Films | Artist Interviews | NANDITA DAS – FOLLOWING THE SOUL


Posted by Vivek on January 19, 2010 | No Comments

Whether it is in her firebrand performances as an actor, her directorial debut, in the way she chooses to live her life, the soul has to be fulfilled first, for one of India’s finest actors. Even if there was no more to Nandita, than being an actor, it would have been a cup full of talent, and life lived on her own terms. But there is more, the cup is overflowing, what with her Masters degree in Social Work, her work for the various social causes, the Chairpersonship of the Children’s Film Society of India and then last year saw her directorial debut in Firaaq.

The challenge was not so much in the making of the film, sure that was hard too, but it was more of the Bollywood systems obstacles that she faced, after the release of the film. There is a lot more to Indian films than Bollywood, but there are few artists that can match the talent, persistence and will of Nandita Das. Here we catch up with her and get some straight talk:

Your directorial debut Firaaq (

& , has been a challenging process, does it now motivate you to direct more projects?
Definitely it has been challenging and stressful experience, but at the same time also very exciting and empowering, because you are able to tell your own story in your own way. As an actor you are at the mercy of the projects that come to you and that too you play a very small role in the whole film making process. So, yes I would like to direct more. I didn’t have a very pleasant experience with the producers and it was a downer, which took me some time to get over. Marketing of the film in today’s time, is as, if not more important, and you put your heart and soul into it and finally it boils down to how it’s promoted or marketed. Looking back, I’ve learned quite a few lessons and have now in fact begun thinking about my new project.

You did not cast yourself as an actor, in your directorial debut? Is that hopefully, going to change in the future?
It was sort of a conscious choice because I did envisage that it’s a first film, a fairly challenging project, five stories, five different main locations, shoe string budget, I shot the whole film in 30 days, I knew going in, that it would be challenging enough in many aspects. Somehow I didn’t even miss acting , cause being an actor the joy one got of working with other actors and having the opportunity to step back and look at performances and work on them with the actors, was in itself quite exciting. It’s not like I missed being in the film.

Has the market become more receptive to the Middle Ground films, that you were attempting to make, in India?
It may sound a bit of a cynical opinion, but I do think that we in India do a lot of safe playing. When we get to see world cinema all over and countries that make 5 or 10 or 20 films a year, are still pushing the boundaries and we claim to make a thousand films a year and still don’t experiment enough. Probably because commercial aspects always interfere with art and therefore at every level, whether it’s the producer, the exhibitor, the maker, somehow always  have a “safe zone” mentality. That is why there aren’t too many films that tell different stories or even tell a story differently. While audiences are looking for different stories and stories that push the boundaries, does get more interest, I wouldn’t say it’s the norm. There have been interesting films that have not done that well in the box office, or there have been films that are not so great and seem to be doing well commercially, so I don’t know what the rules are! I’ve always been out of it, but I do hope there will be more space for beyond the mainstream type of films, for independent cinema, for which the space is actually shrinking.

Is that because India is obsessed with this Gross Revenue model as opposed to the Return on a Budget Investment?
I don’t know because there are a lot of big films coming up as well, fifty crore films and over fifty crores, so it is very star driven, the initial box office collections, then there are the smaller films or the multiplex films, but even those are more sort of fun flicks. There aren’t that many films that are just telling stories of the common person. Where are those middle class stories? Much of it has become sort of a South Mumbai saga. Of course I am generalizing here, but most of the films we see tend to be of a certain kind. So not sure, sometimes I feel more pessimistic about it, then there are times you think you’ve got to be hopeful, when such a film does find that space, you also feel encouraged. And despite it all one can’t take a pessimistic view, because otherwise this space will shrink further. So both as an actor and with Firaaq, one has tried to continue doing the work one believes in. You hope there is a market for it, the more you do it the more doors open, and this also opens the door for other films in that space.  So even as an actor many of my films haven’t had big releases,  but many of them are stories that I feel need to be told. To each their own, I will continue doing films that I can connect or relate with or as an audience the onesI would like to see.

