Of Fire and Mettle: An Interview with Nandita Das

In the mid-‘90s, Indians were enamored by the gorgeous lead of the controversial Deepa Mehta movie, Fire. The lady in question defied every norm of Bollywood. She shattered the myth of the conventional beauty, she refused to ‘act like a star’, and yet, quickly became a household name. We were bowled by her persona, and even more, by her quiet, seething talent. She was compared to the incredible Smita Patil. In the two decades since, Nandita Das, artist Jatin Das’s daughter, has donned many a caps successfully – that of a stage actor, teacher, actor, and director. 

In 2008-09, Nandita brought us her first directorial venture, Firaaq, a brilliant movie that pinned on human relationships in the devastating backdrop of violence. Salman Rushdie commented that the movie ‘allows the humanity of its characters to shine through the darkness’. Currently, she is working on her next venture, titled ‘Manto’, based on the life of Pakistani writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. She released a short trailer for the film at the Cannes Festival in 2017, and we can’t wait for the Nawaaz-Rasika led movie to hit the screens. Team BSC had the absolute honor of an interview with Nandita Das: the multiple International Award winning actor-director, and a personal icon to me.

On Manto, the Man and the Movie

Congratulations on the unveiling of Manto’s first look at Cannes this year. What was your inspiration for taking up this biographical project? What are your expectations for the film?

A: I first read Manto when I was in college. A few years later, I bought the complete original works in a collection called Dastavej, in Devanagari. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives and the way he insightfully captured the people, politics and times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters.

For years I thought of making a film based on his short stories, even before I made my directorial debut, Firaaq. In 2012 when I delved deeper into his essays, they helped the idea expand beyond his stories. Finally, I felt equipped, both emotionally and creatively to tell his story.

What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against the orthodoxy of all kinds. He was irreverent and had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the establishment, often with sharp humor.

And of course, I become more and more convinced every day about the relevance of Manto in these times. Not much has changed… almost 70 years later and we are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Even today our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class, and religion as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. I know he would have had lots to say about the times we live in. He was relevant then and will sadly continue to be relevant for a long time to come.

As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon I realized that it felt like I was reading about my father, an artist. He too is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from my protagonist.

It is his fearlessness and a deep concern for the human condition that I have always felt most deeply connected to. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him. For him, the only identity that mattered was that of being a human. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world. I feel there is a Mantoiyat, in all of us – the part that wants to be free-spirited and outspoken.

interview with nandita das

Is Manto a mainstream film? If not, how would you like to describe it? Also, what’s your take on commercial Hindi cinema? 

I do not like to label films as mainstream or art. And at the end, this film is an artistic expression. Manto was a great writer, and his story will reach out to millions because I think it is very relevant to our times, for multiple reasons. We are still grappling with issues like freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Also, we don’t know many of our own writers, artists, scientists, and through them the history of our country and times they lived in. I think people in our country and globally, will connect to the story, as at the end of it, all it is a human story of struggle and courage and the will to speak out and be your own self – something we all struggle with.

On Being a Feminist Role Model, and a Champion of the ‘Stay Unfair’ Movement

What do you have to say about the label “woman director”?

After Firaaq, I was repeatedly called for panels on women directors and asked what it was like to be one. My answer was simple. I’m a director who happens to be a woman, and there is no way that I would know what it feels like to be a male director! Having said that, I’m sure my gender, just as my upbringing, my life experiences, my class, my education and my interests, etc. would influence my sensibilities, form, and content of my films.

Some felt that despite the fact that Firaaq was not a woman-oriented subject, it was evident that a woman had made it. They felt that the women characters were layered and grey, and even though the film was about violence, there was no blood and gore.

Some are surprised that both Firaaq and Manto are not typically woman-oriented subjects, as if a woman, or for that matter, a feminist, must only make films on the issues of women. Women think about many different things and are also impacted by them. In any case, Manto is a celebration of a feminist man, though he too would have hated labels.

Interview with Nandita Das

Was being a non-traditional female actor in India difficult? What challenges did you face in your journey?

I have never classified films as art or mainstream, Hindi or regional. I do films that resonate with my sensibilities, in whichever genre it may be. The criteria to choose a film has always been the script, the director and the role I am offered. My background is of social work and I am sure the experiences I have had in my human rights’ work has impacted my film choices. I am happy to be doing the work I connect with and don’t feel the need to prove anything. But now when I look back at the 40 odd films I have done, many of them are regional films and they needed to make fewer compromises with the form and content they chose. Of course, they are always struggling with budgets and marketing issues and so the vision doesn’t translate into a reality. But some of my best experiences have been in regional cinema. I would love to do different genres but who would take the risk of giving me a comedy role!

