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The Privilege Of Being NANDITA DAS

November 2005
The Privilege Of Being NANDITA DAS

As a social worker and activist who has fought for children's rights, women's rights and communal harmony, she has seen?up-close?the depths of despair. On the other extreme, as one of India's most critically acclaimed actress, she has known the giddiness of glamour and the high-life. Here, in an exclusive interview with Khabar, Nandita Das talks about the privilege (and the challenge) of just being herself? and having a blast at it.


On an evening dedicated to a highly philosophical discussion about war and peace involving the heavyweight philosopher Dr. Deepak Chopra, one would hardly expect to encounter a Bollywood star. And we didn't. Instead, we encountered Nandita Das who first came onto the public stage through her role in Deepa Mehta's controversial film Fire. Now, after many films under her belt and a critical acclaim nearing that of veteran Shabana Azmi, one thing that Nandita still doesn't associate with is Bollywood! Indeed, she is one of the rare Indian film stars who continues to reside in her native New Delhi rather than moving to Mumbai, India's Tinseltown?to stay away from "all that incestuous gossip."

Nandita's reputation as a person of substance was firmly established long before she had remotely considered a place in film acting. "People think that I started acting first and then social work, although it is the other way round," she says citing her Masters in social work. Not that she needs to sell herself as a person who is fully engaged with society. Whether or not one agrees with her causes (such as her activism along with Medha Patkar in the Narmada Bachao Andolan), one can't dispute that she is concerned enough to give of herself to what she believes in.

The activist in her is evident in her film career as well: Fire, Earth, Water, Bawandar? the list goes on, of cinema that may be controversial, but is certainly powerful and socially relevant.

So, is she too good for plain old fun cinema? "Of course not! Some of the art films are boring and pretentious and I don't want to do them as much as I don't want to do a superficial mindless one?the running around the trees kind." While not a prolific actor by Bollywood standards ("I don't consider acting as a career, just an interest."), Nandita has to her credit a few good trendy films as well, such as Aks, Supari, and Bus Yun Hi.

Coming to know Nandita, it does not come as a surprise that she happened to be in Atlanta at a recent talk titled, "War, Peace and the American Imagination," at Emory University. The discussion featured Deepak Chopra, arguably, an American phenomenon in the areas of mind-body studies, spirituality, and philosophy, and James Hillman, an equally profound thinker and the founder of Archetypal Psychology. Nandita had been touring with Chopra having come onboard Chopra's "Alliance for a New Humanity." A unique organization, the Alliance strives to "create a more compassionate, just, peaceful and equitable society."

In light of the profound discussion at Emory University the previous night, we started our conversation with the subject of war and peace.

What do you think about the so-called inevitability of war?

Peace seems such an intangible, abstract and an over-idealized word; but I think it is really the need of the hour. I have read a bit of Dr Hillman. [His assertion] that our intrinsic nature is violent is a different way of looking at it. He has done substantial research in his field and I concede that there may be some truth behind this theory. But it was apparent [from the discussion] that even he believes in the possibility of peace. Deepak Chopra, on the other hand is eminently well read and has a deep conviction in peace. Indeed, that is the very impetus behind the Alliance for a New Humanity. What is refreshing is that they were not talking about two opposing sides; they were just looking at it from a different perspective. Human beings have been violent and there have been wars from the very beginnings. But now, we have become far more sophisticated, and are gaining the wisdom that we have become more dangerous as beings. And America specially calls itself superpower and is supposed to be the most democratic country. It talks about freedom and equality. But everything it stands for is being questioned now, the Iraq war, Katrina, and the way things were handled. It's really a time for people to become more introspective. America and its policies affect the whole world.

What is your role in the Alliance?

They were not well represented from South Asia and were looking for more people. I think that even representing India is impossible because it is almost a continent with all its variety, but as a concerned citizen you want to be a part of something like this. That's how you meet different people, you become less judgmental, look at new ideas, and you see what you can replicate. Lot of thought and work has been happening in this area; so instead of reinventing the wheel why not learn from one another? That being the idea, I got to know [Chopra's] thoughts and ideas. To be honest, earlier I used to think he was just marketing spirituality. Most Indians in India haven't read him much and he doesn't come [to India] as often. So I was unsure about him, but now I know him for a year, and through the work of the Alliance have come to know him as a very insightful person. There are some very good minds at work here.

Talking about good minds, it has been my fantasy to ask the following question to a thinking person from Bollywood: When it comes to originality, creativity and a broad spectrum of themes, Hollywood seems to be lights years ahead of Indian cinema. Does the industry really think that the Indian masses cannot appreciate good cinema?

