Masaba and Neena Gupta on how their semi-fictional Netflix series, ‘Masaba Masaba’, saw them controlling their narrative and working with an all-women team
At the crack of dawn, a distraught Masaba Gupta, dressed in a bright scarlet gown, walks down an empty Mumbai street to her mother’s home. She has just announced her separation with her husband on Instagram after a short-lived marriage. This opening shot of her semi-autobiographical series, Masaba Masaba, aptly sums up her relationship with her mother, Neena Gupta, who raised her single-handedly. When life throws her a curveball, the 31-year-old fashion designer and entrepreneur runs to her mother for comfort.
Growing up, she was at the centre of media attention for being Neena and West Indian cricketer Viv Richards’ child out of wedlock. She has been vocal about body image issues on social media, the discrimination she faced because of her skin colour and the scars it has left behind. In 2018, her divorce from producer Madhu Mantena once again brought her personal life under the spotlight. While her life seems to be far from the ordinary, Masaba insists that behind the high-walls and controversies, they are regular people, experiencing the same heartbreaks as us all. “Celebrities are made out to be larger-than-life figures, untouchable and intimidating and you can’t get a sense of what their lives would be like. But we are all normal human beings,” she says. The intent of making the show was to demonstrate how ordinary their lives are.
Setting the story straight
She goes on to observe, “You can’t control the narrative when you are somewhat of a public figure.” However, this project enabled her to finally tell her story the way she wanted to and “come clean about her life”. Even though the show has elements of fiction, it captures several milestones, anecdotal information, and character traits. “The part where I’m being sold my own prints, someone thinking I’m a country in Africa, mum posting on Instagram that she is looking for work and being asked to design clothes for a dog on a film set… It has all happened to us,” laughs Masaba.
To make a series like this and reveal aspects of one’s life requires vulnerability, adds Neena, who was initially confused about the show’s intentions when her daughter approached her. “It sounded like a great idea, but I didn’t know what they wanted to do, was this a documentary on her life?” recalls the 61-year-old actor. But her primary concern was whether Masaba would manage to act, without any formal training. “It’s like my kid has just given an exam,” she grins.
The desi Kardashians?
This doting mother-daughter relationship is at the centre of the series. In the pilot episode, when a tabloid prints blind news of Masaba’s separation, Neena jumps into action to mollify her daughter. Would it be safe to say we have our own Indian Kardashians with the show? “Not at all,” says Masaba. “The Kardashians had a basic formula of putting a camera on their lives and following them day and night. Ours is a heavily scripted show and is a new genre.” She considers it to be closer to Curb Your Enthusiasm and Master of None. “I hope it wouldn’t be tied to something as common as Keeping up with the Kardashians — which I like — but our show is far deeper,” she says.
Alongside Masaba’s struggles, the show chronicles the challenges faced by older women to find prominent roles in Hindi cinema, as Neena struggles to be cast as a lead actor. In real life, her role in Badhaai Ho renewed her otherwise flailing career. “I now get roles that are unbelievable. During the lockdown, I got three amazing roles. It is a golden period for actors, directors, and writers now with OTT and young filmmakers,” says Neena.
Masaba too forayed into acting to cash in on this boom, which allowed her to play herself on-screen. “Playing yourself is both easy and hard,” she says. “There’s a fine line between being natural, which can be a bit dampening, and going over-the-top, which the audience can’t relate to.” She recalls, as a child, spending time on the sets of shows and films with her mother and observing how actors behave. She was inspired by her mother’s co-actor in the 1995 series, Gumraah, Irrfan Khan, who passed away this year. “I picked up from him that the greatness of an actor is how relaxed he or she is,” recalls Masaba.
Being surrounded by women – director Sonam Nair, writers Punya Arora, Nandini Gupta, and Anupama Ramachandran – during the making of this show, brought in a sense of comfort for Masaba. “When we were writing, I don’t think we had to turn around and tell a male producer that this actually happens in our lives,” she recalls. “Had a man directed it, it would have been a different kind of a series,” adds Neena, as they both agree that the sensitivity with which women can tell women’s stories is indispensable.
Masaba Masaba streams on Netflix from August 28.