or stars behave; even the way Farah Khan appears in the show for that matter. It seems like a very funny spin on how people take themselves too seriously. How did you decide on which characters you want to exaggerate or fictionalise, and which ones you want to keep real and mostly as themselves?
I think from the very beginning it was clear that mom and I will be a mix — there'll be enough reality and enough fiction for us. The fictional part only comes in when there is one event that is loosely inspired by something that may have happened to us, and then to just drive the story forward and make it look better on camera, we've added a bit of a spin to it, which is fiction.
Having said that, with respect to the cameos, I was very clear that we want people to play themselves. Now, whether they want to play themselves as serious as they are in real life, or as goofy as they are, or whether they want to really exaggerate themselves and take a dig at themselves — which is why I loved that Kiara said yes to this. Not a lot of actresses take a dig at themselves, you know. I wanted Kiara to be Kiara; I mean, she's not playing a character inspired by three actresses — she's exactly Kiara Advani, but maybe in a different scenario. Gajraj Rao is Gajraj Rao in all his elements, and you know Farah Khan to actually be a really funny person in real life, who is always making fun of herself and is always up to something. So that was that.
I was very clear that I don't want it to become, 'Oh! You know is this person that?', or 'She's talking like her'. No. The cameos are all exactly who they are in real life, as well as a little bit of who they are in their reel lives.
The brief was that for the other characters — like Dhairya, or Rytasha (Rathore), who's playing my best friend...she's a mix of Pooja Dhingra, and some things my other friends from college would have said, some personality traits that they have — it's like five-six people together, just like Dhairya's character. But the cameos are all 100 percent themselves.
Neena, some things that really come through in the show, especially from your story are a) the constant public attention on the personal lives and marriages of celebrities, and b) your visible disappointment with not being able to find good work. This brought to my mind an Instagram post that you put up a couple of years ago where you wrote that you are open to good roles. How easy or difficult has it become over the years to deal with and talk about this constant public scrutiny on your life? How did you decide on portraying this aspect of your life on screen?
I am actually very used to all this. I have been there [Hindi film industry] for a long time, and I never got my due and I never got good roles, so I went to TV. At that time, TV was different, and I got to play various roles on television. So now, it does not matter to me. But Badhaai Ho definitely changed my life; it changed everything. If it hadn't happened then things would have moved a little, but not like this.
In the series also I am going for auditions for Badhaai Ho, and things like that. [You see] my frustrations, like when Farah Khan does not give me one role, and then I pretend to my friends that I've got it, so things like that.
Right now I am in a better space in my life, vis-a-vis work and my personal life. In this series, it's the same — how I am, what I went through, what I didn't get, what I got, how I lived my life. Zyada nahi hai, because this series is about Masaba, par thoda thoda dikha diya hai, thoda jhalak dikha diya hai.
See, internationally there might be some people who won't know who Masaba is and who I am, okay. This is on Netflix and it goes to 190 countries. We also thought about it, that there would be people who won't know Masaba as a designer, or me as an actor, so for them also it is a fully-rounded character...all characters actually are that way. I am very happy about the writing of this show.
Neil, since you've worked in the digital space before, with Four More Shots Please getting quite a bit of success, what about OTT platforms excites you the most?
It really is the golden age to be in the entertainment industry. It's a bit of supply and demand, in terms of the fact that the demand is there, and people consume stories on a daily basis. Like when my child needs to go to bed, I have to read at least five books to him, so that's one hour of work. And similarly, after your long day at work, you want to sit down and watch a series or a movie, or something jaha pe do ghante ke liye time pass ho sakti hai, and you can either learn something or just be inspired. So OTT and the digital move that came about thanks to the invention of the smartphone are things that are not in our control as performers. The only thing we can control is how we work together as a unit, and to try and put something up. So it is definitely a big blessing, and with this, the content will keep improving. The moment there are more players, to stand out you need to try and be better than your previous project. Dheere dheere it'll only get stronger.
Masaba, why has your name been repeated twice in the title of your show and called Masaba Masaba?
Neil Bhoopalam: And not three time [laughs].
Masaba Gupta [laughs]: Well, when we were planning it, we were thinking about what we should call it. And it was actually Ashvini's idea, when she said that it'll be the real you and the reel you — because it is a fictionalised version of me. So that's why Masaba Masaba. But then, there's also mini Masaba who is in the series, and she pops up in very interesting moments. I think what we've tried to do is see how a child would react to things happening in this day and age around her. So there's the mini me, and the big me, and that's why [it's called] Masaba Masaba as well. So there are two or three reasons for that.
