“Firaaq was born out of my own helplessness and despair” – Nandita Das

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Nandita Das is one of those remarkable individuals who doesn’t play by the rules of the game and yet seems effortlessly able to win the match. This is entirely a misnomer of course. Her success as a social activist, an actor and most recently as a director does not stem from a dilettante approach to life but from a string sense of self, a precise moral compass and a steely determination to do the right thing – the rest of her activities flow from this central core.

She is perhaps best known for her extraordinary debut as Sita in Deepa Mehta’s Fire, a sympathetic portrayal of lesbianism at a time when such a concept almost bordered on revolutionary. Striking up a legendary partnership with the Canadian director, her next major film Earth saw her in the breathtakingly tragic role of Shanta, the Ayah. These two films, both far from mainstream Bollywood movies whilst retaining some of their elements, catapulted the young actress into the forefront of Indian cinema and helped her to make her name worldwide through the Festival circuit and TV screenings. This in turn gave her the flexibility and authority to do a kind of Cook’s Tour of Indian cinema over the next few years – eventually seeing her leave her footprint in about ten different languages. Memorable images remain from movies such as Kannaki, the extraordinary Pitaah in which she played alongside Sanjay Dutt in one of his most effective performances, the delightful Vishwa Thulasi which proved that Mammootty can act, the haunting Provoked with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as an abused wife and – well, we could go on forever – such is the breadth and depth of her career.

The current year has seen her break new ground once again with two socially significant – and also very entertaining movies. The first was Ramchand Pakistani, a film which may mark the turning point in the fortunes of Pakistani cinema. It concerns the accidental border crossing of a young boy during a time of tension between India and Pakistan.

The second is Nandita’s own directorial debut, Firaaq. A totally stunning movie, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, it focuses on the Gujurat inter-communal violence of 2002 which saw over 1000 people killed, about 75% of whom were Muslim. The movie humanises this event through a collage of interconnecting stories and features outstanding performances from Tisca Chopra, Shahana Goswami, Deepti Naval, Paresh Rawal and Naseruddin Shah. The movie releases in India on March 20, 2009.

BollySpice recently had the good fortune to interview Nandita about Firaaq and the rest of her career:

How did you get into acting? Is it something you always wanted to do?

Completely by default! I was working with an NGO after completing my Masters in Social Work and did a small film called Ek Thi Goonja. It was hardly seen, but a write up about that in a magazine caught the fancy of Durga Jasraj, who called me to play a role in a serial that she was planning. As I did not want to do a long serial, the conversation about it ended, but she asked me to meet Gulshan Grover, her friend, who was helping someone cast for a film. To cut a long story short, Gulshan connected me with Deepa Mehta. Neither of us knew of each other, but the meeting went rather well and before I knew, I was the first one to be cast in Fire. And from then on, different offers came my way and I chose from it what made sense to me. Acting has remained an interest and a means to reach out with stories that resonate my own interests and concerns. Acting is one of the things I do and not being ambitious about it, frees me from the pressures that come with it.

How has your journey been so far in Bollywood?

Bollywood has become synonymous with Indian films, but that I think is a completely incorrect. Bollywood, or let’s say Hindi mainstream cinema, comprises of the most visible section of Indian cinema, but there is a whole lot of other films like the mainstream films of the South, a whole range of regional films from different parts of the country and independent Hindi films. I live in Delhi and have done films in 10 different languages and haven’t really done Bollywood film, as we know them. Even films like Aks and Pita would be considered aberrations by the mainstream people, and there was nothing in the characters I played that defied my sensibilities. So to rephrase your question, my journey in films across India has been very enriching. I have had the opportunity to work with a range of directors (acclaimed and new), be part of many different stories, shoot in interesting milieus and travel far and wide. And hopefully there are still many more experiences to come.

How did Firaaq come your way? Did you always want to direct movies or did it happen by chance?

As an actor I was always interested in the various aspects of filmmaking. I would often get involved and give my two bits, especially to directors who were open to that. So directing has been at the back of my mind for almost six-seven years. But the way Firaaq was born, was the other way round. It wasn’t that I decided to direct and went around looking for scripts. It was the stories that I had heard, seen and read about that compelled me to become a director. Firaaq was born out of my own helplessness and despair about the things that were happening around us. And so making the film was truly cathartic for me.

What is the essence of Firaaq?

