Model, actress and producer Aarti Gupta is known for acting in films such as Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981), Purana Mandir (1984), Kaun Kitney Pani Mein (1987), and Jism Ka Rishta (1989), as well as for facilitating the filming of international film projects such as Code 46 (2003) and A Mighty Heart (2007). Along with director husband Kailash Surendranath, she has also produced numerous commercials, and helped build various brands with her creative styling talent.
Hailing from an armed forces background—her father was Major Gyan Gupta—she was just 15 when she was first selected for an ad for Sunsilk shampoo from a nationwide audition, she had to drape a sari and walk in high heels over slopes. She followed it up with the Stayfree sanitary towels campaign, which was considered a daring thing to do at the time because of the ‘stigma’ attached to feminine hygiene products in the public space. She was also the model for the Garden sari campaign, which she styled on her own, giving it an ethnic touch. She would also leave behind her trademark – bindis which she would paint on her forehead using eyeliner. Another sari campaign followed for Bombay Dyeing Sarees, in which the look was totally modern, yet unique. The carefree polka-dotted salwar kurta that she wore became a fashion statement and was sold everywhere in the country. Becoming one of India’s leading models in print and ad film campaigns as well as ramp shows, she featured in ads for Nescafe, Band Aid; Clearasil, Tata Tea, Yera Glassware, Halo shampoo, as well as the ad for Campa Cola. It was apparently she who discovered the young Salman Khan and recommended him to her then fiancé ad filmmaker Kailash Surendranath; Khan would face the camera for the first time as a model for the ad.
Born Aarti Gupta in Bombay, from modelling, she transitioned to the field of films, appearing in films such as Tajurba (1981), Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981), Naya Safar (182), Begunaah Qaidi (1982), Sugandh (1982), Aamne Saamne (1982), and Razia Sultan (1983).
Initially hesitant to join films, she refused several offers. However, in 1984, after she took a liking to a song from the film, she was convinced by horror genre experts Shyam and Tulsi Ramsay into signing on Purana Mandir. Unsurprisingly, through the shooting of Purana Mandir, certain well-wishers would come up to Aarti and warn her that she was doing a C-grade horror film, and that it was the worst decision she could have taken. Affected by these dire predictions, she and co-star Mohnish Behl, whose debut film it was, got depressed, wondering if they were actually throwing away their life and careers. As a result, she did not even call any of her South Bombay friends for the screening! The shooting itself took a hard toll on her. As a result of the lobaan and kerosene-infused smoke used generously for the special effects during filming, and shooting in an old haveli which was also musty, combined with the screaming that was part of the climax, she contracted tuberculosis of the lungs. She was laid up in bed when the film released, completely unaware that it was on its way to becoming one of the biggest films of the time!
She essayed a character named Suman R Singh in the film, which revolved around a rich young girl who learns about a demon and its terrible curse brought by her family for generations. She decides to go to her paternal village with her lover, and his friend, to find out the truth. The film was one of the biggest grossers of its time. Reviews dubbed it a game changer for the horror genre in the Hindi film industry as well as for Ramsay Brothers themselves, as it became the standard template for horror films for the larger part of the 1980s and early 1990s. Of the film, she would later say, “Purana Mandir is a film that will always be dearest to me. I’m amazed at how it has earned cult status as the most coveted horror film in India.”
A year later, she starred in another Ramsay horror – Saamri (1985) co-starring alongside Rajan Sippy and Puneet Issar. She played a character named Anju Trivedi in this Shyam and Tulsi Ramsay directorial that revolved around Dharmesh Saxena, referred to as ‘Saamri’, a wealthy elderly man who is involved in dark magic. Aware that his health is fading fast, he arranges for his expansive estate to be left to his niece, Anju Trivedi. However, Dharmesh's stepbrother, along with his motley group of co-conspirators, kills Dharmesh and informs the authorities that it was a suicide. The next phase of their plan is to kill Anju, but before they can, they begin dying gruesomely. Saamri has apparently risen from the grave to take his revenge.
She also featured in art cinema films like the Mahesh Bhatt directorial Aashiana (1986), in which she played a tribal girl, and the TV film Apna Jahan (1985), directed by Subrata Bose, starring Naseeruddin Shah and Deepti Naval.
In 1985, she acted in a lead role in Jeevante Jeevan, a Malayalam-language film written and directed by J Williams, starring Mohanlal.
After working in around a dozen films, she married ad filmmaker Kailash Surendranath in 1985. She quickly took on various roles for the cinema and television commercials made by their production company as producer, creative consultant, casting director, stylist and assistant director. Self-taught, her versatile skills developed with her hands-on experience in the film and advertising industries over the years.
She also had a specialised clothing and trousseau company that styled all the suiting and ad campaigns back in the day, as well as some of the trendiest and most admired wedding trousseaus. She styled and created the looks for the creative ads made by her husband Kailash Surendranath for brands such as Vimal saris, Fair & Lovely, Santoor, and others. She also began producing commercials, and then feature films like Love You Hamesha (2001).
Along with husband Kailash, she was the associate producer of the popular music video Mile Sur Mera Tumhara (1988), featuring Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, Waheeda Rehman, Mrinal Sen and other leading lights. The national integration video was intended to instill a sense of pride and promote unity amongst Indians, highlighting the different linguistic communities and societies that live in India, portraying India's unity in diversity. It was telecast for the first time on Independence Day 1988, after the telecast of the Prime Minister's speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort. It captivated the nation, gaining near-anthem status ever since.
She also line produced many Hollywood films shot in India, such as Code 46 (2003) directed by Michael Winterbottom and A Mighty Heart (2007), line produced along with Brad Pitt’s Plan B/ Paramount Vantage and Revolution Films. A biographical drama, it starred Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, who embarks on a frantic search to locate her journalist husband, Daniel, when he goes missing in Pakistan.
More recently, she produced the series Chakravyuh: An Inspector Virkar Crime Thriller (2021), starring Prateik Babbar, Simran Kaur Mundi and Ashish Vidyarthi. The plot depicts the ghastly murder of a college student, post which inspector Virkar from the crime branch gets called in.
Aarti Gupta Surendranath undertakes and organises specialised events and is also on the committee of the Indian Merchants Chamber. She is also active in animal welfare and rescue, environmental awareness.
Her husband Kailash Surendranath, is the son of the singing star of the 1950’s – Surendranath. They have a daughter Kshiraja Surendranath and a son Angad Surendranath.