Nandita Das has been called a filmstar 'with a social conscience, more keen to talk about women's empowerment and human rights than participate in the glamour of Bollywood. CNN's Anjali Rao catches up with Das, for the show CNN Talk Asia, in a sound studio as she is post-producing her directorial movie debut In Such Times. She tells Rao about her new film project, her controversial choice of film roles in Fire and Bawandar, an emotional visit to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Tsunami, and the honor of being a juror at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
So when most people around the world think of Indian cinema, I guess you know, automatically Bollywood springs to mind. As an Indian actress, though, you don't seem to want any part of the Bollywood, sort of you know, saccharine sugarness, do you think that's true?
I didn't want to ever be an actor to begin with, so my journey was, you kind of stumbled upon acting and you think well, it's interesting, it's another world, there are stories you can tell, you can be part of these wonderful stories, and that's how I've seen my career. So, I haven't really not wanted to do Bollywood, but yes, there's certain kind of cinema that I don't relate to. I didn't even grow up watching them. So when you don't watch them, you don't look at it and say, Ah I want to be there, you don't want to be there. So it's not a great struggle. And often people misunderstand - they think you kind of look down upon Bollywood, but it's one part of Indian cinema. Indian cinema is larger than that.
What do you think then about today's crop of Bollywood bunnies because you're just so not like them at all?
So you want me to just make lots of enemies and basically never do a…
So now we know what you think of the Bollywood bunnies then, if you're going to make enemies.
Well, I said nothing. No I mean I think it's everyone's choice. It's really… there should be that much free will to live your own live by your own terms and they are doing what they think works for them and I'm doing what I think. And it's been 10 years that I've done films and I still get these questions, people still ask me the same questions in every interview or even otherwise, so why don't you do a Bollywood film? Why don't you live in Bombay, this is where all the action is? But it's again, the choices I've made, I'm not saying everything good has happened because of that, I have lost out on work, because you have to have more visibility, you have to be more marketable. Even to get good roles in good films. So sometimes I do feel, mmm, well, I wish I could do that role. But then you don't get it all. I mean the choices that you make, then you get things according to that, and I think I've gained a lot of sanity, a lot of peace by being away from a certain system, which otherwise I think makes you fairly insecure, and you're on the edge. It's not just song and dance per se. But the whole lack of realism that I think I look for in films…the way women characters are portrayed, the stories people want to tell and hear. So it's a different world.
You started your acting career relatively late by Bollywood standards, anyway. Up until then, you'd been doing social work, professionally. How did you make the transition from doing that, to being cast in a major role in Deepa Mehta's Fire?
It wasn't really a transition. It was another, I don't know, medium of expression. It was just another way of telling things that one wanted to because even in social work, the work that I was doing was mostly about communication. But acting was also in a way it was another medium to say all those things. And that's why the choice of films. That's why the kind of films that I've chosen are very much in sync with my other concerns, my other interests.
What do you make of all the controversy that was sparked by Fire?
How can you talk about homosexuality in a society that would rather not talk about it. So in a way I think it was good that such debates happened, where people were forced to discuss it. And not just about lesbian relationship, but about questioning arranged marriage system, talking lack of choices that women have. Even talking about freedom of expression because when the handful of people started attacking, there were people who just took to the streets who just said that, 'Are you guys going to decide what we must see or what is good enough?' I think that debate, not only just helped the film, but helped the larger cause of these kind of issues… issues on women and freedom of expression etc. So I think it was a good thing.
The next part of the trilogy was 1947: Earth which was a lot less provocative. Do you think that was perhaps Deepa Mehta's way of saying, “Alright, alright. I'll just relent a little bit”?
No, no, but it's strange what makes a controversy. Earth talks about how religion is used by politics and you know, how religious politics is used to divide people. What happened during partition and how people who have no role to play in these decisions become victims of it. I think that in today's time, that should be as controversial as anything else. But because it had Aamir Khan and it had songs, probably they said okay, it's sort of commercial, and nobody really knew what label to put on it.
You were cast in the final part of the trilogy, Water. Shaved your head for the role. But then you didn't actually get to do the role. What happened?
This is a question for Deepa Mehta, but… well initially I was upset because even when they were doing it the second time around, I was going to be part of it. And that's a decision she took, and she knows best, and I did express the fact that I was connected to the script right from the beginning so there was an emotional attachment, there was a professional loss, there was at a personal level, also it was part of the larger fight that I've been in, in the sense of this whole thing about freedom of expression, this cultural policing that's been happening for long. So at many levels there were regrets of not being able to be part of it.
