Well, now it seems the parallel film world has its own bona fide first sighting story. The first time Nandita Das met Deepa Mehta, the actress was drenched in a Delhi downpour. Deepa answered the door and Nandita exclaimed about her dupatta, “Did you get it from Fab India?” The startled director said, “Yes … why don’t you come in?” The rest, as we know, is history—a partnership that has stood the test of Fire, Earth, and Water.
The accidental actress had never really been exposed to Hindi films as part of her growing up. Daughter of acclaimed painter Jatin Das, the arts were always a part of her life. “But it was theater, music, dance. And even in films—I had probably seen more festival films because of the international film festivals in Delhi.” Apart from a little acting in school plays, her main exposure to acting came through doing street theater with the legendary Jana Natya Manch led by Safdar Hashmi. But she stresses, “In those plays it was not so much about acting as about the issues that were taken up.” And issues have always been close to the heart of this postgraduate in social work. After a stint at teaching at Rishi Valley School, she got involved with various non-governmental organizations working with women and children. “And I did a little bit of television—dabbling here and there in subjects that interested me.”
However even after
Fire, Nandita was not sure if she was meant to be an actress. In the two years between Fire and Earth, she only did two films—Govind Nihalani’s Hazar Chaurasi ki Ma and a Malayalam film. “Its only in the last one and half to two years that I have started taking the work more seriously and I have said to myself ‘OK I have to stop feeling shy about the fact that I am an actress—it’s not such a bad word!’ Because earlier people would ask me what you do and I’d say apologetically ‘well I do a bit of acting …'”
Her hesitation is understandable. On the face of it, she is an unlikely actress. She does not like dancing around trees. She cannot bring herself to do run-of-the-mill roles. She does not even live in Bombay. She hastens to add, “There are many nice people in the industry. But there is so much insecurity and peer pressure there. You are always in a race. The biggest challenge to be an actress in this industry is to be yourself and to stay that way.” And she has no intention of testing that inner strength by moving into the belly of the beast. All of which could (and does) get her labeled a snob.
After all, it’s not that she can’t dance. She recalls that for one film, “I danced one step and the director said, ‘Oh but you really dance well,’ and I said ‘I am not going to dance because I want to show I can dance. I don’t think this character should dance like that and therefore I don’t want to dance.'”
It’s not that she can’t look stunning in designer outfits. She does not have to play roles of the mother of two children. She says in frustration, “But the offers I have got for younger roles just don’t have that kind of depth and I don’t want to do the roles just to show I can also wear jeans.”
It’s not an attitude that necessarily finds favor in Bombay’s dream factories. Apparently, her Earth co-star Amir Khan really wanted her to screen test for his home production Lagaan. Nandita did not find the role that exciting (“it was a regular village belle”) but agreed to do the screen test for Amir Khan’s sake. It didn’t work out because the director Asutosh Gowrikar decided that her eyes were too intelligent. She laughs, her eyes flashing. “I mean either you are saying I am a bad actress because I can’t dumb down or you are saying that villagers are not intelligent.” But she bears no rancor and says she has heard the film is fabulous.
But it confuses her why intelligence is such a burden around her neck. “In EarthI don’t think I play a girl who is an intellectual,” she says. “She is simple but simple doesn’t mean unintelligent.” Her latest film Bawander is about one such simple woman. It is based on the story of Bhanwari Devi, a low-caste potter whose gang rape by upper caste men and her subsequent humiliation at the hands of the judicial system sparked a national outcry. It was not a role she jumped at. In fact, director Jagmohan Mundhra had to chase her down for six months trying to persuade her to do it. She says candidly, “The hesitation was he had done these films which were erotic thrillers (like Monsoon). Also my concern was this was a film about rape and if there is any kind of titillation that would be the worst thing.”
But eventually she was persuaded about the sincerity of Mundhra’s intentions. It impressed her that after creating a name for himself as Jag Mundhra, he was trying to change his image and recreate himself as Jagmohan. “I gamble all the time,” she shrugs, “half of my work is with new directors who have no baggage at all. In the end all I can go by my instinct whether the person is sincere. The film may be good or bad, I at least want the film to be sincere. And he gave it to me in writing that I will never let you down.”
The other issue was Bhanwari Devi herself. Jagmohan changed all the names so it was not directly about her unlike Shekhar Kapur’s Phoolan Devi biopicBandit Queen. Das says though changing the name may have legally protected the film she had a deeper, “moral concern because I knew about the case, some of my good friends worked on it closely. So I felt some kind of moral responsibility.” She initially did not meet Bhanwari so that she would not be tempted to try and play her. “In fact I think she was far more bold than the way I have played her. I wanted to make her an ordinary woman—someone who a regular woman can identify with. Someone who is in purdah, who does not want to rebel. She is used to looking down—that’s the way she has been conditioned till she is pushed to such an extent that now she looks up and says exactly what she thinks.” But when she went to play the part, Nandita found she needed to meet the real Bhanwari Devi for her own mental composure.
“I remember during the gang rape scene some of the crew and extras were all smiling and making jokes and I got really mad. Then I thought, ‘My god, I know these guys who are playing the villains.’ And I just felt if I am going through so much shame even knowing it’s just acting, what must she have gone through and I just wanted to meet her.” She drove six hours to where Bhanwari lived in a little hut without electricity, shunned by the other villagers and only supported by her husband. “She had just come back from a literacy campaign,” recalls Das. “We just talked. It was quite amazing.” The meeting only heightened her sense of responsibility especially because Bhanwari Devi was still fighting in the courts. “In fact,” she says with a smile, “I refused to come to the U.S. with the film until he (Jagmohan) showed it to her. He did show it to her and she really liked it and he made her speak to me because I wasn’t ready to believe him.”
