I met Bollywood Actress Nandita Das on her visit to Lahore, Pakistan, when she was busy conducting research for her movie about veteran literary figure Saadat Hassan Manto. Through a mutual friend, we met in Punjab Press Club.
My first impression of Nandita Das was of a woman who toils hard with her ideas and has the confidence of showing the same to others too. She is simple in her attitude, yet complex in the way she perceives life. She is beautiful to look at, yet her behavior is of an ordinary woman, in a good sense, and that is precisely what makes her special.
On starting the interview with Nandita Das, I asked her about the film Firaaq and the true message that she wanted conveyed through it. She told me that Firaaq was her first directorial film which had not been easy to make.
She credited this difficulty in presentation of the ‘effects of violence’ on relationships as well as controversial gender issues. She claimed to have wanted to make people aware of gender discrimination not only existing in the lower and backward classes but also finding significant presence in the more developed middle classes.
On being questioned on her being choosy and brave in selecting her roles, which included those of controversial nature, Nandita Das explained that she didn’t really need to choose any role. She said that her experiences in human rights work made her naturally opt for roles which raised issues of social concern.
Further in my interview with Nandita Das, I asked her about whether she agreed or not with Deepa Mehta having brought out the best of her acting abilities and she agreed that Deepa was a director who let actors to think for themselves in their roles. She said that Deepa Mehta worked with her (Nandita) on her roles by taking inputs and recommendations from her.
I knew Nandita was a very special actor who put her everything into playing every special role, which is not an ordinary actor’s domain. When I asked which films were special to her, she said that each film was special for different reasons. She said that the roles of Sita in Fire and Shanta in Earth were special to her. She continued saying that critics would attach a lesbian side to her if she associated more with Sita in Fire.
On her role in ‘Earth’, she thought of the role of Shanta as less political, in it her only wanting the person she loves but becomes victim to circumstances. Of these two, Nandita thought of Sita as more questioning, spontaneous and rebellious and thus said she could relate more to her.
She also mentioned her role in Bawandar as special because the woman in it was extraordinary in her struggle after being gang-raped. Nandita expressed her connection to all three roles as special to her.
Going on to the next question about Nandita Das’s take on gender inequality issues in South Asia, and how this mess could be controlled, she gave her example of being from a very liberal family who respected the decisions she made in life, while accepting that this was not the situation faced by most women of South Asia.
She said that despite the increasing number of working women and those raising their voices demanding their rights, increasing sexual abuse, female foeticide and dowry deaths were still happening. Being saddened by the current situation of women, Nandita Das questioned whether a Women’s day should be celebrated or not.
I questioned her about how she kept a balance between her work and personal life. She said that she did not have the heart to leave her son home alone and go for a shoot when he was six months old. So she said she found writing from home a way of taking care of her son and continuing her career at the same time.
In this interview, Nandita Das told me about loving and greatly respecting her own mother for being a hard working lady when she herself was a child adding that it is good for children to see their mothers working.
I then shifted back to cinema and got to know her views on how cinema could play its role in spreading awareness on social issues. Nandita said that she herself was involved in spreading awareness using cinema to make public service advertisement films such as short films on education and rainwater harvesting.
The intention was that these films would be broadcasted by television channels, but it was only when the ‘Right to Education’ Bill was passed that ‘Roll Call’ was used in the campaign, which itself had been made for the UN five years ago.
She also mentioned the PSA on rainwater harvesting being done for Centre of Science and Environment who used it for their campaigns. She had also learnt that they have had a lot of hits on their website claiming that these were tiny steps towards creating awareness.
Further in this interview, I discussed with Nandita about the serious decline in the quality of content (and music) in Hindi movies these days. She said that In terms of cinematography, we are very good but still something is very wrong and that confused her. So she has spoken about it with many of her filmmakers. She said she often asked herself this but honestly couldn’t come up with any clear-cut answers.
Das thinks it had something to do with market economics in which ‘the big fishes were totally eating the small ones’ because of commercial pressures. According to her a lot of regional films were made in the past years but are now struggling against the commercial ones. She said that it was all about the money now and that the commercial filmmakers had outdone the others.
Nandita Das also said that the NRI (Non Resident Indian) is also responsible for encouraging the mainstream fare. She said that the Indian youth fantasize India as shown in the movies which she thinks of as unrealistic and misleading. She added her view on songs saying that songs [film music] should fit in reasonably with the film story line.
Next I asked Nandita about her views on the similarities of India and Pakistan and how the gap between the two could be bridged. In reply to this she gave examples of Ramchand Pakistan, in which she herself played an important role and Naseeruddin Shah’s works in movies like Khuda Key Liye as steps already being taken to bridge the gap between Pakistan and India.
Nandita herself claimed to be part of the India-Pakistan peace initiatives SAHR (South Asians for Human Rights). In the South Asian perspective, I asked Nandita whether there was need to change anything about censorship policies followed in India and Pakistan and if we were ready yet for such a change.
Nandita stated that we have to differentiate between films about ‘sexuality and films that are for titillation’ She explained that sexuality is a part of human psyche. For her, a film like Fire which explored sexuality, marriage and lack of choices, was commendable. She said that there are films that use sex just to sell and that it is happening worldwide.
She said that “The West with all the so-called freedom is still obsessed with it” and it is obvious to her that it is something inherent in men. In such a male dominated society most of the films are made keeping in mind the man because of which she thinks that it is THE system and that there is no escape from it.
In the end of the interview Nandita Das said that society is a reflection of the current situations and that those songs which are thought to be simple today were thought of as risqué by our grandparents then. In the end on this topic, Das thinks that cinema is a reflection of society and whatever happens in society reflects itself in in cinema without any difference, especially the morality point of view.
It was a short yet pleasant meeting with Nandita. It was interesting to meet a cinematic star who was actually worth meeting. Whatever information she promised to provide me after the interview was duly emailed to me (and that is how she earned all my respect. I have always been a fan of her acting skills and now I like her as a person too). Very original, very convincing and very professional-That is Nandita Das for you!