Carrying on with hope
Disappointment has not dampened the enthusiasm of Nandita Das, who enjoys acting. And this sensitive actress has several projects to channel her multi-faceted talent as CHITRA MAHESH finds out.
Nandita Das with Deepti Naval in ``Bhawandar''... the real life aspect was ``definitely disturbing''.
ALL THE hype and hoopla is on its way out it's a dull hazy morning in the capital city all along the drive to Gulmohar Park the traffic is lethargic and the heat is yet to descend. As I reach the third floor of a house so typical of Delhi (without lifts), the door opens and an impish, utterly charming person welcomes me. In a rust, sleeveless top and beige pants with hair up in a ponytail, she doesn't seem more than 20. Who else could it be but Nandita Das? In Delhi now for a while after all her acting assignments and her trysts with the film world, she is relaxed and most chatty. She is inundated with phone calls and requests to be the chief guest from colleges in Delhi to Universities in Orissa. She handles all of them personally with interest and then finds herself hard pressed for time. "Never mind '', she laughs, "whatever I can contribute I will try and accommodate.'' Her laughter is infectious and so is her attitude as one discovers as the morning progressed over tea and fruits.
So what are you up to these days?
I've been shooting continuously. I was clearing the backlog. Then I thought it was important to take a break especially between two films. Now I am trying to do a couple of things. To be honest I've gone through a very disillusioning process in the last few months. The way things promise to happen and they don't.
Do you mean in the film line?
Hmm. I just thought it would be nice to take a break, not just from work, but also from films and just do other things. Catch up with festivals, watch other films, catch up on life in general.
Why do you feel so disillusioned?
Because often, as an actress you really think that by doing a particular film you have a certain belief about it. It wasn't really my ambition to be an actress. It happened by default. And one thing led to the other. I did my Masters in Social Work and then worked with certain NGOs. For me it was just a change of medium. I thought I was still continuing with the things that I wanted to do, the beliefs that I had. Therefore I took up roles that I felt strongly about. But then the conviction with which you go into something ...
Only the last two films or...?
No. I would say in the last few films. The conviction that you begin with or the conviction the director comes to you with to carry it through is often not there. I'm not blaming anybody or anything in particular. But as an actress you realise that you play such a small part in the whole thing. There are so many factors beyond you. And you start feeling that the reason for which you took the project up in the first place is somewhere not satisfied for me at least.
But despite whatever you say, you have made a mark, I mean you stand out. Do you still feel defeated?
I wouldn't say defeated. I still say I enjoy my work, I am not quitting, I am also not saying that it's all terrible. It's just that sometimes you think your judgment is correct about certain things or you weigh certain factors. But you realise that you can never weigh enough. You go by instinct, and then realise that not all your instincts are correct.
What exactly are you looking for when you say that you have to do something more? What makes you decide on a project? The story, the director, the role, the star cast, the sensibility of the person?
But in say, a peripheral film, you have a longer process to look into. You know somehow they would take their time and so you do too. In a more mainstream kind of a thing, there are lesser things that are known. Often there's not really a bound script, they give you lesser time to mull over it. I think other than Maniratnam's film in the past few months I have not done something that has satisfied me in a complete way. The process and end merge. You cannot separate them.
How about films such as "Fire"?
I enjoyed doing ``Fire'' especially because it was my first film. It was about women, not just about homosexuality. It dealt with arranged marriages, choices women have, loneliness. There was a different passion involved in making it. And "Earth" again, when Deepa gave me the role I felt there was not much to do. She is a fairly passive character to whom things happen. But it is a subject I feel very strongly about religion being used in politics, growing communalisation of things and common people suffering.
Does it have anything to do with the fact that you were brought up in a place with a political environment like Delhi?
Politics, political parties and politicians are different things. I grew up in an environment that didn't discuss politics. My father and mother nurtured artistic things. There would be painters, artistes, dancers, and musicians. My political understanding began with street theatre, which I started in my first year of college with a group called Jana Natya Manch. I spent time with this group. We discussed various issues, thrashed them out, questioned, evolved the play, and we went and performed. I am still searching and I don't think I've really found what I really want to do in life. But it's okay to wonder.''
Why can't a career and interest be the same thing? Why do we think of something as a profession and something else as interest? Like when people say finally is acting your profession? And I say, well, it's still to a large extent my interest. I don't know if this is my destination, you know in the sense, this is what, this will be it. It's a journey and to be enjoyed. To like what you are doing now.
What other things would you like to experiment with?
I would probably like to try direction. After being an actress, this whole disillusioning experience, you realise you have such a small role to play in lot of decision-making things, which are so important. Like you might do a film, you might do a scene, which you think is very important which the director also feels. It may not even be there in the film. The character in "Aks", for instance. I did it because of what was told to me. And then it turned out something else. So many scenes were cut, maybe because they also had probably their own constraints.
Do you think "Aks" was too avant-garde for an Indian audience?
The style was different. But the soul of the film is always the most important thing. You cannot compromise the essence of what this film is trying to say. I am not trying to say there has to be a message in each film. But whatever your aim is, whatever you are trying to tell through the film, it cannot be overshadowed by just the technical finesse.
Your experience with your new film with Maniratnam...
I got a wonderful feeling because I think there is an honesty in the maker. There is sincerity in what he is doing. The process was interesting because as an actress he gave me a lot of space to do the way I wanted. Yet he gave me interesting pointers. So it was a very vibrant process.
How was it to work with Amitabh?
