I first met Nandita Das in 2009 when she accepted my invitation to be the chief guest at the Naveena Awards function, which is linked to a show on women’s issues that I produce for the television channel TV9 (in Hyderabad, India). I was immediately struck by her grounded nature and her clear vision for arts and life itself. We kept in touch over the years during which we exchanged thoughts on a range of subjects from films to LGBT rights and of course social and gender issues. What I admire most about Nandita is her fearlessness. She has never hesitated to speak up on human right issues and to side with the cause of justice for the marginalized. Her involvement with films through acting and directing too is a testament to these deeply held beliefs. When I requested her for a HFP interview she managed to adjust some time in between her extremely tight schedule. She is currently busy with her second directorial project, which is a film on the life of the famous South Asian writer Sadat Hassan Manto.
What inspired you to take up direction?
I don’t even remember when the seed of this film was sown. It had to do with waking up to newspapers filled with stories of violence. It had to do with conversations about identity and the notion of the ‘other’ that would soon turn into arguments, polarizing people instantly. It probably even went back to growing up in a liberal secular environment and gradually finding oneself in the midst of prejudices, forced identities and the many ‘isms’ that make one feel alone and alienated. The sadness, the anger, the helplessness kept growing and a compelling desire to share all those stories with a larger group of people started taking roots. I needed this catharsis. I didn’t start out looking for a story that I could direct; instead the stories found me wanting to be directed.
Do you prefer acting or directing and given a choice which one would you like to focus on?
Direction is far more satisfying, far more challenging, far more stressful and far more consuming, which is why I don’t see myself directing one film after another in quick succession. You need to take a break, you need to live life and you need to recharge your batteries - because it pushes your boundaries like nothing else.
Acting is also interesting because you get to be involved in different stories and get to work with different people, so ideally I’d like to do both and, at the moment, I see no reason why I have to choose one over the other. But conceptually, I would definitely say that directing is more satisfying.
I first read Manto when I was in college and was struck by his simple yet profound narratives. What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. He was irreverent and had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the establishment, often with sharp humor.
Manto was tried six times on charges of obscenity, both in India and Pakistan, for his bold stories. When questioned or challenged on his choice of subject matter, Manto would often retort: “If you cannot bear my stories, it is because these are unbearable times.”
Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world.
Why do you think many women actors have taken up direction in our country? Also has your social work been an influence in the kind of choices you have made in terms of acting or directing?
Women's roles are often so thinly etched out and the pressure of beauty seems to override everything else, that any genuine actor would be hungry for interesting and sumptuous roles. Therefore, many mainstream female actors happily do roles that challenge them in other ways. Some actors like Aparna Sen, Deepti Naval, Deepa Sahi, Konkona Sen and myself, have opted to tell our own stories and have shifted gears to direction. For me, direction is a far more fulfilling journey, while being a hundred times more challenging than acting. It also is far more consuming, and so I don’t see myself being too prolific. Firaaq helped me grow, not just creatively but also emotionally and spiritually. I have seen films, both as an actor and director, as a means and not an end in itself. Maybe it is to do with my social work background, or the innate desire to share relevant stories that I’m unable to see art for its own sake only. My advocacy work and my film work may seem like two separate streams, but I do find them deeply intertwined. It is no different in my ongoing project, which is a film on the life and works of Manto, one of the greatest short story writers of our sub-continent.
After Firaaq, I was repeatedly called for panels on women directors and asked what it was like to be one. My answer was simple. I’m a director who happens to be a woman, and there is no way that I would know what it feels like to be a male director! Having said that, I’m sure my gender, just as my upbringing, my life experiences, my class, my education and my interests, etc. would influence my sensibilities, form and content of my films. Some felt that despite the fact that Firaaq was not a woman-oriented subject, it was evident that a woman had made it. They felt that the women characters were layered and grey, and even though the film was about violence, there was no blood and gore. Some are surprised that both Firaaq and Manto are not typically woman-oriented subjects, as if a woman, or for that matter, a feminist, must only make films on the issues of women. Women think about many different things and are also impacted by them. In any case, Manto is a celebration of a feminist man, though he too would have hated labels.