Because of the movies and particularly Fire, she got death threats, effigies were burned of her in the streets, I mean it was full-on at the time. I still really remember that. Were you ever afraid for your safety, having played such a large role in the previous two movies?
Yes, there were threats and in fact, during Fire, when that whole attack happened, I had a policeman outside my door, in the hotel and after that, at home in Delhi. So there was a bit of a tension. In fact my parents always say that, look Deepa Mehta is going to go back to Toronto, she has a big house, there are people protecting it. You live on your own, stop being foolish. But then my parents are the ones who, in a way, taught me to speak out and I tell them, 'too late, now you've taught me all the wrong things, I'm sticking to it'. So I don't think the threats were bad enough to worry too much and I think when you kind of take a stand or jump into fire, then you go all the way, and no pun intended.
In 2000, you starred in a movie Bawandar about a woman who tried to introduce progressive thought to some local people of a low caste and she was gang-raped for her efforts. True story. Tell us about what it was like for you to film that sequence that day of the gang rape.
When I actually did the gang rape scene, and this was out in the open, on the sand dunes, which was supposed to be a closed set but how do you close a set when it's right there in the open? And I can see all these men snickering, there was a big crowd near the monitor, everyone was trying to see, there were lewd jokes, like the guys who played the rapists, they would walk out from the scene and someone would ask them was it fun and all of that. And I remember that was one day that I actually screamed and shouted and I said, I can't believe we are doing this film. What's the point if this is how people are going to react, this is just not worth it. And what I really felt at the moment, it was not just anger, there was an awkwardness, there was a feeling of shame, there was a feeling of humiliation, there was a feeling of…feeling completely vulnerable. And I wanted to know what is this woman made of, and I will never forget that evening when I actually went to her house and we had this lovely conversation. She was such a strong woman that it was very inspiring. Because I think some of us who may think we are very modern and very liberal and out there and educated, may not have that strength.
You've had, you know, many years now of specifically trying to empower women whether its through your movie roles, street theater in which you're heavily involved or of course directly with your social work, so how far do you think Indian woman have come today?
I can say that over the years definitely more women out there they are speaking out, they are in different fields that they probably hesitated to be in. There are many more rape cases that are being filed which itself means people are willing to go that extra mile, it's not about my humiliation and my shame, I want that guy to be convicted so he doesn't do that to others etc. So while all that is happening, there is a strange regressiveness also that is happening. Today on my way here I read there are 6,000 dowry cases, dowry deaths, a year. So you kind of wonder where we are going. Are we really progressing, are we kind of taking two steps forward one step backward. And women's empowerment is not going to happen in a day we all know that. I mean even if we work all our lives, its still going to be a drop in the ocean. But you just wish that at every level these things would happen and would be implemented for that change to be a little more visible.
You went to Sri Lanka to deal with the aftermath of the tsunami and you had a special focus on children. Tell me about the stories that really stuck with you.
It was stark what happened in Sri Lanka, there were people who were working, it was just a spontaneous decision of going there. And it was shocking what was happening. And just listening to the stories of people. There was a small child, who just…every time there was water flowing, even in a drench, she didn't have a bath for about 10 days, because even if there was water flowing in the drain, she would think that something has happened, that it's going to come and attack her. Imagine a child being scared of water all her life, it could have that kind of an impact. So, psychologically how people get affected is so much deeper. And we in our world, we think of something, there's media attention for a couple of months and it's forgotten, and I think their lives, I don't know how many of them have actually been able to really move on in the true sense of the word. So, it was again…and all these experiences, you also move on, you do other things, you carry on with your life, but they subconsciously get stored somewhere in your mind and form your overall thinking, or they help you to be a little more sensitive than one was.
How do you cope with basically dealing with people who are essentially broken, because we often hear from people who went out to tsunami zones or any major disaster zone, and going through these things with the victims there, makes people sort of question everything?
Absolutely, it does, and there are no rules because you know, sometimes just asking someone is very helpful, because they are just dying to just get it all out. And they are not just in tsunami, but when I used to work with women, this used to be the question and the dilemma and they're kind of waiting to just pour it all out. And then there are others who don't want to talk about it, where you don't want to ask them anything, you feel cruel asking them, because they have probably already told a hundred times over and all you want to do is just be there and give them that feeling that in this small way, you're there for them, or there with them, and not to give false hopes, not to go and say I've come from wherever and I'm going to sort it all out. Especially sometimes in India, you're off to see a riot or you know, a certain thing that has happened. And they look at you thinking you're going to now take care of everything, and they want to literally give you their child and say, can you sponsor this, can you do that and can you get us this? And you feel so helpless, and you feel like my God, why did I come? Am I really going to be able to do anything?
