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A star down to earth

Besides cinema, there are so many things that Nandita Das would love to do in life, as GOWRI RAMNARAYAN finds out.


Nandita Das at Locarno.

PRECISELY AT 8 a.m, with the triumphant smile of punctuality, Nandita Das walks out of the lift in the hotel lobby in Locarno, Switzerland, to keep her appointment with The Hindu. Late night partying has not dislodged her professionalism. Dressed in black slacks and orange T-shirt, hair in a quick ponytail, she looks more like a graduate student than film actor.

You see her girlish glee in zooming up the mountain in the glass cage (funicular), and in the ghazals she sings by the lakeside past midnight with a feel for the romance of melody. Likewise, her enjoyment of the range of contemporary experimental cinema at the Locarno Film Festival (which premiered Mrinal Sen's "Amaar Bhuvan" where she plays protagonist) is obvious. ("Not knowing what to expect sharpens perception").

Das is both self-possessed and spontaneous. A stranger to "starriness." Not surprising in someone with a painter father and writer mother, groomed in Safdar Hashmi's Jan Natya Manch, and who believes that her best year was the one in Rishi Valley School, Andhra Pradesh, where she taught everything except Maths.

Her other films this year are "Shubho Muhurat", a crime thriller by Rituparno Ghosh, which brings old rivals Sharmila Tagore and Raakhee together, and "Bas Yun Hi", a light take off on pranks by a group of friends, in a production of mostly newcomers including director Raja Mohan.

In this freewheeling interview Nandita Das indulges in what she calls her weakness for digression. But listen to her and you know that she has her own focus on work and life. Excerpts:

Why do you say you want to deglamourise your profession?

(Laughs) I am embarrassed when my father or his contemporaries, who have done so much more solid work, are lesser known than someone seen on the big screen. That makes you feel almost superficial. You've done far less but are known more, not because you are better or greater or have the right to be known more... When I go to the market people say God you're alone, or they don't recognise you because you're buying groceries. People say, `An actress driving a Fiat!' or `You're so down to earth!' I changed the car when it broke down, not for some image. In this field we are constantly debating with ourselves or with others, answering, defending, justifying an image. I say let's get real, acting is just one of the things that people can do and I'm doing it as of now, I may or may not be doing it later.

Is it possible for a film actress in India to be a real professional?

Sure — if you are prepared not to get bugged by other people not being professional. (Laughs). I haven't worked with the super-super stars. But initially I used to think that big actors come late and in small films where money is a real crunch you are on time. But some small films were slipshod, and I saw wonderfully professional people in some big films. There's no logic in payments either - some small unit will pay you on time, a big banner may delay or not pay you at all. Professionalism is valued much more in the South. What really hurts me is that whether actor, director or cameraman, you are doing what you want to do. You're not a light boy in the hierarchy of things. We are privileged people so we'd better be on time, we'd better love our work, we'd better respect each other's talent. You want to start late, tell me, I can also get up late, read, potter about. But if you say 6 a.m., I'm afraid I'm going to be there at 6 a.m.

Whenever you talk of artistes you refer to musicians, not actors, not even painters...

I've always believed that music is the highest form of art. If I want to act in a film I need tonnes of equipment and 50 people around. Music needs nothing. You can sing when you feel happy or sad. So liberating! I used to fantasise about having a flute in my bag and making music whenever I liked. Maybe somewhere I have a lack of discipline and that's why I haven't been able to learn music. It is sadhana, needs full time energy and dedication... can't be erratic... Maybe one day I'll have a settled life and I can do music and pottery.

Why pottery?

As a child, I used to go to Sardar Gurcharan Singh's lovely studio. He had a wheel under a neem tree where I used to dabble with clay. When I grew up I realised that he was a pioneer in his field. Know that lovely indigo in Delhi pottery? He invented it. He travelled all over Iran and Afghanistan, was inspired by all those monumental structures. He learnt from an Afghan potter, from the great Hamada in Japan, worked with Bernard Leech in England. I knew nothing about filmmaking but, in the 1990s, I collected some money, and with a friend, made a little documentary on him. He had shifted to Himachal Pradesh then, and I fell in love with his mischievous chuckle all over again. He gave me a block of clay. I came back and bought myself a wheel. I have some of that old clay still, I add to it, make what I can when I can. I fired stuff only once — gave the good pieces to friends and family — kept all the crooked ones! Pottery is very therapeutic, almost like yoga. You have to centre the clay otherwise you can't do anything with it. It's an individual activity. If you are constantly working with people, it's a lovely exercise to be just by yourself.

You also said that you won't do commercial films. Or song and dance.

I don't want to do hardcore commercial films, nor pretentious, boring art cinema. People have chosen to hear only the first half! I would love to do a comedy. We haven't had a ``Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron," a ``Chashme Baddur" or a ``Golmaal" for years. Music is an inherent part of our films and lives. I love to do song and dance except that I feel uncomfortable if I have to burst into song without knowing why it's there. That goes for everything the character does.

You are equally forthright when you talk about your social concerns and political beliefs. Don't you get misunderstood?

Sure. At first I was very nave. I thought, you work, you come home leaving it all behind. That doesn't happen. I had the same concerns before but people give me more attention than they would have had I been a dentist. In the Bombay film industry they say she is full of nakhras, thinks she's too intellectual, looks down on commercial cinema. Being misunderstood and misquoted used to irritate me, but now I'm more at peace with myself and say this is part of the deal. Shyam Benegal told me long ago, `Don't worry, you will come to settle in Bombay in six months.' Well, I am still in Delhi. You just want to do the stuff you want to do. But there's less and less of that stuff coming to me, because of my reputation of being troublesome... So be it...

Regrets?

If I could do some commercial films and say this is for money, fame and marketability, and also do the kind of films I want to do, then maybe I'll have more of a choice, more people will come to me. Tabu is doing just that. But I get too hassled with everything that happens around me, and I don't think I can sleep in peace and be comfortable if I did that. I won't be a happy human being. I truly believe we do what we want to do. Then what excuse will I have for myself?

And yet you have ended up in many poor projects.

Yes. It's a gamble. Take ``Azhagi." Nine people struggled with English and Hindi to narrate the story, helping each other to present the script well enough to persuade me. I was fascinated by that team work, you never see passion like that. I'm not ecstatic about ``Azhagi" but at some level it has touched a chord because of the honesty of the director to his own emotions. I did ``Ek Alag Mausam" because we went to this great organisation "Freedom Foundation". An unforgettable experience.

With your temperament you may end up with more bad films than someone who says I'm going to market myself as best as I can.

Now I'm not like that.

Since when?

Starting yesterday (laughs). It is true that I'd say the director's vision is not very clear at this point but he's such a nice person, it will work out. Not anymore. He has to be a good human being and talented. I may gamble a bit with newcomers but interact enough to ensure quality. I tend to get carried away by the story rather than the character. Is it the closet director in me that wants to come out? Well, maybe some day... But I agree with you. As an actress I should worry most about my role. I don't want to end up dissatisfied, cynical and pessimistic. I'm reading a lot of scripts. I've been wanting to do a play for a long time, and I may do it soon. Let's see if it works out.

Pic by Gowri Ramnarayan.

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