How has your experience on your film set been? Were there instances where you felt you were judged because of your gender?
When I was directing Firaaq, I could feel a certain amount of sexism even in my crew, in the way they interacted with me and the kind of words they used like “Stop crying” or “Stop being cranky” and other words they would not use if it were a male director asking for something to be done. So as the sexism or the misogyny gets subtler, which often happens in “our class of people,” the more difficult it gets to negotiate with it. Because you can’t take it head on. So I’m very aware of my identity as a woman, no question about it, but the pursuit is to try to be more of a person than to be bogged down by these other identities.
Does an experienced actor make a better director?
For me, in many ways acting to directing was a natural progression. But 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 shoot. 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! Being an actor myself definitely helped my interactions with the actors in the way one could communicate to them. On the sets as an actor, it was always exciting to watch the rest of crew work towards shaping up a scene. Often I would get involved in different aspects of the shoot or simply observe. Slowly the desire to tell stories, the way I wanted to, started growing stronger. So I thought maybe making a film and going through all its phases would be more satisfying.
Why do you think it is important to engage with an audience after the screening?
I thoroughly enjoyed the Q and A sessions after the screening of Firaaq. It is the best way of knowing the spontaneous and instinctive reactions of the audience. The whole idea of doing this film for me was to trigger a dialogue about the growing violence and how we choose to respond to it. In fact, it is these Q and As with various audiences in different parts of the world that has now given me the confidence that my intent behind doing the film is actually reaching people.
Apart from the questions about its inception, writing, casting and challenges, there are always questions I haven’t been asked before. For instance; how did the script change over the three years, why did I say it’s a personal and intimate film even though I have not personally been a victim of violence, and how to visually tell the difference between a Hindu and Muslim to which I said that it was similar to not being able to visually see the difference between a Jew and a Christian.
What is the editing process like for you?
Editing for me has been the most exciting part of the filmmaking process. Shooting was so overwhelming as you are managing many things at the same time and trying to keep your creative sanity in all that madness. But editing was fantastic! I learnt the true meaning of 'a film is made again on the editing table'. You play around with your material, let go of so much and slowly your film starts emerging. My first reactions to the film ranged from 'wow, did I really do that!' (laughs), to 'God, next time I make a film, I am never going to make that mistake’; this definitely has been the most challenging experience for me.
Does it bother you that the audience sees you as a “serious” actor?
To be honest, I don’t take myself or the labels put on me, that seriously. I feel privileged to be living life on my own terms and making my own choices. I came into acting by default and my Human Rights’ background must have influenced my choices in the acting work that I took. Yes I have done more serious roles, and that too of rural women. As all city girls don’t have the same life story, similarly just saying rural women doesn’t mean they all are the same. Also I feel many of these stories needed to be told and I feel happy that I have been part of them. I think not being ambitious frees me from the pressure of proving to the world. Of course I would love to explore different genres and characters, but not those that defy my basic sensibilities and interests. Also I don’t see a character in isolation. The script and the director are just as important, if not more.
What kind of hurdles do independent filmmakers generally face?
The world over and across time, mainstream films have always claimed greater public attention. But there have also always been independent films that have made their presence felt in more ways than one. Only when all parties involved like the filmmakers, producers, distributors, theatre owners and audiences feel the need to make films that are not only governed by commercial factors, there will be more room for independent films. The biggest hurdle that an independent filmmaker faces is the lack of budgets. And then there are times, after crossing all the hurdles, a well-made film finally gets completed only to suffer at the hands of poor promotion and marketing. It’s a pity how a powerful form of creative expression gets reduced to mere economics! I am hoping that multiplexes will give more space to independent films and also regional films (lack of a better word, as they are just as ‘Indian’ as Hindi films). Much of the work that I have done has usually been seen in film festivals in India and abroad and has been released in the state that it comes from. With more money coming into films and audiences being more receptive to new ideas, more producers and directors will hopefully stretch the boundaries. And from this bouquet of films, some are bound to make a mark.