By Swarnendu Biswas
Her razor-sharp intellect and uncommon sensitivity towards social issues complement her enchanting beauty and compelling aesthetic talent.
But while talking to Nandita Das it was very difficult to comprehend the gravity of the fact that I was conversing with a world-renowned actress and director, for she lets the weight of her astonishing achievements and enviable fame sit lightly on her slim, elegant and strong shoulders.
Her unassuming and easy going personality belies the fact that she is one of the most critically acclaimed actresses of serious Indian cinema of our times, and also the fact that her maiden directorial effort has made the world of cinema to sit up and recognise the arrival of a new cinematic genius from India; a country whose film repertoire is even now by and large perceived by overtly melodramatic and utterly mediocre mainstream Bollywood fare.
Even the immense significance of the fact that the French Government had conferred her with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), one of the most prestigious civilian awards in the world, in 2008, for her contribution to art and culture, hasn’t infused any hint of arrogance into her friendly personality.
In this context, it also deserves a mention here that, in 2011, Nandita became the first Indian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Women’s Forum.
The honour recognises Nandita’s “sustained contributions to the arts and to the world as one of the most gripping cinema arts leaders of our time who has shown us what both-feet-on-the-floor authenticity looks like and how keeping your values in focus and applying your talent can fuel women and the world forward,” said IWF in a statement.
Despite having a journalistic experience of more than one-and-a-half decades and the experience of doing numerous stories and interviewing a galaxy of celebrities behind me, my voice trembled like a newbie as I asked my first question to the tall and elegant embodiment of inspired aesthetic vision sitting before me, dressed in a casual blue jeans and a white top.
The lady with a refreshing smile that flows like a cascade, however soon put me at ease. In fact, her apparent softness belies her tremendous strength of conviction within. Nandita has always had the courage and the conviction to tread the uncommon path, provided that path leads to the fulfillment of her social sensibilities and her aesthetic conscience. As far as her film career goes, she has chosen those films which she believed in.
Her revolutionary streak is reflected by the fact that in only her second film as an actress she essayed the role of a newly married woman who gets involved with her sister-in-law in a loving lesbian relationship, a relationship which fulfilled the characters’ need for the love and passion which they couldn’t find in their oppressive and claustrophobic conventional marital relationships with their respective spouses.
Playing With Fire
Fire, which was released in India in 1998 (the film was made in 1996), can be regarded as a watershed film in the Indian context, where three awesome cinematic talents (Deepa Mehta, the director of the film, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, the two female leads of the film) managed to make an extremely potent and path-breaking commentary on the feudalistic character of Indian arranged marriages (a great majority of them, at least), and at the same time on the exploration of the evolving gender equation in modern day India.
Fire is probably the first feature film which was brave enough to explore the radical concept of female homosexuality in the regressive backdrop of urban Indian social milieu.
Fire not only gave Nandita international acclaim at the early stage of her career, but also helped her grow into a more evolved person. “Fire made me a more open and less judgmental person. My own sensitivity towards what we perceive as the ‘other’ grew,” says the lady as she brushes aside her locks of hair from her vibrant visage.
The film ran to full houses in most metropolitan cities throughout India for almost three weeks, but soon the violent protests against this revolutionary film surfaced. The film, as was expected, created quite a bit of social outrage that quickly snowballed into a series of violent incidents perpetrated by the self-styled moral police of Indian society, on many of the cinema halls screening this revolutionary movie.
However, despite the moral policing by self-righteous Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal workers, the film’s international fame continued to grow, and Fire went on to become a post-modern classic.
“Through the wide range of questions and comments that I encountered after the screening of Fire, I was appalled to see how prejudiced and intolerant our society was,” declares Nandita. Unfortunately, the attitude of our society, where hackneyed mindsets are predominant, still hasn’t changed much, after 15 years. Nandita says that she takes every opportunity to dispel unfounded myths on homosexuality that prevail in our society.
Fire also did awaken Nandita to the power of cinema, and induced her to take cinema seriously as a passion and profession. “While I never wanted to be an actor, Fire showed me how the medium of cinema could be a powerful instrument for public debate and advocacy. After the experience with Fire, I found a new platform and a creative medium to express myself,” articulates the great lady.
Theatre of Conscience
Nandita’s artistic exploration has a history of being influenced by the burning concerns of society. Born in New Delhi, to the celebrated painter Jatin Das and the noted writer, Varsha Das, Nandita’s early sensitivity towards society is perhaps reflected in her choosing to do a Master’s degree in social work.