As an actor, you have a significant audience in the US and UK (and Canada too). Was Firaaq adequately marketed to them, cause I don’t think I saw it in the theaters here (in the US)?
The film went to more than 50 festivals, it won about 10 international awards and we got a Sales Agent right from the start, but unfortunately I had a bit of a tragic story with my producers, who for whatever reasons were not helpful to the Sales Agent. It’s been over a year and they haven’t even given the basic materials, that are needed to sell a film. As a result the sales agent who had been getting offers, despite the difficulties of selling serious foreign language films, they could not sell it anywhere. It has been frustrating and one does hope that when Financiers and Producers make films such as these, it is not only to increase their profile, get a decent film on a shoe string budget, get a few awards, but actually have faith in the project and go that extra mile and support the film maker. Recently Channel 4 (UK) bought it, but even that was such a struggle.

You’re the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society of India (CISF), stepping into that role from Nafisa Sodhi, what has been that experience like and also what lead to accepting that position?
This offer came to be sometime in Aug. My film had released in Mar (all 09), I took a bit of a break and then decided to start reading the scripts that have come to me as an actor. It came at a strange juncture and I was unsure whether I should even take it up since it was an honorary position and one can really do as much or as little as one wants. Knowing myself I knew I would dive into it and I also thought it’s a great opportunity to make a little difference, as there is such a dearth of children’s films. In a way it was a new area for me, but I also have experience in films, have worked with children before, I have gone to so many festivals and so I took this opportunity. The first assignment was to deal with the International Children’s Festival in Nov. 09. Suddenly I was on the other side of actually organizing a festival and it was interesting how one could pull out on all those experiences, which I had as an actor and a director, going to various festivals. I am also trying to make some systemic changes, beyond the individual, because my tenure is for three years, there are a lot of things one wants to do, when a system is put in place, whether it is rules and regulations of procuring films, obtaining good scripts, or marketing the films – we have over 250 films but they have not been marketed. There is a real dearth of indigenous content. There are so many television channels with children’s programme but if you really look at them, they are not truly meant for children. We are talking to various distributors, talking to Doordarshan, which has a large reach, and also encouraging good filmmakers to make films for children. Many filmmakers don’t want to even venture into this, cause they are like, “what’s the point, it will be stuck in cans”. So everything is interconnected but one is trying to encourage the makers, writers, animators, to contribute towards this. I’m getting a lot of support and a lot of enthusiasm, but there are many challenges.

Talk about the various social causes you are involved with, any one more important than others?
I feel it is always difficult to compete with issues, all are important in their own way.  Mainly it is about marginalization of people- victims of violence, those who don’t really get a voice, whether they are women, children or minorities. People are of primary concern, but one cannot ignore the environment. I want to learn more about that and do my little bit. I’m trying to narrow it down, but sometimes some things become more important than the other. When I was in Rajasthan shooting for  a film , the dearth of water makes you believe that is the most important issue for them . At another time ,when a case of rape occurs then one begins protesting about that. Basically all issues are of concern but one has to channel one’s energies to do the best one can. I don’t have a pet issue and often people say, why don’t you take one issue. But I feel in any case, all these issues are interconnected. While Firaaq for example is about sectarian violence, but you cannot see it in isolation. It also has to be seen in the context of class and gender divide.

Your upcoming projects as a director?
I have just begun the journey of thinking, so from there to the doing of it, is a long one. Some thoughts and ideas have just started germinating.  I’m also reading scripts written by other that have come to me to direct and I’m open to doing that too. It’s about finding what would really grabs my interest.

What are the odds of seeing you in a TV soap or a pure play Bollywood film?

As a person I don’t think I can do something that I don’t really believe in. I cannot separate what I would do for money and what I would do for my soul. For me everything needs to be done for the soul and earn what I can from that. And when your needs are low you don’t really need that much money, so  till now I have been fine. In terms of working for television soaps, to be honest I don’t even watch TV, so it not even as a viewer I can say I wish I was there. In fact when I do watch TV, it often agitates me. Of course not that one can generalize, as television in going to probably be the most important form of communication considering it has reached our bedrooms. So you never know, one would probably at some point do an interesting show which deals with certain concerns close to my heart, but nothing as of now.  And Bollywood, as an actor, if I haven’t done it in the last 13 years, why would I do it now?!

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