SEE Firaaq
• March 5, 2009 @ 7:00 p.m.—California Theatre (345 S. First St., San Jose, Calif.)
• March 7, 2009 @ 4:30 p.m.—California Theatre

SEE Ramchand Pakistani
• March 5, 2009 @ 4:00 p.m.—Camera 12

Check other film timings and see the complete Cinequest schedule.


Fire forged her reputation internationally. But since that film Nandita Das has been charting her own idiosyncratic course in Indian cinema. She chose to stay in Delhi instead of moving to Mumbai, India’s film capital. She’s probably better known in regional cinema than in Bollywood these days. Oriya, Kannada, Urdu, Malayalam, Bengali—she has done films in all languages and won a slew of awards for them. Now with Firaaq, a film set in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, Das has turned director.

Das spoke to India Currents from her hotel in Mumbai about Firaaqas well as Ramchand Pakistani, which is based on the true story of a father and son who end up trapped in an Indian jail for years after they wandered across the India-Pakistan border.

Your background is in human rights, and you got into acting almost by accident. What made you stay in films?

I think it was the experience of the films I have done, the nooks and corners of the country I have been to. I like traveling. I get to go to interesting festivals. I get to be a part of different kinds of stories. Also, you can say there is no real pattern to my acting. It’s pretty erratic. It’s based on what I like and what might come my way. [Acting has] also provided me a platform to advocate for certain kinds of issues close to my heart. So, in a way, my films and my human rights work feed on each other.

How does your human rights work feed on what you do as an actor?

I think films broadened my own understanding of issues and outlook. I have played strong women and vulnerable women and women who are both strong and vulnerable. I have sometimes played ordinary women in extraordinary situations. I did a film on HIV, which certainly made me think about the issue and its nuances much more. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t that good, but I still was exposed to the issue. Likewise, I wouldn’t have understood the layers around homosexuality if I had not done Fire. It’s not really the shooting of the film or its story, but rather the conversations that happened after it.

Firaaq was the result of conversations?

Absolutely. I say it’s a work of fiction based on 1,000 true stories—not all of which are from Gujarat, though some are. I didn’t think Firaaq would be my first film. I was actually working on the script of a man-woman relationship, marriage, and sometimes the futility of it. I don’t know where that script vanished. I have been working for the last 10 years on the issue of violence. And I have seen how the conversations around it have become so polarized.

You do talks on violence and identity. What interests you about the issues?

The notion of the other. There is this self-righteous, moralistic preference that says the way I am is the best way, whether in terms of sexuality, or caste, or even region. Take Raj Thackeray talking about Maharashtra and being Maharashtrian. What happened to the notion of multiple identities? Instead we are busy thrusting forward a single identity—often one over which I have no choice. I didn’t choose to be a woman, or Hindu, or Indian. Why should I feel ashamed or proud about it? But these things don’t happen in isolation. People feel small. People are made to feel small. And then you give them an issue and they grab it.

What do you remember about conversations you had about the riots? Gujarati friends in the U.S. say it’s still a difficult subject to bring up with family and friends in India.

There is an attempt to say “ok, it happened, it was terrible. Let’s forget about it.” If things were truly better for those who suffered, we could move on. But the ghettoization is huge and the segregation even deeper. It’s easy for you and me to forget. We can say it was seven years ago. But seven years is recent history, and we haven’t learned from that. Take the Christian attacks in Orissa, or the attacks on women in the Mangalore pub.

These riots were specific to Gujarat. How have audiences around the world reacted to the film?

When I made it, I didn’t think that we would go to any festival. I thought it was too contextual, too nuanced. I was surprised when Telluride selected it. And then London and Toronto. When I took it to Korea I looked at the audience—all young and Asian—and thought, are they going get it at all? But I was amazed. People came to me and said it reminded them of Korea and Japan. Or I went somewhere else and someone told me it was Turkey and Cyprus.

Many more heinous, dramatic things happened in Gujarat. I didn’t want to show that. People would think they were too filmy, made up. I took the small stories that people can empathize with. I often find people come out of the theater saying “my shoulders are aching.” One person said, “I just wanted to hold on to the characters so much that my shoulders hurt.”

You say you were working on a script about a man-woman relationship. How did you go to the other extreme—an ensemble film?

It didn’t start out as an ensemble. It began with two people and a relationship set in that context. But all these other stories came screaming out of me. They had to be told.

In Ramchand Pakistani, you were the only Indian in the cast. What was the experience like shooting in Pakistan?

I was probably the only Indian who went as close to the border as I did. But the milieu and the ethos is so familiar. I filmed Bawander in Rajasthan. It’s not too different from the Sindh area of Pakistan. In fact, when I am in Kerala, the language, the landscape is so very different. It’s much more difficult to remind yourself that it is the same country. Yet in Pakistan it was the reverse. It felt so familiar, but you had to keep telling yourself it was a different country.

What were your cast members curious about? Did you talk politics?

There is tremendous curiosity about India. You do fear the unknown much more. But there is so much connection to India. Everyone has a story about some connection. Of course, Bollywood is huge, maybe even more huge than in India. And there is a nice envy of India’s democracy, though we in India always complain about the problems. Being under military rule there, there was a feeling that even a bad democracy is better than none.

Have you been surprised at the number of rural characters you have played?

(laughs) Maybe subconsciously that is connected with my human rights work. Often rural stories don’t get told. 99 percent of our Bollywood stories are urban.

Rural stories are disappearing from film, aren’t they?

Yes. Not just in films. They are disappearing from newspapers, too. There used to be a whole page of rural coverage in newspapers. But that’s gone. 80 percent of [India’s] population is rural, and we just don’t know what’s going on there. It’s going out of our psyche, too. Previously, our films used to have the hero started out as a millworker. Now you go straight from South Bombay to New York. It’s scary.

What role do artists have in India-Pakistan peace initiatives?

I do believe art has a healing effect. Art is about coming together in friendship and love. But art [also] shows nuances, so people get threatened by it. Some people try to shut it down, to create a culture of silence.

Do you think your social activist stature gets in the way of your work as an actor? Meryl Streep gets to be in both Doubt and Mamma Mia. Do you feel like you should as well?

I am a very unambitious actor. I don’t have that kind of passion, and I don’t want to prove anything. I am too laidback. I go to a friend’s gathering and I dance. And people say, oh, so you can dance. Why don’t you do more Bollywood? But it’s a choice. People don’t understand that. It’s the whole package. The song and dance is the least of the problems. I don’t think I will ever do a regressive film or a communal film, even if the role is amazing.

It’s a funny thing. Most actors, dismiss me as an activist. For activists, I am an actor. They want me to come to events because they think then the media will cover it.

Do you still throw pots?

(laughs) I have not done so in a while. When I was writing the script in New Zealand, my co-writer would go off to teach in university. And I would go take pottery workshops. I threw a lot of pots, and I packed them carefully and brought them back to give to my friends. But I haven’t done it in awhile. I should do it again soon. It’s very therapeutic.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media