After her Master’s in social work from the Delhi School of Social Work, she begun working with an NGO called Ankur, that works with women in the slums of Delhi. Her stint with Ankur was followed by her work with Alarippu; an organisation which is engaged in making education enjoyable for children from underprivileged homes. “The various realities which I got exposed to during my work with NGOs did impact my choices in films, both consciously and instinctively,” articulates Nandita.
Her acting forays began with a street theatre group named Jana Natya Manch, which was started by the late revolutionary playwright, Safdar Hashmi, where she also propagated several social causes through her acting skills. However, she doesn’t take her theatre background too seriously. “Many feel that I have come from a theatre background but doing street theatre and amateur plays during my college days cannot be counted for any great foundation in theatre,” explains Nandita candidly.
“The reasons for doing those street plays for four years were less to do with acting and much more to do with the social issues that those plays raised. Those plays in some ways induced me to pursue my Master’s in social work,” admits Nandita. She also modestly says that she has “worked on only two professional plays, which are The Spirit of Anne Frank, and Heads Ya Tails,” before embarking on to act and direct her own theatre production.
This trained social worker and actress notes that she entered the film world by “default.” However, despite not being armed with any formal training in either acting or direction, Nandita, with her spontaneous talent, managed to create new milestones in both the spheres.
Today, Nandita with an impressive repertoire of 37 films (many of them award-winning ones) in 10 different languages — English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telegu, Urdu, Marathi, Oriya and Kannada and Rajasthani —is an icon in the realm of Indian cinema.
Between the Lines
Nandita is happy to return to the stage after eight years with her maiden theatre production titled Between the Lines, that was recently staged across various cities of India.
Despite knowing very well that theatre and films are two entirely different mediums, and despite having much less experience in theatre as compared to her rich and varied experience in cinema, she took on the enormous challenge of co-writing, directing, producing and acting in this play.
It is exceptional people like Nandita who always have the courage to experiment with new forms, styles and mediums.
“It was both challenging and exciting to explore the medium of theatre, that is comparatively new for me, but I have always enjoyed doing new things without the fear of failure. For instance, I directed Firaaq without any formal training in film direction and learnt a lot in the process. I like to dabble in different things and will continue to do so,” asserts the courageous lady with a soft smile that never fails to reflect a sense of tenderness.
Her ardent love for experimentation and the absence of fear for failure is shared by her present entrepreneur husband, Subodh Maskara (she was divorced from her first husband, Saumya Sen, in 2009), and these attributes, together with Nandita’s love for stage acting before a live audience, has compelled the couple to start their own production company named Chhoti Production Company Pvt. Ltd.
Through Chhoti, their intention is to explore new forms of creative expression and to tell compelling stories through various mediums, across the country and beyond. Between the Lines is their first venture.
She has directed, produced, co-written the maiden play of this production house, besides playing one of the two pivotal roles in it. Between the Lines is a contemporary play on a lawyer couple set in urban India. In the play, the couple ends up arguing on the opposite sides of a criminal trial, resulting in the blurring of their personal and professional lives.
Human relations and gender issues are explored in this engrossing drama. According to Nandita, “Between the Lines is set in contemporary India and explores the relationship between a lawyer couple, who have been married for 10 years. One day, they end up on opposite sides and as they fight the case in the court, their own inequalities begin to surface. And now they have to cope with it, finding a new balance and a new understanding of each other.”
The popular myth that gender inequality in the Indian cultural milieu is largely a characteristic of the lower or underprivileged strata of the society gets undermined after seeing the play. If we explore a bit, we come to the conclusion that gender inequality is an all-pervasive bitter truth in India, a fact which Nandita is extremely opposed to. “Even in so called progressive societies, many gender inequalities in subtle forms thrive along; we only have to scratch the surface to see or feel them,” commented the wise lady.
Nandita’s strong belief that the people are not averse to strong content and their interest is not limited to crass commercial fare is endorsed by the positive audience reaction to the play, which was screened in major cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Ahmedabad in the recent past. The play was even performed before audiences in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “We hope to take it to the audiences outside India, to various other countries,” declares Nandita with enthusiasm.
Though she has not done much professional theatre before Between the Lines, it now seems she is very much in earnest to take her passion for stage to great heights. Nandita is presently playing the lead role in a play named ‘Gates to India Song’ which is being held during Bonjour India!, the festival of France in India. However, this time her role is limited to acting only.
The play is directed by Eric Vigner, written by Marguerite Duras, features an Indian cast, and is being/will be staged during 13th February to 14th March of this year, across Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, and Kolkata.
