Tete-a-tete with Actress and Activist Nandita Das

Actress Nandita Das with director Nagesh Kukunoor at the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) organized by Manoj and Geeta Singh. Photo credit: Ceasar Productions

Nandita Das Gets Candid on Issues that Disturb, Concern, Inspire her!

By Geeta Goindi

Gaithersburg, Maryland, September 12, 2014 — It would be an understatement to describe Nandita Das as an award-winning, acclaimed actress or director. She is all that and more! Her larger-than-life persona cannot be confined or contained by mere epithets!

We, at INDIA THIS WEEK, caught up with the renowned artiste (she bristles at the word ‘celebrity’) at the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF). Spanning three days, the festival, organized by Manoj and Geeta Singh of Ceasar Productions, is among the finest community events in the Washington area offering a valuable platform to independent film-makers, artistes and really to all connected with movies. Nandita was headlining the event together with actors Manoj Bajpayee and Senthil Ramamurthy, directors Prakash Jha and Nagesh Kukunoor and comedian Dan Nainan – all celebrated artistes in their own right!

On opening night, clad in a simple black and bronze ‘Anarkali’ ensemble, she was the epitome of elegance as she walked gracefully on the customary Red Carpet with her four-year-old son Vihaan. As an actress, she is best known for her performances in Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ and ‘Earth’, ‘Bawander’ directed by Jagmohan Mundhra and ‘Amaar Bhuvan’ directed by Mrinal Sen.

At the outset, we would like to state that speaking to Nandita is a privilege and an unforgettable experience. She exudes a warmth that immediately puts you at ease. And in the process of interviewing her, one learns a lot about life, humanity, making a difference!

She describes herself as “somebody who is restless, somebody who wants to do many different things. I just try to find different ways of expressing myself for the things I care about, for the things that disturb me, for the things that inspire me”, she said. “All these things are a means to the end; they are not the end itself”!

Whether it’s a film as a director or an actor, whether it’s a play or a column that she writes, the drive to express herself is always omnipresent. We queried her about the monthly column she writes for an Indian national magazine, The Week. “It allows me to express myself”, she said. “I care about many different things. I write about anything under the sun – it can be about the challenges of motherhood, going to an event, about a Dalit issue, what I feel about this whole relationship with the domestic help”.

Actress and activist Nandita Das with ghazal and Sufi singers Poojaa Shah Talwar (left) and Vatsala Mehra at the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) organized by Manoj and Geeta Singh of Ceasar Productions, at RIO Entertainment Center in Maryland. Photo credit: left – Amar Talwar Photography

It is noteworthy, that Nandita is currently at the prestigious Yale University for a four-month fellowship. “My last column which went out yesterday was about this experience of being at Yale, back on campus”, she told us. “I’ve never studied in these fancy campuses. I studied at Delhi University and the whole concept of higher education was very different. To be able to come to Yale with this wonderful fellowship is a very interesting experience”, she said.

Nandita is taking two courses, including one on leadership, which allows her time for other pursuits. “I hope to work on my next script”, she disclosed. “I have a story. I directed in 2008 (‘Firaaq’), so it’s been a fair amount of time. It’s still going to take time. I do take time in terms of writing the script, mulling over it, re-writing it, because I feel the screenplay is the backbone of the film”.

Reticent to reveal the storyline, she mused, “it’s a very important and interesting subject. It’s about a person, a slice-of-life from a particular person. It’s a period film set in the 1940s, so it has it’s own challenges in terms of there is a lot of material, but you need to read and research and pick out what you really want”. We wanted to know if she would be starring in the film. “At the moment, I am just focusing on writing and directing the film. I haven’t thought about acting in it”, she replied.

We couldn’t help asking: So, acting isn’t of paramount importance to you? “It isn’t”, she answered. “I know I’m perceived more as an actor. I have done 40 films in 10 different languages. Many of these films are in regional languages that most people don’t even get to see or know about. But, I feel they are honest stories. There are more interesting stories sometimes in these films that we call regional cinema. But, they are as Indian as Hindi cinema. Some of my better experiences have been in these films”, she said.

Actress and activist Nandita Das at the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival

Regarding the DCSAFF, Nandita noted, “It’s a small festival. What I like is the spirit. It has got it’s heart in the right place and it’s trying to bring good cinema to the audience of this region”. She pointed out that the organizers, aided by volunteers, “are really making it South Asian because they are getting films from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It’s a good beginning”, she said. “I’m sure the festival will grow and learn from its challenges”. On her own part, she affirmed, “I’m always happy to support new initiatives because I know it is very difficult to start something”.

When we asked her about the importance of such festivals, she pondered, “I think we either put them on pedestals and say if this film has gone to a festival, it must be good, or we run them down and think just because it’s gone to a festival, it doesn’t mean it’s a good film. It’s neither”, she stressed. “A festival is yet another platform to showcase films, to have an opportunity to interact with actors, directors and film-makers. I think it’s a wonderful platform especially for independent cinema where the space is shrinking. Much of the space has been taken over by the mainstream cinema. So, film festivals provide the space for independent cinema, for audiences to be able to see these films. Otherwise they would never see them”.

Always a trailblazer, Nandia was at the festival with a new endeavor, ‘Between the Lines’, which is a CinePlay, a word she has coined. “We are trying to capture theater in a cinematic way”, she explained.

‘Between the Lines’ is a home production with her husband, Subodh Maskara. “It’s my husband’s initiative”, Nandita told us. “I’m playing more of a supportive role”.

It’s really a riveting concept and, as we discovered, so relevant – capturing theater cinematically! “Anything new, of course, is challenging”, Nandita said. “But, so many plays have just come and gone. You will never be able to see some great classics because they have not been documented. They have not been archived. Also, theater has remained, sadly, an elite activity because it’s only in urban areas, it’s a little more expensive, you have to have access in terms of time, space, money, etc. It hasn’t really reached out to other audiences. So, when you capture it on film, it becomes accessible to many more people whether you are in New Jersey or a small town in India. It’s archived for posterity; you can see it”. Furthermore, in India where so many languages and dialects are spoken, one can use sub-titles in a CinePlay to reach diverse audiences.

When it comes to social issues, Nandita sees herself as a “catalyst”. She is affiliated with a number of humanitarian groups without being tied to any. “For me, the cause is bigger than the organization”, she said. “I prefer to support various organizations. There are some fabulous organizations doing amazing work on the ground. I try to be a catalyst”. She mentioned that she often writes about these organizations which are focusing on issues pertaining to women, children, primarily on marginalization and discrimination. “Even in the US, so much discrimination, segregation does exist”, she noted.

Nandita is in the news again, this time as the face of the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. “Many of the actors who were darker have all become lighter over the course of their films”, she quipped. “I think it’s an important campaign”, she told us, one which has yielded a tangible result. The regulatory body which governs the issue has banned four ads including those with Shah Rukh Khan and John Abraham, and it now has stricter guidelines for fairness creams.

“Anything that demeans, that puts you down, that says you can’t be successful, you can’t get a job, you can’t get a lover because you are dark, is completely prohibited. So, that’s a very big step”, she said.

Scenes from a riveting fashion show at the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) organized by Manoj and Geeta Singh in Rockville, Maryland. At top left, acclaimed actress Nandita Das is seen with fashion designer Namita Arora of Fusion Fashions which helps “women look beautiful while supporting a charitable cause, all at the same time”.

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