Absolutely not. I think that there are two parts to this question. First, I disagree that Hollywood is light years ahead of Indian cinema. Yes, there is a lot of space for independent films here, but some of the Hollywood flicks are as trashy and formulistic, even the big ones such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith?it is so far fetched. What I would like to compare Bollywood is with world cinema. Even smaller countries like Poland and Iran, where there is a lot of suppression, even they come out with great films. Their sensitivity, their cinematic language [is superior]. Whereas we have so much of literature, we have so much sensitivity. Technically also?in terms of cinematography?we are very good. Then, what is it that is going wrong? I have spoken to many of my filmmakers about this. I have also often asked myself, and to be honest I haven't come up with any clear-cut answers.

Do you think that it has something to do with market economics?

Yes, I think you are right. Because of commercial pressures, the big fishes are totally eating the small ones. Earlier we had a lot of regional films. Even now they are there, but they have to struggle against the big commercial ones. The whole racket, from the producer to the theaters, it is all about the money. But you are right, who are we to assume that the masses will not understand good cinema? I think that the NRI (Non Resident Indian) population is also responsible for encouraging the [same old] mainstream fare. It's as if our youth wants to hold a fantasized image of India that they or their parents left behind. But people don't live like that! They don't jump up to Switzerland or New Zealand or whatever in a heartbeat. I think that it is important that Indians outside create a demand [for good cinema]. If there is such a market amongst global Indians, then automatically economic prospects will become better for such films.

Since films and social issues are your fields, what do you think of critics such as Vaijantimala (Censor board member and actress) who claim that we are now blindly aping the West when it comes to sexual exhibitionism and voyeurism, as exemplified by movies such as Jism and themes such as wife swapping? How does that affect a society that has traditionally had a guarded approach towards sexuality?

We have to differentiate between films about sexuality and films that are for titillation.

Sexuality is a part of human psyche. For me a film like Fire that explores sexuality and marriage and lack of choices is commendable. As to films that use sex just to sell, it has been happening worldwide. The West with all the so-called freedom is still obsessed with it. So obviously there is something intrinsic, especially with men. It is such a male dominated society. Most of the films are made by a man, keeping in mind the man. That's the system we are dealing with. So I don't think that we can escape it. We like to romanticize the past. But look at Helen and even Asha Parekh. I am sure our parents and grandparents must have thought it risqu� to see songs like "Ab to aaja." And these were mainstream actresses. And eventually cinema is a reflection of society. Whatever happens in society invariably get reflected, especially the morality point of view.

It could be vice versa.

Less of it. I think films affect society less than what people think it does. I think life feeds in much more to cinema. There are people who have not seen films and are yet violent.

If there is objectification of women then it is bound to reflect [in cinema].

Any regrets not being a commercial Bollywood diva?

No! People constantly tell me that you are going to regret it later. You have nothing really to showcase and you made a silly choice living in Delhi. But the way I see it, if you are going to be in conflict with yourself [doing certain films], if you think that you are uncomfortable doing what you are doing, then you are going to be unhappy. If the thing is not my calling then why would I push myself? In that sense, to be on the jury at Cannes [Film Festival] was a validation of the fact that you can be doing what you want to do even if it is considered silly by the fraternity.

From your roles in films like Fire, Earth, Water, Bavandar and Hazar chorasi ki ma which one do you identify yourself with, and which one did you enjoy the most?

Each one is special for different reasons. If I say that I identify more with Fire than Earth then people will want to scandalize that?wondering whether she has a lesbian side to her! In Earth, the character is not so political and she is not always thinking; she just wants the person she loves; she is really victim of circumstances. Whereas Sita in Fire is a more questioning person; she is a rebel. She wants to know why is it like this; why don't we have choices. Why a button is pressed and she has to act like a monkey and start responding. So there is something spontaneous about her. So in that way I can relate more to Sita than Shanta. Whereas in Bawandar it is an ordinary woman who is gang raped and the film is about her struggle for justice; it is about an ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary. So there is something about these characters that I relate with. When I read the script I look at more than just my role. I see the story more than my role, and ask myself if this is a story I would like to do. My last film is called Provoked and recently I was in London and a person came up and said why are you playing second fiddle to Aishwarya Rai? I said that I don't see it that way. The film is made by the director of Bawandar, who is a friend; and it is about an abuse case that happened in London. I am playing an activist in it.

Maybe Aishwarya Rai maybe fantasizing doing some of the strong cinema that you do?

The minute you start competing others? well, it's a lost case. Because each one goes through a different journey. I am lucky that I live in Delhi, and because of the kind of work I do, Bollywood has also left me alone. Mainstream cinema doesn't do the ratings for me when they do the ratings. They perceive me as an activist, and activists perceive me as an actress. So everyone wants to slot me, and I just like to say that I just like to do the things that I do.

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