Nandita Das: Actress, artist, activist, director and social worker

Nandita Das: Actress, artist, activist, director and social worker

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 What is Nandita Das all about?

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 become learning experiences. 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. At different points I have enjoyed different things and as I don’t want to get anywhere, I am focused on the present.

Your career graph has been interesting and you have also been in Social Work. How did it happen?

I got into films as an actor by default. I did my Masters in Social Work and have worked with various NGOs and the experience of being exposed to the many realities is bound to impact my choices in films both consciously and instinctively. There is no career graph as there is no real strategy or plan to the way my life has unfolded. Social work is what I did much before I got into acting, so for me it was the other way around.

What is Nandita Das all about?

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 become learning experiences. 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. At different points I have enjoyed different things and as I don’t want to get anywhere, I am focused on the present.

How has Social Work as a discipline influenced your career and work?

My days with social work were influenced by the street theatre which we used to do in bastis (slums). We would pick up social issues and do plays around them. Then I went to Rishi Valley, a wonderful boarding school in the south where I taught for four months. Everything that I have done has influenced my choices in going forward, and I think that is bound to happen. Even my choices of films are influenced by my social work days because a certain social consciousness automatically comes in and you don’t want to do a film just for the sake of doing a film.

You have made an important contribution to different societal causes, in the arena of Indian media and film fraternity. Tell us more.

We can only do our lit bit and it is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But I strongly believe that each one of us can add these droplets and fill the pot. I think it is important to speak out and as I do have a platform that can give voice to the voiceless, I try to make use of it.

Socially relevant films seem to interest you more…

I got into films as an actor by default. I did my Masters in Social Work and have worked with various NGOs and the experience of being exposed to the many realities is bound to impact my choices in films both consciously and instinctively. I do get attracted to stories that have social conscience but are not preachy or messagy. The films can be of any genre – comedy, drama or even thriller but as long as it does not defy one’s sensibilities I would be open to doing it. For me the story and the director’s vision is often more important than even the role.

Did you have a nice experience at the Children’s Film Society?

I was the Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) for three years. My term ended last August. The experience was both challenging and fulfilling and it has been a learning experience in terms of understanding this space of children’s cinema and what all entails working with the government. But I had no magic want to transform a 55 year old organization in just 3 years. I tried to make many big and small changes. For the first two years they were mostly systemic, revamping archaic rules and regulations, creating better systems that could have a lasting impact, beyond the individual. I also focused on expanding the CFSI family by inviting a lot of people to participate in the various processes of making the organization more vibrant. Be it film makers, distributors, educators, animators and also tried to reach out to lot more children who could participate, not just as beneficiaries, but as stakeholders in creating this change. I tried to focus on the quality of films produced, instead of the quantity. Most importantly after producing 250 films in 55 years, I managed to release the first CFSI film called Gattu, before I finished my term. I hope this will create a precedence to follow.

I don’t see myself as an activist, but just as a conscientious human being. I feel it is important to speak out and take a stand on things that affect our lives. And everything does affect our lives, in some way or the other. I do not see any conflict between my personal views and the professional manifestations of it. In fact they feed on each other. Whether it is Fire or Firaaq, they are all human stories and at the same time they also take a socio-political stands. I primarily do advocacy work for issues concerning women, children, victims of violence, people living with AIDS….basically for those who are marginalized. I think it is important to speak out and as I do have a platform that can give voice to the voiceless, I try to make the best use of it.

You believe in the power of art to change the society?

While art cannot create revolution, it has a way of influencing our sub-conscious and impacting our responses and that is a powerful tool. No wonder the conservatives are threatened by art! We can only do our lit bit and it is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But I strongly believe that each one of us can add these droplets and fill the pot. I feel compelled to speak up about issues I really care about and what better way than through the medium of art.

What has been the impact of films in bringing social change in India?

The kinds of films I do, do not get a wide audience. I wish they did. As for their impact, I would say, it is very hard to judge for it is not something that one can quantify.

It is only now and then, one gets a glimpse of how a film has changed a person’s life. Take Firaaq. So many people came forward saying that they could identify with Sameer (one of the Muslim characters in the film). Also, shortly after its release, I got a long email from an Indo-Pakistani couple, who were very touched by the film. Because of the pressures from their families, because of the religious prejudices of society, they were thinking of separating, but they wrote that after watching Firaaq, they realized that if I had the courage to make such a movie, then they should have the courage to stay true to their love, despite all opposition. And just recently, I got a short email from them again saying that they are doing well in their relationship and they have a child now.

I was also surprised by the international response to Firaaq. For, I had initially targeted only an Indian audience. But then I realized, the prejudice against the other is the same. Whether, it is in Africa or Europe or Asia, there is always someone who is victimized because of their religious or racial identity. The same prejudices against the other run strong in every society.

All that I seek to do in my work as a director or an actor is highlight an issue, voice concerns about something that I find troubling. And then if it impacts the audience, makes them think, I feel that a slight change has been accomplished. Again, take Fire, by making film on homosexuality, a taboo subject in our society, has led, down the years, to homosexuality being finally de-criminalized by the government.