Joys, Challenges and Awards
Being totally overwhelmed by her powerful and extremely attractive personality, I blurted a clichéd question about the various challenges that she was involved in her cinematic career till date. She gracefully laughed at my immature question but gave her insightful answer, nevertheless.
“I have acted in 10 different languages, so at times doing a film in a language unfamiliar to me was not easy, especially acting in films made in the South Indian languages. At times it was the shooting conditions that were daunting like that of in Bawander or in Maati Maay – A Grave-keeper’s Tale. And at times emotionally some films pushed my boundaries and became insightful experiences,” articulates the diva of post-modern cinema, while adding firmly, “However, the exciting part was to overcome those challenges and do justice to the characters.”
I also requested her to name the five best film directors that she had worked till date, but she refused to play favourites. “I have been fortunate to have worked with many renowned directors, and also a number of first-time directors. By listing favourites, I would be doing injustice to all the influences that they and many others would have had on me,” affirms Nandita.
While she says that she has been fortunate to have worked with many renowned directors like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Mani Ratnam, Deepa Mehta and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, there are many other lesser known directors who have influenced her cinematic sensibilities over the years. “On every set, I have learnt the craft of filmmaking and most of those learnings were not conscious. The biggest lesson that I have learnt in my journey through moving images is that there are no rules in filmmaking. I have observed everyone and then taken the path that suited my film and its sensibilities the best,” explained Nandita, in her down to earth manner.
Nevertheless she named some of the directors with whom she immensely enjoyed working with. Besides working in the great Deepa Mehta’s Fire, which she says “had a wonderful cast and crew,” she loved working with “Mani Ratnam, for his relentlessly energising shooting style; Santosh Sivan for being so spontaneously creative and having such a fantastic team to work with; Adoor Gopalakrishnan, for his uncompromising puritanical approach to cinema; Shyam Benegal for his intellect and warmth; and also with first-time directors like Chitra Palekar and Kavitha Lankesh for their passion and commitment.”
Nandita has various fond memories of working in Bengali films. She recollects that it was Suman Ghosh’s film named Podokkhep –Footsteps, which gave her the opportunity to get to know and work with Soumitra Chatterjee, the iconic film actor of Bengali cinema who had been featured quite frequently in Satyajit Ray’s internationally renowned films, and has recently won the Dadasaheb Phalke award (India’s highest award in cinema, given annually by the Government of India, for lifetime contribution to Indian cinema).
“I also enjoyed working with Mrinalda (the noted director Mrinal Sen, one of the pioneers of the New Wave Cinema movement in India), who is such a special person, brimming with thousands of stories that I so loved listening,” reminiscences Nandita.
She says that she has a multitude of amazing experiences about her work with different directors. “If I had the time, I could have written a book on those experiences,” she notes.
Her superlative performance in Mrinal Sen’s Amar Bhuvan got her the Best Actress Award at the Cairo International Film Festival, in 2002, which is one of her several acclaimed awards. Some of her other prestigious awards for acting include the Best Actress award for Bawander – which is a film based on the trauma of Bhanwari Devi, a rape victim from Rajasthan – at the Santa Monica Film Festival in 2001, the Best Actress award for Maati Maay – A Grave-keeper’s Tale at the Madrid International Film Festival in 2007, and the Best Actress award at Nandi Awards for Kamli, in 2006.
A Riot of Cinematic Creativity
Nandita, who served as a member of the prestigious jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2007 and the Marrakech International Film Festival in 2009, began her own journey behind the camera with her directorial debut in Firaaq. To say her maiden directorial venture in cinema is a sheer masterpiece, would be an understatement. In terms of inspired cinematic expression, the movie has few parallels in the Indian cinema during the last decade.
Perhaps Firaaq’s aesthetic quotient can be regarded at par with that of Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray (1955), Bhuvan Shome by Mrinal Sen(1969), Ankur by Shyam Benegal (1974), Fire by Deepa Mehta (1998) and Paromitar Ek Din by the ultimate diva of Bengali cinema, Aparna Sen (2000).
Nandita’s maiden directorial work has every chance to be regarded as one of the greatest films ever made in the world cinema, by the future generations to come, for a significant work of art like Firaaq can be best evaluated in retrospect.
Nandita’s directorial debut in the realm of feature films had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008 and thereafter it travelled through more than 50 international film festivals across the globe, winning over 10 international awards and 13 Indian awards.
