Nandita Das is an award-winning Indian film actor and director who is passionate about social issues related to women, children and marginalized communities. More recently she is among the recipients of the 2014 Yale World Fellow honor, a prestigious distinction given out annually by Yale University.
Tell us more about yourself and what you do. You have a Masters degree in Social Work, how did you get into acting?
I did my Masters in Social Work and was involved with a couple of NGOs, mainly working on women’s issues initially and children later. I got into acting completely by default. In college, I had done street theatre but that was a very different form. It however exposed me to many realities, like; we did plays on women’s issues, economic issues and on issues of community violence. Pretty much everything in my life has come by default. I met Deepa Mehta through a common friend and that’s how Fire (my first film) was released. Because of the subject matter, it garnered a lot of attention and one thing led to another and I started getting more offers. However, even today, I personally don’t see acting as a profession but more as an interest. I do movies that I like. Increasingly I realized that, the kind of films that were being made in Hindi cinema were not the kinds I wanted to do. That opened more doors to regional cinema. I started exploring regional films, which were as Indian as any Hindi film. More interesting stories were being told in regional cinema. They somehow could afford to compromise less and have more integrity. In fact some of my better work is in regional language. I’ve now done 40 odd films in 10 different languages. In between, I would do a lot of advocacy work on various issues. Being an actor gave me those platforms to work on topics that were close to my heart. In some ways my acting work and social work fed on each other, helped me grow as a person as well, exposed me to lots of different people, issues and places.
In 2008 I directed a film because I felt like there is a story that I wanted to tell in my own way. As an actor, one is only entering the film space for a short while. Actors are perceived to be larger than they are, but they actually play a very small role in the process of filmmaking. I did Firaaq that was an incredibly challenging but an interesting experience for me.
Two years later I wrote, directed and acted in a play – ‘Between the lines’. It’s a contemporary play that deals with subtle inequalities that exist in well-educated, affluent couples. We always think inequalities exist between the uneducated /poor people but there are many subtle inequalities even amongst our class of people. Women struggle in their own ways. Specially working women, they juggle between the traditional roles that they have been assigned to for generations and the modern roles of wanting to work. Women have as many aspirations, desires, talents and skills as men and of course they are questioning the status quo. Women have to battle those conflicts. The play was really about the dilemmas of a working woman.
I was also the chairperson of the children’s film society for three years. I didn’t take the extension as it took a whole lot of my time and energy. I’ve done various things at different times in life; they all have helped me become the person I am. I don’t see myself doing any one thing. Your passion grows with multiple things because you care about various things and you see the inter-linkages between them.
Tell us more about your directorial debut ‘Firaaq’. Can you talk about some of the challenges in filming and in your chosen career? How did you overcome them?
There are many subtle challenges that we face as a woman director. No one directly told me that I am a woman director but the way they behaved with me made it very evident. Whether it was the crew or the people around me. Initially, I was not taken seriously enough. If I complained about something they told me to stop whining or crying about it. They made sexist remarks. If work needed to be done at night, they assumed that being a woman I couldn’t make it late in the night. But it’s only with my work, with my commitment, my confidence that slowly people started taking me seriously, because they finally saw the work. It’s a very slow process. But I think changing the mindset is a slow process, it’s not something that happens in a day. But with every action of yours or everything you say, think and do, it does make an impact. After all, how have we reached where we have? It’s because so many other women have opened doors for us. They have made it possible. Told us it is possible and they have shown us how to tread on those paths. Similarly, it’s something we have to pay forward. Others have opened doors for us; we have to open doors for other women, who don’t have a similar platform/upbringing, voice or space. In fact, I owe a lot to my own upbringing where my parents treated both my brother and me equally. I feel privileged in so many ways. As a woman, the freedom, the kind of questioning space I grew up with was inspirational. I was never made to feel a girl.
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
There is no one inspiration. There are many people who have come into my life. I have been fortunate in meeting so many interesting people. Women who have been so courageous in their life choices and the things they do. They have been so inspirational. They may not be big names but they are phenomenal women whom we think off as ordinary women because they are away from the public glare. But actually they have done some amazing things in their life. The way they have given their time and energy to doing things for social change and have battled through their own personal/life conditions. The way they have negotiated through their difficulties has been very inspirational.
From acting to directing and now producing. Any personal ambitions yet unattained? Are there any new projects you’re working on that you can talk about?
I don’t see life as ambitions. I have never been very ambitious. If I were ambitious my life choices would have been different. But dreams – yes, I have many dreams to do lots of different things. In my life so much has come by default. Today I am at Yale doing a four months course on leadership. If you had asked me even a day before I was applying, had I planned for this, I would have said no. I don’t see myself as a leader, why would I do a leadership course? I didn’t think that such a possibility existed. But here I am with my child, he is doing his day care and I am juggling between school and home. I am taking courses, teaching, being a student; it’s an incredible experience. What is important is being open to the innumerable possibilities that life has to offer. Every choice you make opens doors for some other choices. You only connect the dots backwards. I don’t even know who recommended my name to Yale. I was nominated for this program. Everything connects with the things you do. You have to be really sincere and honest about your intent as to what you do in life and slowly things start opening up.