Firaaq is a human relationship film. It is about the impact of violence on our lives. How different relationships unfold a month after a communal carnage, over a period of 24 hours. Firaaq is about how violence lingers on much after the obvious manifestation is over. In fact, there is hardly any violence in the film but you feel the fear, the tension. The story traces the emotional journeys of ordinary people – some who were victims, some perpetrators and some who chose to watch silently. It is a mirror to our own prejudices, fears, anger, desire for peace and hope and deals with universal human emotions. I think anybody who cares about what is happening around us will be drawn into this moving film that stirs the mind and the heart.

How do you feel the performances are in the film? Did the actors give you everything you were looking for?

Excellent! When Naseeruddin Shah came out of the screening of the film, he said in this film if the award for acting had to go to anyone, it would go to the whole cast! He said seldom had he seen an Indian film where the standard of performances was so high. I have to say, half the job is done in doing the right casting. In fact I had Naseerudin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Deepti Naval and Raghubir Yadav in mind even while scripting and feel thrilled that they are in the film. Actors like these, in spite of being so experienced and acclaimed, were very open to trying out things differently. They, also other actors in the film, brought a lot to the project and were very supportive. I took it as a big compliment when Naseeruddin Shah SMS’d me just after the shoot saying, “Mighty impressed by your precise and clear instructions!” Paresh Rawal often asks me when I am starting my next film, that too a comedy, which actually I would love to do! Deepti Naval saw the film only in NY a couple of months back and was so moved that she didn’t want to speak after that. This is only to name a few as each of the actors, (Sanjay Suri, Shahana Goswami, Tisca Chopra, Nowaz…) gave their best and gave me the pleasure of working with them.

What is your favourite moment in the film?

How can there be one favourite moment in a year long journey of making the film. Every phase brought with it, its own challenges and excitement. I have learnt so much…it was like going straight from the 5th class to doing a PHD! I could write a whole book on all the experiences. Sometimes when I watch the film now, I drift away to all the memories that are associated with it. Even the problems and difficulties bring a smile to my face, as in retrospective, it was all well worth it.

What are your expectations from the movie?

As it would be for any film maker- hope the film connects with people. And going by the responses across board, I feel overwhelmed by it. People of all race, community, age and nationality have had similar responses and I feel it is resonating with them. What more could I ask for?! The film is releasing and I can’t wait to see that.

Firaaq was such a big hit at several festivals worldwide. Did the strength of its reception surprise you?

When I made the film it was primarily meant for the Indian audience as the context is most relevant to people living here. Human emotions are universal and in my travels I realized everywhere in the world people are concerned about violence and their response to it. Across age, nationality, race and gender people have connected with the journeys of the characters. Reactions pretty much have been the same whether it was Toronto, Pusan or Kolkata. I now really happy that what I intended through Firaaq, is truly reaching the audience.

What do you hope audiences will take away with them from the film?

It is not a preachy film so there to there is none.

One of the most poignant moments of the film is its ending which leaves the audience thinking. What was your intention when filming such an ending?

It’s answered once people see the film.

Which story in Firaaq do you think you have executed best?

Each story had different challenges – set of actors, locations, needed a particular head space to work on it. It also tackled different emotions amd all of them together made the film layered. It was really like doing five short films and yet working on it as a whole.

What is the key difference between being an actor and a director?

Acting is doing one of the many things that are needed in the process of filmmaking. Acting is being different people, living through different milieu. For me, in many ways acting to directing was a natural progression. But not without big and small challenges due to the hundreds of factors that need to be dealt with and many simultaneous decisions that need to be made at any given point. I am really glad that the film got made against all odds and from the overwhelming responses received thus far, it seems to be resonating with the different people from different socio-cultural backgrounds.

Directing is far more consuming and obviously very different from acting, as it challenges every aspect of one’s personality. The journey of making Firaaq has pushed my boundaries and by this I don’t mean only creatively. As an actor one doesn’t realize how much more goes into a film than just the shooting. Also, having gone through this experience I feel a film is not the sum total of its parts. Directing entails making choices and decisions at every step and taking responsibility for all its aspects. There are 100 odd people who work on the shoot and as a director, you become like a parent! Also the post production has many technicalities and learning all of that on the job, was both challenging and exciting. But I don’t think I can direct one after the other and would definitely like to take time off to do other things, and acting surely being one of them.

You have played such varied roles in all types of cinema, which film are you proudest of?

