The Multiverse of Middle-Age Chemistry and How Neena Gupta Created it

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The Multiverse of Middle-Age Chemistry and How Neena Gupta Created it

Illustration: Arati Gujar

You know what’s better than a trailblazer? A trailblazer that doesn’t behave or act like one. Neena Gupta has always been a trailblazer, but you wouldn’t actively notice it because she does it with that humble and genial smile. If you think about it, she has done more ‘trailblazer-y’ things than your average ‘all talk no walk’ celeb. I imagine, if someone were to bring this recurring theme to her notice, she’d probably shrug her shoulders and not make a big deal out of it.

Refreshingly lacking in Bollywood tact, I remember being absolutely gobsmacked, when in an interview, she openly spoke about how her industry friends would forget to offer her roles she’d be perfect in. Perhaps it was disappointments such as these, that led her to get on to Instagram and type this message a few years ago – ‘I live in Mumbai and working as a good actor looking for good parts to play.’ But it’s not just the Gupta in real life, but also the Gupta in reel life who has revolutionised modern acting by introducing the idea of ‘chemistry’ to middle-aged lives.

Neena Gupta has always been a trailblazer, but you wouldn’t actively notice it because she does it with that humble and genial smile.

A couple of years after the post, in Badhaai Ho, Neena Gupta won our hearts as the 50-something pregnant wife and redefined middle-aged romance in Bollywood. In Amazon Prime’s Panchayat, like in Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar, Gupta shares a unique chemistry with her co-star Raghubir Yadav. In conservative small-town India, a pregnancy at that age can be scandalous! ‘I’m so jealous,’ giggles a friend in Badhaai Ho when the news of her pregnancy breaks out. It’s the kind of suburban, small-town lives we grow up with. Our ideas of love, of romance restricted by the functional value of age. Ideas that Badhaai Ho confronts. But none of which could have been possible without the wrenching, almost too good to be true chemistry between Gupta and Rao.

It’s not just the Gupta in real life, but also the Gupta in reel life who has revolutionised modern acting.

Their relationship is tender, romantic but not in a ‘Bollywoodish’ way and one filled with mutual respect and foremost, friendship. It’s something that Bollywood and our industry has coached us to seek in younger people. Actors and actresses with flawless bodies who inspire lust to precede any vague notion of love they are trying to communicate. In Badhaai Ho, the fact that the protagonist is pregnant, hence sexually active, is a matter of great embarrassment for the couple. Which is why the romance in the film is hesitant, almost ashamed about its existence. In Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar, Gupta occupies the second berth, but not without retaining a dignified foothold in the relationship. In Panchayat, the two quarrel, bicker and yet have an unsaid respect for each other’s place. Gupta is more reckless and stubborn of the two but even in their banter, there is something disarming that tells us these two enjoy every moment of being around each other.

Her work ushers in an era of middle-age romance that we had not known before.

Recently, my friend threw a party for her parents’ 50th anniversary. A couple of drinks down, her dad took the mic, bent on one knee with the support of a chair, and serenaded his shocked wife with a couple of old Hindi songs. He then went on to put his arm around her and give a never-ending, affectionate kiss on the cheek. He had his arm around her often during the party and they giggled like newlyweds, as old friends teased them loudly. My friend wasn’t amused and ranted – ‘Eww…added to my list of things I’ll have to talk to my therapist about.’

Admittedly, I felt a little embarrassed as well. We simply have been told that love and its language ceases to exist as a script beyond a certain age. Do we really stop loving, or do we simply stop expressing? In retrospect, I feel happy for the couple, hopeful that I too have the same kind of affection in my life when I reach their age.

It’s her multiverse I feel, and we are just living in it.

In Panchayat the language of love isn’t gooey tokens of promises kept or debts paid. It is in the skirmishes that do not last, the control that each lets the other have, the mistakes that both make and collectively moan over. They make for a solid team, and often fight for each other’s ideas to be heard. Panchayat isn’t exactly woke, nor tries to be, but even in the hands of this lovable middle-aged couple, the show embraces a progressive form of love – where you can say what you like and still return to be friends, companions, lovers and family.

If you follow Gupta on social media, you’ll see her, often in shorts talking about life and saying wise things. We are not used to women in their 50s rocking such a hip wardrobe. Neena Gupta does this from such an unassuming, ‘what’s the big deal’ space, that I invariably look at her as a role model. Her work onscreen, her ability to work alongside other middle-aged actors and usher in an era of middle-age romance that we had not known before, is even more inspiring. It’s her multiverse I feel, and we are just living in it. Give us a middle-aged love triangle Ms. Gupta. If anyone can, you can.

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