Mahi Gupta - Inside The Life Of India's Most Secretive Celebrity
Not much is known about the private life of Mahi Gupta, so I don’t know what to expect when I arrive at her villa in Mumbai on a bright Sunday afternoon. It is painted white, has a French balcony and is framed by a flourishing garden that teems with wildlife. Outside the tall gates, her security guards stand as rigid as poles- a startling reminder that Gupta is one of the biggest- and the most threatened- celebrities in the country.
Gupta herself is dressed in a yellow summer dress speckled with white dots, showing off her slender legs. She ushers me through the front door into the tastefully decorated living room, where I am allowed to admire the paintings adorning her walls. One of them is a girl bending over backwards in a tutu; the other a man in the nude, his hand delicately covering his genitals while cornelia flowers bloom beneath him. What is even more bizarre, is how well these works blend in.
“My choice in art is quite eccentric,” she laughs, waving at my quizzical look. “I think it’s one of the most absurd things you’d find in an Indian woman’s house. But then again, isn’t it my eccentricity that has made me a beloved?”
The answer to that rhetorical question is yes. Gupta has made a name for herself by playing neurotic, oppressed characters on the silver screen. In early projects like Meri Aasmaan (My Sky), she played a depressed schoolgirl who self harms; in Titli (Butterfly), she is a downtrodden Dalit. But her most recent role as a divorced teacher in Aurat (Woman) garnered her two National Awards and rumors of a possible Oscar nomination (two weeks ago, Aurat was announced as India’s submission for the prestigious Academy Awards).
Does she expect to be nominated? “It would be nice,” she laughs gingerly, “but I might be called arrogant for saying I think I deserve my spot on that stage. It’s tough competition, but I would like to imagine I am worthy of such chutzpah.”
Gupta has been in the film business for seven years, yet not much is known about her family, childhood or relationships. She has reveled in secrecy for years, thrived even under media scrutiny. “My biggest strength,” she says, “is my discernment. I think this stems from being a woman, because we are subjected to and held to much higher standards than men are, which makes us very self-aware.”
Does she feel smothered by fame? She takes a minute to answer, scrunching her nose in thought. “It’s a difficult question to answer. It has its ups and downs. I’m not going to pretend getting bombarded by paparazzi every time I step out onto the street is easy. But it is what it is.” She occupies a seat on a red couch, legs propped up beneath her. The decor in her house follows a bright color palette, with reds and yellows and greens and whites splattered around in the form of furniture, vases, rugs and walls.
Two days before this interview, Gupta and I had communicated over the phone, trying to decide what we would have for dinner. She wanted something vegan; I, a devout non-vegetarian, had found it hard to agree.
“Don’t worry about it,” she laughs when I remind her of our conversation, “I bought butter chicken.”
Is her boyfriend also a vegan? “Trick question!” she exclaims, giggling in a voice that is very different from the monotonous, laconic one she uses in her movies. When I point this out, she simply smiles, and excuses herself to get us coffees.
The backdoor in her kitchen leads to a shimmering pool, one that looks inviting under the morning sun. There are chairs littered around it, and beach umbrellas lay unopened on the ground. But the one feature that makes the pool so different are its black tiles- a stark contrast to its surroundings.
“Creepy, isn’t it?” she says, leading me out. “It helps me hide the bodies.” Her dry voice- the one that earned her a position in Bollywood’s elite- is back. Perfect for the darkest of jokes.
Gupta’s razor sharp senses have served her well. She is notoriously known for modifying scenes to her liking- demanding different lines, making suggestions and generally straying from convention.
“I have learnt that you can derive a lot of success by being persistent,” she says, setting out some plates on a rectangular dining table, one that faces a floor-to-ceiling window. “If I had to play all the roles I’ve gotten so far exactly the way they had been written for me, I would not be where I am.”
Her close friend and mentor, Rupi Krishna, agrees. “I have worked with Mahi for a decade,” she writes in an e-mail, “and it is upon my encouragement that she decided to be more vocal about her desires. The film industry is ruthless, and the ones who advocate for change find themselves in shackles; she has proved herself to be a warrior when confronted with such adversities. Her resilience is undeniable and is what attracted me towards working with her in the first place.”
The word ‘shackles’ intrigues me- what exactly are we referring to here? Gupta gives me a mysterious smile. “You’ve been working for Vogue a long time- surely you must know something about what happens behind the scenes on a set, whether it be for fashion or a movie?”
I can’t say I know for certain what Gupta is referring to, but I am aware of the trials and tribulations, the various hoops that newcomers need to jump through.
A lunch with Mahi Gupta is not something most people can brag of having- only people belonging to the star’s innermost circle are granted that opportunity. “Lunch and dinner are when I am at my most peaceful,” she explains, “and I do not like when strangers intrude. But today you’re my friend. I would like the readers to know that I am a private person, not a shady one.”
Two months ago, Gupta joined instagram, and has already managed to garner more than six million followers. “It’s overwhelming,” she says, graciously pouring me some wine, “but knowing so many people want to connect with me is exhilarating too. I don’t take that influence for granted.”
And her influence is no joke. When Gupta cut her hair, #Mahi was the number one trending topic on India twitter. Photos snapped outside the beauty salon she had visited went viral, and social media was inundated with her fans sharing posts of them flaunting similar hairstyles.
It is unequivocally true that Gupta is an influencer, whether she tries to be one or not. Her head-in-the-clouds, feet-on-the-ground attitude has worked to her advantage. But does she consider herself to be a role model?