Of course, it garnered critical acclaim and popular appreciation across the globe. The Purple Orchid Award for Best Film at the Asian Festival of First Films, Special Jury Award at International Film Festival of Kerala, Special Prize at the International Thessaloniki Film Festival are only some of the coveted awards won by Firaaq.
Nandita describes Firaaq as the “manifestation of all the helplessness, anguish, anger, frustration which I have felt over the years about the way things are happening around us.” She also chooses to describe her cinematic masterpiece as “a work of fiction, based on a thousand true stories.”
The time of the film is set a month after the horrific Gujarat riots in 2002, which killed 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus, and where more than 2500 people were injured. A riot where many people became homeless, and many women became rape victims.
According to Nandita, “Firaaq traces the emotional journeys of ordinary people; some who were victims of riots, some perpetrators and some who chose to watch silently.”
The film explores the impact of sectarian violence on their life and relationships. “It is an ensemble film that follows multiple narratives that are at times interconnected and at times discrete. What unites them is their spatial and emotional context,” elaborates the director.
Firaaq was not an easy story or a rather a collection of stories to be made into cinema, but Nandita’s masterful handling made the multiple narratives coalesce into montages depicting universal human drama that does have the potential to move any sensitive soul in the world.
“I didn’t scout for a story that I could direct, instead the stories compelled me to become a director,” articulates the filmmaker, who directed actors of the caliber of Naseeruddin Shah, Raghubir Yadav, Paresh Rawal, and Deepti Naval in her landmark directorial venture.
What makes Firaaq strikingly different from other riot films is that it does not show the gory violence of riots, but explores the nerve-wrecking tensions between people that prevail just after the riots. The story is set over a 24-hour period. “The exploration of the fierce and yet delicate forms of fear, anxiety, prejudice and ambivalence in human relationships during such times is the substance of Firaaq,” points out the filmmaker.
Emboldened by her friendly disposition, I even acquired the temerity to ask her what factors influenced her to chose such a sensitive or rather a controversial subject as her first directorial venture. “Most people wonder why I chose this subject, even though I have not personally been a victim of violence. But for me it is no less a personal film as it brings together a lot of my life’s experiences and my interactions with people,” explains the sensitive lady.
There were other factors too which induced her sensitive mind to create this thought provoking cinematic venture, for which she also co-wrote the screenplay with Shuchi Kothari.
“The making of Firaaq was also influenced by the waking up to newspapers with stories screaming with violence; having conversations about religion and identity and soon finding oneself in a very polarised heated debate; meeting victims of violence and seeing their vacant helpless eyes penetrating into my soul; feeling deeply disturbed by the constant ‘them and us’ from all quarters… Firaaq is a reaction to all that and more,” Nandita elaborates with uncommon passion.
The challenge of her directorial debut was however, not that easy to overcome. “The journey of making Firaaq has been an all consuming, but also a cathartic experience. At any given point, hundreds of factors need to be dealt with and many simultaneous decisions had to be made,” confesses the dusky, alluring and breathtaking beauty. At the same time, she did enjoy each phase of making Firaaq “with all its challenges, big and small.”
However, she refuses to take the whole credit for her brilliant effort, which fetched multiple awards. “I am grateful to all those who had their faith in me and in the story I so wanted to tell,” acknowledges Nandita.
Leading Children’s Cinema
Recently, the diva has completed her tenure as the Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, India, a position in which she has been since 2009. She feels the experience had been a learning one for her. The prestigious position was perhaps another opportunity for her to explore her awesome creative versatility.
“I found my work as the Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI) as both daunting and rewarding. It was an opportunity to make a difference, to try out something new and explore yet another area of interest,” she explains.
Nandita laments the fact that there are few distributors for children’s films in India. “There aren’t too many takers for children’s films in terms of distribution, despite the fact that kids form a huge part of the audience,” Nandita points out. It is really distressing that in India there is dearth of quality cinema that can provide enriching entertainment to children.
“Children form a huge film audience the world over. I wonder why we haven’t explored the children’s film segment enough,” aired Nandita, who rightly thinks that “a great majority of our films for children are either preachy and boring, or fluffy and sometimes even violent.”
Becoming More Selective?
Considering the fact that the last feature film where she acted was made in 2010 (I Am), I asked her why she isn’t appearing more regularly on the screen in the recent times. “My last two years were extremely hectic, as I had the twin responsibilities of being a new mother and the Chairperson of CFSI,” admits Nandita, which left her with little time for acting assignments.