What is the image of the girl child in India?

It is shameful that in today’s age and day we still have to demand equal space and opportunity for girls. It is appalling that we have to talk about girls having a right to life. And the strange thing is that female infanticide is mostly in affluent places, where people are educated and can pay for sex determination. There are enough examples in society that prove what women are capable of doing and also what havoc men have created. So it is not about gender, but about bringing up children with values, abilities and confidence, and then the gender will become irrelevant. And as is researched, you teach a boy, you teach him alone; you teach a girl, you teach a family.

How do you see the critical threats to women’s empowerment today in the Indian context?

Women’s progress and regress is happening almost simultaneously. More women are speaking out and asserting their views. But at the same time incidents of female infanticide, dowry deaths or sexual assaults have not decreased. Much of these heinous crimes occur in affluent sections of the society, further forcing us to question the kind of education we are imparting. Till society doesn’t take it upon itself as their problem and doesn’t leave it to only women fighting their case, the change will be slow.

From your experience, what factors– gender, caste, religious superstition, or economic inequality accounts most for the social problems that India faces?

I feel India is really complex. More complex, in its social structure than any other society that I have seen. I, however, feel that patriarchy is the main problem. Somehow or the other all these other categories are coloured by patriarchy. Even so-called matrilineal societies of Kerala are dominated by men. How else to you explain the incest-the rape of daughters by their father-that has recently come to light? Education, economic empowerment etc. does not easily eradicate the deep-rooted patriarchy that we have all been subject to. It just makes things more invisible. In the privileged upper class societies that we come from, things are not black and white. We don’t hear of women getting beaten by their husbands. But what people don’t see that middle class women are expected by their families to fulfil both roles-that of working at a job and managing the household. Women drive themselves crazy trying to juggle the responsibilities of a career, running a household, bringing up kids etc. And men are completely oblivious to this. It is more stressful than the traditional division of gender roles.

I know women who give up their careers or get divorced because they start earning more than their husband or are promoted to a higher post in the same office. And somehow in our society the sacrifice of women is taken for granted-both by men and women. Actually, it was to explore these invisible forces of patriarchal oppression that I felt the need to write and direct my debut play Between the Lines.

In your opinion, what are some human traits that are productive and counter-productive to being a happy, successful person?

I’m no Guru. We are all struggling with it. I may know some of it theoretically but to practice it is not easy. It is a constant struggle but your deeper goal should be to become a better human being. If you are happy, you make others happy. To be truly happy, I have to make my environment also happy because if the environment is safer, calmer, of course it will impact my own well being as well. To have positive thinking, to be optimistic, to be engaged in a purposeful manner gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, even though all that we do is a drop in the ocean. But as long as we do our bit I think we feel better about ourselves and about the world that we are living in. Anger and violence are very destructive and there can never be any justification for violence. Positive thinking, not comparing yourself with others, being at peace with yourself and finding some meaning in your life makes you a happier person.

Tell us about a cause that you are profoundly associated with…

Actually there are quite a few, as I find they are interlinked in more ways than one. I primarily do advocacy work for issues concerning women, children, victims of violence, people living with AIDS….basically for those who are marginalized. I have continued my human rights work mainly dealing with women’s issues and sectarian violence. I have also been part many South Asian peace initiatives, like SAHR (South Asians for Human Rights).

What does social justice and equilibrium mean to you?

A place where all can live a life of dignity, physical, emotional and social! Where there is no discrimination on the basis of their born or acquired identity and where peace is the one with justice and for all.

Being an actor, director, mother, a social activist and a philanthropist – how do you manage to juggle all these roles and excel at each one of them?

I’m constantly juggling and it is quite challenging, especially after becoming a mother. I’m loving motherhood. It has changed my life dramatically and I think my child is now my greatest teacher. I understand human instinct better because a child is really dealing with life through his instinct. Sometimes juggling is exhausting but it also gives rise to creative expression. I’ve directed a play called ‘Between the lines’ which I co-wrote with Divya Jagdale and my husband and I are acting in it. It is the story of a couple and it deals with the expectations from women, even those from the educated and the affluent class, to multitask. All women are forced to multitask and it is seen as a big value, an asset. Women are coming out and doing different things but they are still expected to do all the traditional roles and with not much support from their male counterparts. In Bombay trains, one sees women cutting vegetables and stitching clothes on their way back home, but this must change. It would ease out some of the pressure on the women. Women would also want to relax and do something for themselves and not feel guilty about it but it often doesn’t happen. So these are the kind of things we deal with in ‘Between the lines’. The play has got a great response because it resonates with most people. Women often nudge their husbands seeing themselves in it.

About the author

CSR VISION
CSR VISION is India’s ( probably world’s ) first monthly magazine in print devoted to CSR and Sustainable Development for bringing together all stakeholders of SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT at a global and local levels and act as a platform for promoting strategic CSR and sustainable development practices through dissemination of information and knowledge.