I have many dreams, I want to direct another film for sure. I have a story in mind, which I am eager to share. But it’s a long process. Direction unlike acting, is much more time consuming. Just the process of writing takes a year or two and then to put the cast and crew together and then to find someone to fund the kind of films I am interested in, all of this is not easy. But at least the journey has begun and I am happy about that.
What are some personal instances that led you on to the path of social activism?
I think one’s childhood and what you are exposed to does have a big influence. Both my parents are very socially conscious human beings without all the ‘isms’. They are secular, feminist, egalitarian and inclusive without knowing these big words. They are naturally like that. For me to be able to grow up organically in that kind of an atmosphere where everybody was included, they just did things for other people was inspirational. We were always told to be more sensitive towards those who have less than us.
I am now a mother and more aware than ever. Children imbibe from not what we tell them, but how we actually are, our deeds and from our actions. My mother comes from a Gandhian family; my father is a complete humanist, extremely sensitive. Even though he is an artist he does many more things beyond that. Even for art, he is not just a practicing artist he is really interested in arts and crafts. He has a real issue with people being just called artisans/craftsmen because he feels they are much more that artisans. They are equal to contemporary artists who demand so much more for their art. So I’ve grown up seeing their commitment in trying to make the world a better place in their own little way. Many of their friends and the people I grew up with had a similar conscious. They all influenced me in the early stages. Then doing street theatre with Safdar Hashmi. Seeing his commitment and seeing how art can be used for social change was inspirational. My Masters in social work exposed me to many realities. One thing led to another, if you have that kind of a longing you attract similar people. They inspire you and sometimes you inspire them and it’s a wonderful circle of life and friends where you grow with each other
What is your idea of an empowered woman?
I don’t think one can ever use that word in the past tense. I don’t think anybody is empowered. One is always in the process of empowering oneself. It’s a life long process because there is so much of inherent inequality in the world that women are always trying to find a place. We are not in competition with the man, we are just wanting that space to make the choices we want to make. The hindrances are sometimes such deep conditioning that we may think that we are making a choice but we are just playing out the roles that are embedded in our conditioning. It’s a complex process. Empowering is, to just be comfortable in our skin, to be who we are and to recognize it. It’s not always easy to be who we are. For instance, women suffer from a deep sense of guilt all the time. Even though I talk about these issues, interact with so many women and have so much freedom, despite that, I recognize that I do feel guilty sometimes when I am stretched in my role as a wife, as a daughter, mother or in my work. One is all the time feeling that one has not done enough. We all want to be a superwoman. There are many battles that we have to fight. And yet not be aggressive and still keep nurturing what we call feminine qualities – loving, nurturing and caring. How do we keep all of these beautiful qualities and yet be aware of our rights? Be aware of what is due to us as a human being and be a complete person. There are no easy answers, as long as a woman is aware and working towards it, one is on the journey of being empowered.
Message for our readers related to women’s personal safety and the issue of violence against women.
Till the world becomes a safer place in general, a more sensitive, a more compassionate, a more inclusive and a more equal place, I think one has to ensure ones own personal safety because no one else is going to come and do it. For that, the core thing is being confident. If you are confident, you are less vulnerable and fragile to attacks. Confidence is a big deterrent for people to pounce or attack you.
To have true inner confidence, one has to have a good self-esteem. You have to feel less guilty, feel less low and ill equipped about your self. So I think I would put confidence as a key issue. Then of course, you have to be smart enough to negotiate through whether it’s a lonely road, late at night or the kind of people you are working with. You have to be sharp enough to be able to see when something untoward is coming towards you. It always helps to equip oneself with some self-defense training. If you are confident and someone attacks you, you will be quick at handling that. Lot of issues get taken care off with just having a strong mind; it always makes your body stronger.
Nandita Das wears many hats and her fiery passion to make a difference is evident in the choices she has made, both professionally and personally. She has acted in over 40 feature films in 10 Indian languages, and in three professional plays. She directed her debut feature, Firaaq, in 2008 that won her much appreciation and accolades in India and abroad. After her Masters in Social Work, she continues to advocate issues of social justice and human rights. Between the Lines marks her debut as a playwright and theatre director. She writes a monthly column called the Last Word, for a national weekly. She was the Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, India, where she made many big and small changes to revamp the organization. She was on the jury of Cannes Film Festival twice (2005 and 2013). The French Government conferred her with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 2008), their prestigious civilian award.