Exclusive interview with actress, filmmaker in Washington.
By Global India Newswire
WASHINGTON, DC: Popular Indian actress, filmmaker and innovator Nandita Das was in town recently, to attend the DC South Asian film Festival.
Das, 48, the daughter of noted Indian artist Jatin Das, has got critical acclaim for her performances in Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Bawandar (2000), Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), Azhagi and Before The Rains (2007).
She made her directorial debut with Firaaq (2008), which has won a number of national and international awards. She has been awarded the Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France, and was the first Indian to be inducted into their International Women’s Forum’s hall of fame for her contributions to the arts.
Global India Newswire caught up with the actress for an exclusive interview. Excerpts from the interview:
What made you come to the DC South Asian Film festival?
Two things made me come. The primary reason was that Cineplay is a new experiment, a new genre that we are exploring where we cinematically capture theater. It’s not film it’s not theater, it’s a new thing. We haven’t shown it in the West as of yet. We just had a couple of screenings in India. So I was curious to know how the diaspora would react to it, and with the very encouraging response I think these things are universal, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That was one reason and secondly like I said because it’s a start up initiative; I am always supportive of initiatives in their beginning because that’s when they really need support the most. And also I am doing a fellowship in Yale for four months. So it was not a too long a trip. I was at New Haven and just took a train (to Washington).
How was the diaspora’s response to cineplay?
Mostly we have done live shows of this play ‘Between the Lines’ in India. We have done a few Cineplay shows in India and the reactions have been very good. I think the issues of inequality between men and women, between couples, the struggles we all have to our conditioning through the way we have been brought up, through the way we negotiate etc. So life is universal, this is what something that came out very clearly. When I say universal it won’t only mean Indian diaspora, there were others who were westerners, Americans who also said that this could have well been a story set in white America or whatever color you may say. So I think it has a universal theme. It may have a range, degrees may vary but it is something that resonates with everybody.
How do you find the popularity of Indian movies in the United Sates?
Bollywood has definitely become popular overseas. Of course, it was always popular with the diaspora. But there is a kind of interest even with the foreign audience. They see it more like a Broadway show with the song and dance in it because it is something new for them, but I have to admit that mainstream cinema is not taken seriously now, it’s taken in a certain different way and that is good too. At least it is making inroads; also our independent cinema is finding its feet outside India, I think. A film like ‘Lunch Box’ truly has crossed over. Whereever I have traveled, people have talked about it after seeing it. Of course there has been other films in the past, whether it is Deepa Metha’s or Mira Nair’s; there have been some films that have crossed over. I think while making films we shouldn’t worry about audience and crossing over. We should just make honest films that are contextual and from where we come. We will realize that the story in its essence is universal and if we are truly local we can be global too.
You are one of the very few actors who have straddled both, popular and independent cinema. Do you think the space for independent cinema has increased in India lately?
I don’t really have straddled both I think. I am much more in independent film and many of my movies are in other languages that most people don’t get to see. I have done films in 10 different languages, but I think the space for independent cinemas is shrinking. Even within independent cinema there is a kind of populist independent cinema. It has to be either feel good film or it has to be something about the under belly with some amount of action and violence. It is still slightly type cast at the moment. There have been a couple of films that are breaking those boundaries and I think new things will happen and cinema is really coming out in amazing ways. They are telling amazing stories which have a very wide range. Yes, one can be always hopeful.
Is Bollywood entering the territory of independent films?
Yes, I think so. Basically, we are all driven by finances. I am sure that is everywhere in the world but I find in India there is a lot more safe playing. We don’t really want to push our boundary. We don’t want to go out of our safe space so easily. But there are of course some new film makers who keep pushing their boundaries, but largely we prefer to play safe because we have to still compete with the big sharks, the big banners and the big budgets. I think it is difficult and without distribution, it is difficult to make films because all said and done it require a lot more money than any other form of art.
You had one directorial venture which was a huge success and after that you haven’t revisited that role yet. Are you going to anytime soon?
I made ‘Firaaq’ in 2008 and the release was actually terrible. It wasn’t a huge success that time. How do you measure the success of a film when you don’t even have a level playing field, where you can actually compete with big banner films. Their marketing budgets are ten times our production budget.
But thanks to the Internet, thanks to word of the mouth, thanks to all the festivals that it has gone to. It has had a shelf life beyond the release and I see on the net that a lot of people have seen it in YouTube and on Amazon and people are downloading etc. So I am happy with it because I think sadly the subject will be relevant for a long time because there exists “them and us” and issues of “prejudice and identity” which are endless. So unfortunately the film is going to be relevant. I have now begun to work on my next film, am in just the writing process. But I do take time, so the journey has begun but it is still going to be a while when I will actually start making it.
Firaaq did get plenty of critical acclaim and success in film festivals…
Yes, that way I am very fortunate. It got lots of appreciation and won awards and all of that but finally when you make a film you want the people and the context where you live to see it. They are the ones to whom you want to reach out. This has been slow but I am glad that it still continues. Students and college professors are asking for it and many social organizations are screening it. Sometimes when it comes on a TV channel and people say Firaaq is playing today, that definitely feels good.
You are not only an actor and a creator but you are also an activist. Lately you are involved in a very interesting campaign…
Important campaign for sure. You are probably referring to Dark is Beautiful. Yes. I think the time had come for this campaign long back actually. But I am glad that it is happening now. It was started by an organization called Women of Worth, and they reached out to me and of course I supported it. Informally I had been talking about it but I didn’t think it as a centre stage or a standalone issue. I was shocked at the degree at which it has affected young women. Of course, you know that when I am dark and even though my parents don’t put that complex in me but all around you we see that. Even in the industry when a makeup man or a cinematographer would come and say can you lighten your skin a little, especially when you are playing the middle class educated character. If you are playing a Dalit or a slum woman or a maid or whatever then it is fine, but the minute your class raises you are supposed to look lighter. So you know we keep reinforcing stereotypes, especially in that kind of space. So I am very glad that the campaign has garnered the kind of attention it has. It has actually made a tangible difference. The regulation body for advertisements have really cracked down on some of these ads and they have formed stricter guidelines that need to be followed and where the color of the skin is equated with self-esteem, with success or with finding a job or a lover or whatever, those kinds of ads have been banned. So that is a really good thing. I believe the whitening products and their sales have actually decreased. I am happy because it has been doing a lot of harm to young girls, losing their confidence and was made to feel small and worthless, just because of the color of the skin in a country where 90% looks like us.