So Nandita, here we are in post-production for your directorial debut In Such Times. What is the movie about and just sort of tell us about your experiences being a first-time director?
Well, In Such Times for now is the working title; I'm still looking for a Hindi title. So it's basically about human emotions and how violence impacts implicitly or explicitly, human relationships and human psyche, that's what the film is about. But it's not a big long lecture; it's an ensemble film with five different stories, where different relationships are explored and a journey of each relationship which is in a day's time. So it's really a day and a night story. Hmm, as an experience. My god, I could write a book. I think what really interested me and what I enjoyed the most was to work with actors. I think as an actor you get this opportunity to observe another actor and then do all the tweaking that you would otherwise never get to do in your own performance - was very exciting.
Well what sort of challenges were you up against?
Oh, many. For one, like you said, I haven't done anything that's so huge that involves a hundred people. Just the fact that your unit has one hundred people, where everybody's asking you questions, expecting you to know all the answers, at all times. And as an actor you observe little things on the set and you think you kind of know it. But you don't, you don't even begin to know it. You know, there are egos sometimes. There are lots of politics. There is all of that going on. There are production hassles. There are a hundred things that go wrong every day. But, still, there's something that just keeps you going.
So, acting or directing, then. If you could only pick one of those two, would you prefer to have your strings pulled or be doing the string pulling?
Ha ha. No, I do no like this overspecialization of, you know, if I wanted to do that, then I would've been a full time actor. But I think I would like to act and I would like to direct. So, no picking one. I'm not falling for that one.
You only do a couple of movies a year, in India where they just churn out movies day after day after day. Yeah exactly, I mean that's really unusual thing. Because most actors and actresses, once they get their faces up on that big screen, the worst thing in the world is to be forgotten. Don't you worry about that?
No, because that's by choice. If I want to be busy, there are tons of films that would be…or television or talk shows or ribbon-cutting or just like hundred things just to be visible. There's no dearth or depth for any actress in the hierarchy. But the point is, does one want to do that, and if you want to do quality work, your kind of work, and yet not be visible, it's not the easiest thing to do, but somewhere you find your balance.
Your father is a noted painter, your mother is a writer, and they're fairly well known in their own right. How encouraging were they of the path that you decided to pursue?
Initially not so encouraging. Like regular parents. Suddenly, they become regular parents for some reason, because I grew up thinking they weren't so regular, because they came from this other world where there were no pressures on coming first, no pressures on being a good student but having a more holistic life. But when I started acting and also probably because Fire being the subject that it was, and they never outwardly said don't do it, or this is wrong. But my father used to say, I have a lot of friends in the film world, it's like a dragon, it sucks you, this too quick fame and name and money and all of that, you can lose your head. And at some level, I think he wasn't so wrong because it is sort of very quick, and often it's not so deserving. And you meet so many people, and I constantly meet so many people who are contributing so much more to the world, that it not only humbles you, it makes you feel stupid sometimes. I mean, this the kind of attention sometimes you get as an actor, you almost feel awkward about it. You feel, do I really deserve it?
You've won several awards for your work throughout the years. Do they mean anything to you or are they just sort of a nice thing to have that just doesn't matter that much?
I think everybody says that, so even if you mean it, it sounds kind of forced unfortunately, that's the world we live in. But they don't matter a huge amount probably also because one is a little cynical about the credibility of these awards. If they were a little more credible, or if it came from a very credible body, I'd think it would mean more, because it's kind of a validation for the work one does. And it feels good. So it's kind of, it's not like I'm going ecstatic about it. It's not like I'm saying ok, big deal…I'm not doing that either. It's an award, it's good. I'm not sort of sitting and thinking about it. No.
There are so many stars these days who say yeah the Oscars are kind of cool, the Golden Globes are pretty cool, but Cannes is really becoming so prestigious and a lot of people's favorite ceremony. Talk to us about what it was like to being on the jury.
I haven't even dreamt of the fact that somebody was going to give me a call and say, do you want to be on the jury? And I was like sure. It was kind of surprising and I was like, are you sure you've got the right number? But the best part of being in Cannes was not just to see great films or to walk the red carpet and all the hype that is around it, but to have those sessions with 8 other brilliant minds. We had Salma Hayek, we had John Woo, Javier Bardem, who's this brilliant actor, Emir Kusturica…just fabulous group of people and I thoroughly enjoyed that process.