He's an iconic figure. There was a certain amount of excitement. Initially I didn't want to do it because I didn't think the plot needed a younger wife. I mean its not that an older man cannot marry a younger woman. But I just felt it wasn't part of the plot. The director felt quite bad and came back after two months and said `I only want you to do it.' We discussed it for almost four months by which time, it was too late to say no because we had become friends. But I was disappointed seeing what came out of it in terms of my character because lot of it was cut and therefore the graph of the character gets lost. But its good that such films are also made. It's a step towards experimenting and trying out different things. See in "Dil Chahta Hai" nothing is very dramatic it's just a slice of life. There is wonderful chemistry among three people.
I suppose you would like to work with somebody like Farhaan?
Oh yes. He is honest. Just as I really enjoyed Mira's film ``Monsoon wedding''. It's such an honest film. Naseer is brilliant.
These constant comparisons men directors versus women, I know it's a very clichéd question. But you've worked a lot with women directors. What are your views on this?
Like you said the differences have narrowed. Now there is no such thing as man-woman relationship there are just issues. In this profession like in any other if women bond, they bond at a different plane. Because if there is friendship between two women, it might seem like lesbianism. For instance, if I do a shot which is good Deepa may suddenly come and hug me. It does not mean that there is anything lesbian about it. And I wouldn't say that men couldn't make sensitive films about women. There has been "Manthan", "Charulatha" and "Ankur". But I think being with women, there is a different comfort level.
Were you disappointed that "Water" didn't take off?
Oh, immensely. Not just as an actress but as somebody who feels appalled that a handful of people can actually come and just stop something from happening. Unfortunately it gave the impression that the whole of Benaras was against us. Which wasn't the case at all. It was really a small handful of people.
Would you like to do some theatre now?
I'd love to. In fact I'm talking to a couple of people. I've got a couple of scripts. But one has to give it more time because it will be a continuous two months or so.
So what are the other projects that you may take up?
I'm very open about working with new people. There are certain names that I am sort of interested in, but I wouldn't like to narrow it down to names. I have done an Oriya, a Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada and a Malayalam film and now I am doing a Tamil film. Now there is this Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh. I'll probably do his film in December-January.
It's a Tagore novel and it's a wonderful character. It's a period film and I am really looking forward to it. And Mrinal Sen has contacted me for a project, which sounds interesting. There is a charm about the old school. I did this short series called "Daughters of the Century" by Tapan Sinha. He is 76 and has done these half hour episodes on women. Shabana and Jaya Bachchan have done one each. I've done one of them. It was wonderful because the whole team is, you know, of that era and you know, like the cameraman, the makeup man, the assistant, the passion here is of a different kind.
You wouldn't want to do serials. Would you?
No, not at this stage. I've done a little bit of television and I've seen that it is impossible to sustain any kind of interest and sincerity for about 52 episodes. Besides I am just not a serial watcher.
Would you like to work with children?
I'd love to work; in fact that's one of my dreams. To start a school of my own in some nice, beautiful place where, my children - hopefully I will have some - and the children of the neighbourhood...
What about marriage, have you ever thought about it?
I think love is beautiful and is important and if it becomes a lovely marriage, great. I think it's the biggest blessing to find the right life partner. But marriage per se is not forever. Does not really happen. But I love kids. So I think because of that I'll probably marry because I don't want kids to go through experiments. My parents are separated. I understood pretty early in life that they were very different and that they were going to be happier living on their own. But I didn't say, `Hey God, please bring my parents together'. Wherever they are, keep them happy. And I think it's wonderful to have a brother or a sister. My brother is about six years younger. As a kid the age difference seemed enormous. But now we are more like friends.
You've done your Masters in Social Work, right? What are the issues that concern you most?
I am giving it more thought now than ever. Many organisations contact me. And I instinctively get drawn to women's issues and things to do with children. That brings us to that film "Bhawandar". Its about a woman who has been gang raped and her struggle for justice. It's a true story and I am sure there are thousand other cases, which are never reported. And the judge comes up with a verdict like, how can an upper class man touch a lower class woman, so how could she have been raped?
How was the experience for you? Disturbing?
Well, it was definitely disturbing. Not just because it was the real life thing. But because when you approach a character somehow you think there is a real life person like that. When I did that gang rape scene I was quite disturbed because it was in the open and there were all these people standing and watching, some with a smirk. Some of them were laughing, some were watching the video to see how it was really being depicted. And I wanted to go and meet this woman to see what kind of strength she had to carry on. Because I was feeling a sense of shame and awkwardness and humiliation and anger even though I knew I was just acting. So I went and met her and she's an amazing woman. And here you think, she's going to be all sad and you know or angry or depressed. She was full of energy and enthusiasm and was working in a literacy campaign and in a caste campaign and you know, all kinds of other things, not just rape. But some other things disturbed me as well. In the film there were certain shots, the leg shots and this I say without trying to dilute the issues being raised by the maker. He has put in some shots without asking me. Maybe as a director he felt the need to do that but you cannot take an actress for granted. You are dealing with someone's body, performance, projections. Otherwise what is stopping you from doing just anything and saying this is in the name of the overall film? Somewhere I feel hurt and let down at a personal level because I think the film is also a lot to do with trust.
At least it could have been worked out together. And sex is really not about the skin; rape is not really about sex and the skin. It's so much about violence, revenge and subjugation. This does not take away from the fact that it's an important film done very well. And I am not trying to create a controversy here.
If you were given a wish to change something about yourself or the world, what will you wish for?
Manythings. I wish I were less impulsive. But sometimes impulsiveness is good because you are spontaneous.
I wish people would be more honest. Hypocrisy and pretence is something I just cannot handle. It makes me angry.
How do you think you will be in the future, Nandita?
God knows. I just hope that the optimism and certain idealism that I grew up with remain. And that they are not taken over by cynicism.
I just hope I can keep that spirit going. Do whatever you can within your capacity. You have to believe that much.
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