“I had enough on my plate during those years, with my son Vihaan and CFSI as my top priorities,” asserts the multiple prestigious award winning actress and director, who has become a one-woman institution of sorts in a very short time. However, she informs me that she had finished the shooting of two films recently; one in Tamil and the other in Hindi. “Now that the CFSI responsibility is over, I can look forward to doing many different things,” says Nandita.
However, besides being extremely busy on the personal and administrative front in the recent years, her graph of cinema acting gives indication that she has perhaps also been extremely choosy and selective in her choice of films for quite a few years.
In fact, from 2007 to 2012, she has appeared in only three released films, they being Mehreen Jabbar directed Ramchand Pakistani in 2007 (the film, which was premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, in 2008, and won the People’s Choice Award at the Fribourg International Film Festival in Switzerland, garnered huge critical acclaim), Adoor Gopalakrishnan directed Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) in the same year, and Onir-directed I Am in 2010. As compared to that in 2006, she had five releases as an actress.
Despite her awesome intellectual prowess and her renown across international film fraternity, Nandita doesn’t exhibit any snob value in dismissing the predominantly mediocre and crass Bollywood fare altogether. However, she admits that “Mainstream Hindi cinema has mostly played safe in an attempt to please large numbers of people.”
But at the same time, she takes note of the account that “in every era we have seen some bold films in the realm of mainstream Hindi cinema, which have gone beyond the comfort zone and have told different stories irrespective of their box office performances.”
She is happy that “quite a few young film makers from Bollywood these days are stretching the boundaries and experimenting with both form and content.” One such pertinent example, according to her, is Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhoka.”
She also laments the fact that often Indian films are construed as only Bollywood fare. “Indian films are not just Bollywood films and there is a whole range of films in regional languages that constitute the gamut of Indian cinema,” points out one of the finest talents of Indian cinema.
Socially Conscious Shorts
Besides full-length feature films and theatre, Nandita has also shown her enviable creative mettle in the realm of short films. She and her first husband, Saumya Sen, began Leapfrog, an advertising company geared towards making socially conscious ad films.
For Leapfrog she directed a 90 second long public interest spot for the Delhi-based and the world renowned NGO Centre for Science & Environment, on Rainwater Harvesting, which was shot on 35mm. The public service spot aimed to create an interest in rainwater harvesting.
It used a lyrical approach to communicate an environmental solution which is often inaccessible due to its technical nature. The response to the spot was simply overwhelming; from both the critics and the general audience.
This 90 seconds of lyricism with a strong message won the Grand Prix at the Environfilms International Festival of Environmental Films 2006, and was adjudged the Best Short Film at FICA, Brazil 2005, at Torrino Film Festival in Czech Republic, in 2005 and at Vatavaran Film Festival in New Delhi, in 2003.
For Leapfrog, Nandita directed three more short films, which are titled Education for All, Learning is Child’s Play (I), and Learning is Child’s Play (II). All of these short films are each 60 seconds in length. Nandita also co-directed a 30-minute, short film with Sanjay Maharishi, for Sanket Productions. The name of the short film is Imprint In Clay. The short film is a tribute to Late Sardar Gurcharan Singh, the pioneer of studio pottery in India.
Words for Change
Nandita is not only a manifestation of great brains and beauty. She can be best described as a combination of great talent and great looks with a great heart. Her compassionate heart finds fulfillment in social work, which exudes the humane facet of her tremendous intellectual prowess.
Over the years, her social concerns have taken the form of talks and as well as eloquent writing. She has given a plethora of talks in India and around the globe. She spoke at MIT on April 2007, after a screening of Fire.
Nandita’s versatility is also expressed through her compelling writings, through which she has had espoused several social causes and concerns, besides exploring other facets of life too. She has several published writings, and is running a monthly column for The Week, in their section Last Word.
Nandita has been involved in active campaigning against the scourge of communal violence, the violence against women, and the societal stigma concerning HIV/ AIDS. At the same time, she has raised her potent voice on the issues of children’s rights, disability and human rights. “The choices in my film work have been heavily impacted by my experiences in social work,” states Nandita.
“I primarily do advocacy work for issues concerning women, children, victims of violence, people living with AIDS…. basically for those who are marginalised,” concludes Nandita, as the evening with its crimson colours began to flood its soft light on the patio. Soon the dusk would emerge…“I have also been part many South Asian peace initiatives, like SAHR (South Asians for Human Rights),” points out the lady.
I wanted our conversation to continue till eternity, but her professional commitments didn’t allow that. As she ended the interview, I realised that four hours have flown by in a jiffy. Dusk had set in, along with promise of a new tomorrow… as refreshing as the soul-refreshing laughter of Nandita Das.
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