You have championed the Stay Unfair Movement and spoken out against India’s obsession with fair skin. What would you like our readers to ponder on the “Fair is Fabulous” mindset and the message “Dark is Beautiful” gives out?

The “Fair is Beautiful” mindset has reached bizarre levels with vagina washes to make the woman’s private parts fair for the husband! How much worse can it get? Every skin care product is promoted with the fairness element in it. The real dangerous messaging is that only fairness will make you successful/beautiful/acceptable/loved.

Too many young girls and now boys are losing their confidence purely because of a prejudice that discriminates. They are being made to feel unworthy, inadequate, unacceptable. I think the campaign, “Dark Is Beautiful”, is trying to say that be comfortable in your skin, even if the world around you tells you that you are not good enough if you are not fair.

Also read: Is India’s Unfair Obsession with Fairness internalized racism?

We are defined by what we do, how we think and respond to situations and not by born identities like caste, religion, nationality or the color of our skin. We have no hand in them, so why feel proud or ashamed of it. The campaign is trying to draw attention to the obsession with fairness and how it is destroying the self-esteem of millions of people, especially young girls.

On Being part of Cannes Jury and Global Cinema

How is the experience of being a jury at the prestigious Cannes Festival? Has the experience changed your perception of cinema?

In India when people talk about the festival, often they are either full of awe or full of disdain. We have either made festivals a benchmark to gauge the film’s credibility or have pushed it into a niche where only pretentious arty people meet. No offense to anyone, but often these comments are from people who haven’t been to any festival because those have would know that most festivals are nothing more than a gathering of cinema lovers, where you watch films from around the world, meet a cross-section of people, and have a good stimulating time. It is an event that neither needs to be taken too seriously nor to be looked down upon.

Often in Indian media people think of Cannes film festival as a glitzy affair and talk about who wears what, while it should ask questions about how the mind gets stimulated and opens to new ideas. For me, the experience was about expanding one’s understanding of films and growing with new ways of looking at life. The experience reaffirmed my faith in the fact that films transcend boundaries. That they are subjective and their critique reflects personal bias, experiences, and worldviews.

On her many callings, subjects and projects on the horizon

Acting to Direction –  a natural progression?

For me, in many ways it was. It was always exciting to watch the rest of crew work towards shaping up a scene. Often I would get involved with suggestions or just asking questions.

Slowly the desire to tell stories the way I wanted to started growing stronger.

Actors are perceived to be larger than what they are but what people don’t realize is that we (actors) are at the mercy of hundred factors that shape a film. And so I thought maybe making a film from scratch and having space and freedom to make what I want to would be more fulfilling.

Would you now begin to give greater attention to direction than acting?

Why is life always about ‘either-or’? As long as interesting projects come my way, I hope to continue acting.

I have never seen acting or directing as a career but more as an interest and a means to communicate.

So, if I have more stories that compel me to direct, I will do so. But I don’t plan my future and like to take it as it comes.

What excites you more: before the camera or behind? 

Both are exciting in different ways. And, they are fairly incomparable. Although I feel directing is a lot more challenging and fulfilling, it is also far more stressful. Also, acting allows me to be a part of different stories, travel to different parts of the country and all the experiences put together to make life interesting. So I hope I never have to choose between the two …

interview with Nandita Das

You surprised everyone by making a gripping issue based film instead of coming up with a women-oriented film. Was it a conscious attempt as a debut director? Didn’t you think it was a risky move? 

I did want to direct for a while but didn’t think Firaaq would be my debut film.

I was already involved with issues of sectarian violence, identity and this whole notion of the ‘other’. So it were the stories that I heard, read and saw that compelled me to do the film.

In many ways, it was cathartic for me to do the film. Sure it was risky, but when you have a deep conviction in something, you also get the courage to face the challenges.

Actor, director, activist – Which is your favorite role? 

Feel no need to choose as they are all intertwined and different means to the same end.

About Anumita Ghosh

Anumita believes her calling has to do with the written words. She loves to write and read, and has recently given up a(n) (almost) rocking career in the Corporate to pursue her passion. Yes, she is slightly off her rocker, but then the society has been largely accepting of her madness. She is the co-founder of Blank Slate Chronicles and a struggling domestic apprentice, not to mention a loving (yet inadequately skilled) mother to a toddler.



Anumita Ghosh

Anumita believes her calling has to do with the written words. She loves to write and read, and has recently given up a(n) (almost) rocking career in the Corporate to pursue her passion. Yes, she is slightly off her rocker, but then the society has been largely accepting of her madness. She is the co-founder of Blank Slate Chronicles and a struggling domestic apprentice, not to mention a loving (yet inadequately skilled) mother to a toddler.

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