Neil Bhoopalam: I just want to jump in on that point. Every time Dhairya had a line, and I said to our director Sonam — 'You know what, I think I can commit to delivering it'. So every time, I'd be like, 'Masaba! Masaba? Yeh time pe kyun nahi ho raha hai?', or 'Where is your lead model, Masaba?' [laughs].
I think she let me do it twice, after that she said bas karo, bas. I thought it'd be really funny to start a sentence with 'Masaba', and then end with it too.
Masaba Gupta [laughs]: Yeah, you're so right!
Neil Bhoopalam: 'This can't happen, Masaba! Masaba?' It was good fun [laughs].
Masaba Gupta: Yeah!
I did notice that in the scene where you called Masaba and gave her a good thrashing for not taking your calls...
Neil Bhoopalam: I just wanted to say 'Masaba, Masaba' every time I had to say just 'Masaba' [laughs].
What is that one thing that stood out for each one of you, and what did you take back from this show once you were done shooting for it?
Masaba Gupta: So the one thing that I took away from this is perhaps the biggest cliché and the biggest learning in this entire time, and even back then — that you really really have to immerse yourself and enjoy what you're doing, because that time will really never come back. If you're lucky, you'll get to experience it twice. I had such a good time because I was just being myself, and I wasn't thinking so much about what I was eating or dieting. Everyone was like oh my god, you're going to be on screen, so you better diet and everything, but I just had a blast, and I think that's my take away from anything in life. Whatever you're doing, have a blast at it.
I want to ask a small question before Neena and Neil answer the previous question. In the scene where Neena takes the phone from you and scolds Dhairya for calling you so late at night, how much of that is the real Neena Gupta?
Neena Gupta: Umm, I...
[Overlaps with Neena] Masaba Gupta: You know she does get very irritated...achcha chalo chalo, aap bol do Mumma...
Neena Gupta: Nahi nahi, tum batao. Better hai tum batao. Nahi, tumne batana zyada real lagega.
Masaba Gupta: She does get very irritated when I am taking unnecessary stress at a given point, when she will be like ab ho gaya na, you've worked all day, forget it. Sometimes I look at a message and get very stressed at 11 o'clock in the night, and then I can't sleep. So I think she's like that. I don't think she's ever picked up the phone and scolded somebody. But she has done that to one of my first boyfriends — by the way, she didn't pick up the phone, she reached his house with me! She sat there and thrashed not just him, but his parents also. I'll never forget. He was sitting on this swing and he was swinging, and she said, 'Stop swinging!' And his parents are looking at her [laughs].
So she's done that. She was like if you don't want to date my daughter, don't be this jerk, just say you don't want to date her, that's it, but tell her that. So, you know, she has that element — woh ayega kabhi.
Neena Gupta: Yeah, I won't take the phone [when she is talking to someone], especially when it's someone with whom she is working. But this incident that she is talking about...it became too much. I was in my night-suit, waiting for her. I didn't know where the car went. Then she called me, and I was calling all her friends. It was like any mother's tension; all mothers go through that. And then it was too much, so I did this, because I said if she is shy to confront and she is into some problem, then I have to help her. We are there to help them, they are there to help us, you know...it is always give and take.
And to answer your question on what I took away from the show — I realised again that you can give a very big message, and you can make a very entertaining, meaningful series or film or whatever, in a very simple way. You do not have to do big things. It is always the simple things that touch you the most. So this series too has been made very simply. Everything is very simple and basic. And I think that is why people might identify themselves or relate to this. This is what I felt.
Neil Bhoopalam: I quite enjoyed the jugalbandi that Masaba and Sonam (Nair) would have on set. And what I took away from it was that to be a little more comfortable with yourself as a person, and as a performer on each working day. You don't need to try too hard, you don't need to waste your energy on anything else but being comfortable, breathing and enjoying the space that you're in, and the opportunity that you're getting.
Neena Gupta: Mujhe laga Neil kahega ke maine yeh lesson seekha hai ke itni saari ladkiyon ke beech mein kabhi kaam nahi karna [laughs].
Neil Bhoopalam [laughs]: Thoda uncomfortable position hai!
All images courtesy Netflix
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