Nandita Das, the name says it all! She is an actor, a social activist and now a director. With her upcoming film Firaaq, Nandita is all set to venture into the world of film direction. She has recently won a special award at the 49th Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece for her directorial debut film Firaaq before its release in India.
In a tete-e-tete with Monika Bakshi, Nandita Das speaks out her heart and about her new ventures.
1. Firaaq is your directorial debut. How are you feeling about it?
As an actress I have always chosen stories and characters that I could relate to, that were believable and reflected my own concerns and beliefs. So the opportunity to be able to tell your own story, your own way, now as a director has been even more gratifying. Through the film, I was able to share my concern and helplessness about the violence that we are witnessing around us. Look at the recent terrorist attacks, before that the Christian killings and the list is long… How can violence ever be justified and how can we turn away from it and not speak up for the innocent who are being made more voiceless than ever. Cinema is a powerful medium to bring stories to the people and has subtle impact on the way people think and choose to react. Going by the reactions I have got thus far from audiences across board- Toronto, NY, London, Pusan, Kolkata and now Greece, it seems to be connecting with people. Closer home, I showed the film at the Kolkata Film Festival and was truly overwhelmed by the amazing response I got. I am glad that where it is most relevant and relatable, people are reacting so positively to the film. What I intended, is reaching its viewers. I am looking forward to the release in India on the 23rd of January 2009.
2. For most of your films have been carrying a social message, can we expect Firaaq to be another film with a message?
I don’t quite like ‘messagy’ films, but I instinctively do anchor towards films with a social conscience. Firaaq is a human interest film, about the impact of violence on our lives and relationships. There is hardly any violence in the film but you feel fear, tension, prejudice…the lingering effects of violence. There is no overt message and all it says is that violence spares nobody and so it is up to us how we choose to respond to it. For me Firaaq is really a means to an end, an attempt to trigger a dialogue, a stirring within us. It is not a film about pointing fingers or preaching an easy solution, but the idea is to raise a lot of questions we hesitate to ask ourselves.
3. Firaaq means separation or quest. Why have you chosen this as a title to your film?
It began with In Such Times because we initially were writing it in English. Then I was looking for a Hindi/Urdu word. After quite a hunt and debate about titles, I settled on Firaaq. It has a dual meaning with a nice ring to it. It means both, separation and quest. I have kept both the meanings, as I feel optimistic on one day and pessimistic on another and so are the journeys of my characters! There is a separation happening in our hearts and minds and there is also a quest, a search that is inevitable. There is a ghazal by the first Urdu poet, Wali , 12th century AD, in which he talks about the anguish caused by his separation (firaaq) from Gujarat, so there was also a poetic reference.
4. Tell us about the cast. Why didn’t you choose to act in Firaaq?
Well, I felt that while directing, I wanted to focus on all the aspects that I would have to deal with. I didn’t want to add yet another burden, to my already challenging task of direction. Although in my future films, as and when I do, I think if there is a role that I feel I would be right for, I would be less hesitant. People also suggested that I do a Hitchcockian appearance ( or Subhash Ghaian, as the case maybe!), but in Firaaq there is no moment where one can afford to get distracted and come out of the story and its characters to see the ‘director’. I am glad I didn’t act in Firaaq!
I have to say that half the job is done in doing the right casting. In fact I had some actors in mind even while scripting and feel thrilled that they are in the film. They are, Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Raghubir Yadav and Deepti Naval. Despite being so experienced and acclaimed, these actors were very open to trying out things differently. They, and the other actors, brought a lot to the project. I took it as a big compliment, when Naseeruddin Shah SMS’d me just after the shoot “Mighty impressed by your precise and clear instructions!” Paresh Rawal often asks me when I am starting my next film, that too a comedy, which actually I would love to do! Deepti Naval saw the film only in NY a couple of months back and was so moved that she didn’t want to speak after that. This is only to name a few as each of the actors, gave their best and gave me the pleasure of working with them.
5. You have acted in a Pakistani film which was screened in Osian’s-Cinefan film festival this year. Share your experience of working in a Pakistani film.
I had a wonderful time shooting in the Sindh, in Pakistan. Unfortunately the film industry there isn’t anything to write home about. So it was a huge challenge for Mehreen (the director) to put a project like this together. Almost all the people who worked on the film had come from a TV background, and had never really done a film. I was probably, for the first time, the most experienced person on the set! But maybe for the same reason the level of passion and commitment of each member of the cast and crew was unbelievable. I often forgot I was in another country! As I have shot in various parts of India, where even the language, food, culture etc are so different, that shooting in Sindh was in fact less different.
6. You have acted in regional films as well. Which of them was your favourite project?
I have done half my films in regional settings and have had the opportunity to travel to different parts of the country and be part of different milieu and stories. At some level each place and story is unique and yet the human emotions are so universal and relatable.
7. Name a film you have acted in, which is very close to your heart.
There are many. Out of the 30 I have done, I would say I look back on 20 odd films with fondness, and it brings a smile to my face for different reasons. Sometimes the journey was good and sometimes the film was important in what it wanted to say, even though it may not have turned out the way one had imagined. For me, the journey is as important as the end so I can’t really separate the two. To name a few, there was Deepa’s Fire which had an intimate cast and crew; Mrinalda’s film because he’s such a special person, with thousands of stories that I so loved listening; Mani Ratnam, for his relentless energising shooting style; Santosh Sivan for being so spontaneously creative and having such a fantastic team to work with; Adoor Gopalakrishnan, for his uncompromising puritanical approach to cinema; Shyam Benegal for his intellect and warmth. And also first-time directors like Chitra Palekar and Kavitha Lankesh, for their passion and commitment (and now I know how difficult it is to make your first film, and maybe more so for women!); And Suman Ghosh’s film for the opportunity to get to know and work with Soumitrada (Chatterjee). You see how different projects have been important to me for different reasons!
8. Describe Nandita Das as an actor and as a person.
I feel privileged to have led a life where I have made my own choices, believed in journeys rather than destinations, had exit options at all times and not feared failures. Acting was never a career for me and I have never been in the “race”. Maybe this lack of ambition frees me from pressure. I am a restless person, with many different interests, and I hope to continue to explore different means of communications. I never really plan things and go more by my instincts. I believe life is about choices and every path you choose, brings you to a certain crossroad where again you make a choice. And if the choices are made for honest reasons, even mistakes or follies only become learning experiences.
9. If not an actor, what would be Nandita Das?
Who says I am an actor?! That is just one of the things I do. I would have loved to be a singer. Maybe it is still not too late to learn!
Note: I interviewed Nandita in the year 2008 for NewsX. This interview is apparently archived and not visible for public. However, I found this interview in my mailbox and thought to publish it here again, just to feel good about the experience. All credits go to NewsX for giving me the opportunity.
Here is the archive link I managed to find through sources. Scroll down a bit to see the interview.