There are many. Out of the 30 I have done, I would say I look back on 20 odd films with fondness, and it brings a smile to my face for different reasons. Sometimes the journey was good and sometimes the film was important in what it wanted to say, even though it may not have turned out the way one had imagined. For me, the journey is as important as the end so I can’t really separate the two. To name a few, there was Deepa’s Fire which had an intimate cast and crew; Mrinalda’s film because he’s such a special person, with thousands of stories that I so loved listening; Mani Ratnam for his relentless energizing 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 first-time directors like Chitra Palekar and Kavitha Lankesh, for their passion and commitment (and now I know how difficult it is to make your first film, and maybe more so for women!); And Suman Ghosh’s film for the opportunity to get to know and work with Soumitrada (Chatterjee). You see how different projects have been important to me for different reasons?

Do you have any favourite characters that you feel emotionally connected to even after playing them?

Just like many different favourite films, there are many characters that I can relate to from Sita of Fire, Shanta of Earth, Sanwari of Bawandar and Sajani of Before the Rains. This is just to name a few that start with the letter ‘S’ and are in Hindi/in English. There are many other characters I have enjoyed being that represent a wide range of emotions and journeys.

Is there a certain moment when you know you have found your character?

When you read the script either you connect with the story and the character or you don’t. Once I am convinced about it and at that stage find them believable and the rest just follows.

How do you balance being an actor, director and social activist?

It doesn’t need any balancing. It is easy to find time for what you really want to do. For instance, the past one year went in making Firaaq and everything automatically took a back seat. While I love doing different things, when I am doing something, I like to fully focus on that and be present in that moment. Different means of reaching out interest me and find their time and space instinctively. I don’t see them as being compartmentalized, and in fact feed on each other. Experience in one helps the other and also keeps me going, both in terms of my motivation and expression.

What cause is closest to your heart?

I get affected by the sufferings around me and simply react to it in the way I can. So sometimes it is in the form of doing talks or workshops, sometimes by being an actor in a story that needs to be told, or like the recent venture Firaaq where I felt compelled to direct. But it is never enough and often too many things pull me in different directions. Causes can’t compete with each other, as depending on time and place, they are all important and affect many lives. Of course life experiences do make you closer to some sufferings more than the other, simply because of what you get exposed to and the impact it has on you. Basic human rights’ violation instinctively troubles me and in that sense I feel closer to issues of women, children and all those who become victims of violence, prejudice, exploitation and circumstances. Sometimes when we say cause or issue, it seems something far away and not about lives of people.

What do you feel are your strengths as an actress? What about as a director?

I feel often the same trait becomes a strength and weakness, depending on the circumstances. For instance, spontaneity is great, and brings in a certain magic, but can also be seen as being impulsive and can become a problem. I approach both acting and directing, primarily from my instinct, which in turn is based on how observant and connected you are to realities of the world. In direction, lot of is presence of mind and multi-tasking. In the midst of the production and logistical chaos, one has to keep one’s creative sanity intact. I have realized that a film is not the sum total of its parts and for sure is much more challenging that acting.

Do you plan to direct or produce more movies?

I would surely want to direct more films, but as it is so consuming, I would want to have enough gap between two directorial ventures and do other things in between.

What will we see you in next?

Don’t know yet, but I am reading some scripts and talking to a few directors. But I need to focus fully on Firaaq till it gets released in India, which is hopefully on the 20th of March.

What are your hopes for your career? What are your hopes for Hindi cinema?

I don’t have a career! All the things I do are interests and feel fortunate to have been pursuing them. I just hope I continue doing things that bring me joy and give my life a sense of purpose. There is a lot of money being pumped into Hindi Cinema and by sheer nos. I think some interesting films will happen, where filmmakers will get an opportunity to make films outside the box and experiment with form and content.

Give us 5 words that describe Nandita Das.

It is always tough to describe one self. But if I had to, I would say I am someone who is impulsive, restless, emotional, expressive and an optimist.

The good news for fans of Nandita is that her body of work with Deepa Mehta is about to be reignited with Deepa’s ambitious decision to film Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Work on the movie begins next year with a scheduled release date of early 2010.

It’s quite clear that this impulsive, restless, emotional and expressive spirit will entertain and educate us with many more wonders in the years ahead. BollySpice would like to thank her for the time and trouble she took from her busy schedule to answer all our questions.

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