Whether the film helps the real-life Bhanwari Devi or not, it has certainly re-stirred some of the media buzz around a case that has long receded from the front pages of newspapers. Awards like at the Bermuda and WorldFest-Houston film festivals have certainly helped. And few causes could ask for a spokesperson as eloquent as Nandita Das. When she speaks about something she believes in, the passion is palpable. It’s got her into trouble often especially after Fire.
With a slight note of resignation she says, “I did that film in 1996 January and here we are in 2001 and that’s one film which just does not leave me. I always say ‘Oh I am sick and tired of talking about it and I don’t want to anymore and somebody says something stupid and I get provoked and there I am talking about it again.'” But the main thing she believes Fire did was to generate debates about topics like homosexuality, censorship, arranged marriage—topics we as a culture like to shove under the carpet.
Are we ready though for a dialog like that? Nandita shakes her head, “Oh you are never ready. When do you get ready? You can keep pushing something back for years. But I think a dialog has started. I know for a fact, before 1996 there were progressive people who were afraid to use a word like gay or lesbian. Now they are much more at ease. And I think Fire has a lot to do with opening those areas.”
But the brouhaha over Fire certainly took its toll. In fact she says ruefully, “When I read the script of Water, I told Deepa thank God there is no controversy in it because I am tired of controversy.” Of course, Water ended up being the most controversial because of the objections of some groups in Benaras to the way they believed widows had been depicted in the script. Perhaps it was a belated revenge for Fire, which had slipped under their noses because the press had been much more obsessed with Mira Nair’s Kamasutra which was filming at the same time and which Nandita had turned down.
“I think people thought ‘Oh there comes that trio again. I am sure there is something sensational and scandalous this time as well.’ And I think Deepa’s being a woman and an NRI had something to do with it as well. There was this thing about why should we wash our dirty linen in public? You are going to go back to the West and give a wrong picture. But it’s not about wrong or right—it’s about what exists in life. And there are good characters in the film and not so good ones like in every film.”
While Water as a film was eventually shelved it did free Nandita of one piece of vanity—her long, lustrous hair. She had mentally prepared herself for cutting it off for the role, but when the hairdresser actually chopped it off, “I almost screamed. I would keep touching my head constantly. I would look at my shadow and not recognize myself. Once in a hotel there was a mirror and I looked into it and gasped because it thought there was someone else in the room with me. On another level it was liberating too— I was so connected to it. It was so much a part of my self image.” But every time she has to put on an itchy wig for a role, she cannot help cursing the whole experience.
But she has washed that film out of her hair and moved on. She is gingerly expanding her horizons, even starring in Aks opposite Amitabh Bachchan, a role she feels she may not have taken two years ago. But even here, she says there is a scene dealing with sexual exploitation. It’s a topic she cannot seem to shake off (or it’s one that seems to inevitably follow a strong female protagonist). She agrees, saying two forthcoming films Lal Salaam about a Naxalite who takes to the gun after being raped and Mahesh Manjrekar’s Pitaare also about sexuality. As was the Kannada film Deviri where she played a prostitute. And even in Earth, the theme of partition ultimately reverberates in the body of the ayah and the two men whose obsession with her tears her apart. “People say how come you do all these films about sexuality. It’s not like I want it. But it’s so inherent whenever one talks about oppression. It’s the easiest way to show power in a patriarchal society. But for me something like Fire andBawander are two completely different films. I could never equate sexual preference with rape which is about power and subjugation.”
These are not films that necessarily find the widest audiences. Well-wishers advise her to do more commercial films for the exposure and the money and these kinds of films for her personal satisfaction. “For me it doesn’t work that way,” she says simply. “If I did the kinds of films I did not believe in, I won’t be able to sleep at night.” Anyway she says she is not in the profession for the glamour of it. If she was, she would have long sold her old Fiat. “Just because I am an actress, I should have a better car—that’s the most ridiculous thing,” she scoffs. So she resolutely piles into her old Fiat and goes to the market place to buy her own vegetables. “I hear people saying, ‘That looks like Nandita. But it can’t be her—she is buying her own vegetables and driving an old Fiat.’” And that’s the way she likes it.
For somewhere along the line Nandita Das had her head screwed on right. And her priorities straight. She remembers being in Gujarat during the earthquake. “I was watching it on TV and thinking what a shitty profession I am in. If I was a doctor I could help. Instead I am in such a self indulgent profession—who cares you are an actress and you are doing some silly shoot with an umbrella over your head.”
She shakes her head and then says, “But then again, you think well it could be a catalyst and it can change mindsets. It can’t create revolutions but gradually it can change people. After all how have we grown? Through something we read, a film we saw.”
Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the New California Media TV show.
was not Nandita Das’ first film. But it was certainly the one that catapulted her into international fame and notoriety. But the whole thing happened by accident. Hindi film actor Gulshan Grover approached Nandita about a different American film, which Nandita did not find terribly interesting—”It just seemed one of those exotic India films.” After he failed to persuade her to meet that director and Nandita was about to leave, Grover said off-handedly “‘Oh there’s another film but it’s kind of bold’ and he sort of made a face.” To this day Nandita does not know why she said, “OK, I’ll go and meet the director.” But she did, they clicked and the result was Fire.