“It’s an interesting debate,” she says, a little bashfully. “When you’re in the position I am, you become a role model whether you choose to or not. Everything I do is mimicked and broadcast across the country. Every headpiece and belt strap is picked apart. Yesterday my assistant was at the grocery store and she said she saw a little girl wearing a shirt with my face on it. So really, I only have two options, and that is to either embrace the idea of being a role model, or discard it. Maybe I have a third option- to flee from this life and live like a saint in a little forest. I don’t intend to do that right now, and I haven’t fully embraced this”- she gestures at herself- ”yet, so… I suppose I don’t really have an answer.”
When Gupta and I are done with our lunch (an assortment of bread and curry bought from a favourite haunt of hers), we clear the table and she leads me into the verandah, where she sits in a cocoon-shaped swing chair. Seeing her like this, a little fragile, is what really humanizes a stranger’s view of her. But to millions around the country, she is distant, goddess-like, and untouchable, much like an Indian Beyonce.
When I relay this to her, she gives me a sardonic smile. “I feel like you have to be a little careful, calling someone untouchable. I mean, I know what you’re trying to say, but does everyone else? That word has different meanings to different people.”
In an industry dominated by fair-skinned actors, Gupta is something of a revolutionary- going by convention, her dark complexion should have hampered her. But she has broken every barrier and shot to fame astronomically- an unheard success.
“I am proud of how I look,” she says, straightening up, “and I refuse to let anyone take that away from me.” The early days of her career, she explains, were filled with much agony over producers, directors and stylists asking her to consider using fairness creams. “Those days, my integrity used to be dismissed as female pettiness. Today, it is what people celebrate about me. I want to do more- be more for girls and boys who fear their skin is dirty when in reality, it is all an illusion that we have been manipulated into believing.”
It is amusing to see Gupta vehemently fight for representation, and yet deny being called a positive influence. She remains an interesting juxtaposition of surrealism and logic. Maybe this is what captivated the masses- cracks of real character in an otherwise glamorous image.
But how was this cultivated? How was Gupta’s childhood like, growing up?
“Rough,” she admits. “We didn’t have much money. My father was abusive, but we rarely saw that side of him. Partly because he was out drinking most times, and mostly because our mother shielded us from his violent temperament. Without her, it would have been unsurvivable. She raised and nurtured us.”
It is known that Gupta has a brother, but little to no information exists about his name, age or residence. “He prefers his privacy,” she says, “and I have no intentions of going against his wishes. My line of work requires me to be in the public eye. It is a choice I made. But I don’t need to drag my loved ones into it too.”
Gupta was thirteen when she discovered a flair for acting. By participating in school plays, she enhanced that talent, landing forgettable roles in advertisements and as a movie extra. There was a particular case, she recounts, where she was asked to star in a Fair And Lovely commercial.
“It paid well,” she says with a wry smile. “And as degrading as the whole concept was, it was appealing to me. Because I really needed the money. And I would have done it, if my mother hadn’t told me to step away. She asked me if I really hated my skin, if I was willing to throw my dignity away for the sake of quick cash. She said we had lived most of our lives in poverty- we knew how to get through it, and I could get through that period in my life. At that time, I really despised her advice even though I followed it. I did land another role as a nurse which helped me earn some money. But looking back, it is the best decision I have ever made. Still, I wonder, if I hadn’t gotten the second role at the right moment, would I have sacrificed my self-esteem and gone with the first?”
Where is Gupta’s father now? She pinches the bridge of her nose and closes her eyes, trying to regulate her breathing. “He died when I was ten. Stumbled onto a busy road and got hit by a bus. There was a bottle in his hand. Empty.”
She doesn’t think about him anymore. But memories of him still make her anxious. “The times he had with us weren’t pleasant. Especially for my mother, who took the brunt of it. But we moved on. Because that’s what you do. You move on from things in your life. Nothing is ever constant. If you had told twenty year old me that she’d beat all her demons and become one of the leading actresses in the country, she would have cried. Because that was such an impossible dream, so treacherous to even believe in.”
Gupta’s life sounds like it could be a movie itself. She has been labeled ‘difficult to work with’ several times, mostly for demanding better treatment of her characters. “All the scripts I got portrayed the women I played as ‘crazy’, or ‘undesirable’. You can tell they were all written by men because of the rampant sexualization. If a woman wants to be sexual, there is something wrong with her. But no one raises a voice if the men around view her as erotic. I found that very demeaning.”
Her ability to breathe life into her characters so unflinchingly and breathtakingly is what has saved Gupta from losing every role she bagged. And she is determined to get better and better at her craft, to master every eye twitch or tremble. “The sky isn’t the limit,” she says. “Not anymore.”
When our time together comes to an end, Gupta escorts me out. After our heavy conversation, I am once again reminded of her status quo when she flicks a wrist at a bodyguard, asking him something quietly. Her house is armed with security cameras that capture our every move. For the past couple of years, an increasing number of stalkers have tried to make themselves welcome at her residence. In May, a man was found trying to climb over the gates. And two weeks ago, a rather tenacious woman was given a three month prison sentence after having repeatedly made attempts to break in at Gupta’s New Delhi residence.
“I hope you don’t think I’m a diva for all this security,” she laughs, folding her arms. “But we have an entire folder of people who would like to marry or kill me.”
Once again, making light of a dark reality seems to be Gupta’s forte. And as I leave in a taxi she generously arranged for me, out through the gates and onto the busy streets, I realize that I never felt the hours tick by. I too, had been enraptured by her charm. Despite not having heard her entire story, I feel like we are close friends. And at the end of the day, Mahi Gupta remains something of an enigma. But a little mystery never hurt anyone.