By Devansh Patel, Bollywood Hungama News Network
"Firaaq succeeds because it allows the humanity of its characters to shine through the darkness, even the horror, of the events it describes, and because of the skill with which the many narrative strands are interwoven. It's a remarkably assured directorial debut by one of India's finest actresses", said Salman Rushdie. That's the kind of impression Nandita Das has created with her debut film at the prestigious film festivals in London, New York, Toronto, Pusan and Thessaloniki in Greece to name a few. She is single-handedly setting out to prove that actresses aren't necessarily finished when they reach their acting crescendo. In her acting career though, she has been a stupendous success. She's been involved in some of the most controversial movies of her time, but never been seen as scandal-merchant. She is only the second Indian celebrity to be invited (after Aishwarya Rai in 2003) to be a part of the jury at the world famous Cannes Film Festival in 2005. But that's a blast from the past. What she is now awaiting with bated-breath is for Firaaq to release in India and keeping her fingers crossed, she hopes that the film based on the after effects of Gujarat riots doesn't stir up any kind of unnecessary political controversy. In this Bollywood Hungama exclusive, the ever so busy actress found some precious time for our London correspondent and Harrow Observer UK columnist Devansh Patel to talk about her award winning directorial journey that has received plaudits the world over. But will Firaaq give voice to so much that has remained silent is the critical question that everyone seeks an answer to. Come March, we will soon find out.
What made you take up direction?
I have wanted to direct for a while now. As an actor, 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 observe the whole process. Slowly, the desire to tell stories, the way I wanted to, started growing stronger. But I didn't think Firaaq would be my first film. Firaaq was born differently. It had to do with waking up to newspapers with stories full of violence; having conversations about religion and identity and soon finding oneself in a very polarized debate; feeling deeply disturbed by the constant 'them and us' from all quarters... Firaaq is a reaction to all that and more. On a more optimistic note, during my many travels and interactions, I have sensed a collective desire to understand this complex and violent world we inhabit and a palpable need for peace. I think Firaaq reflects these complex thoughts in an accessible way.
As a film maker, do you believe in the terms - Art house cinema, and commercial cinema?
While these terms are somewhat valid, as they connote the sensibilities of the film maker and also define some parameters within which they operate. But they are not always fully descriptive as the boundaries are getting blurred, for instance, some art house films have been worldwide commercial successes. And some commercial films are stretching their boundaries by experimenting with form and content. But most people would agree that the real categories are only good cinema and bad cinema, which can be made under any of these labels.
Dev and Parzania dealt with the Gujarat riots too, and the way it affected the common man in the state. Then why deal with the same subject again?
Firstly, any two films are not necessarily alike just because they have a similar context. Moreover, Firaaq is not set during the riots, but a month after it, when the overt violence was over. In fact there is hardly any violence in the film. Instead, I have chosen to explore the fierce and delicate emotions and the unfolding of relationships in such times.
Why is it that over the past three to four decades, such kind of hard hitting, factual cinema is not being accepted by the aam junta. Is it because it's not entertaining them?
Cinema that deals with the real issues of life have always had less takers and this is not a recent phenomena. Also most often this kind of cinema has a much smaller marketing budget and therefore finds it difficult to reach the aam junta. For me I prefer the word engaging than entertaining. As long as you are riveted by the film and are able to connect to the characters, it is good enough. But first to make them accessible to people one needs producers and distributors to have greater faith in such films.
Nandita Das Please brief us on how well was Firaaq received at the various film festivals across the globe. Any memorable comment you've received from anyone?
Going by the reactions I have got thus far from audiences across board- Toronto, NY, London, Pusan (S. Korea), Thessaloniki (Greece), Calcutta and Trivandrum it seems to really connect with people. I am truly overwhelmed by the amazing response I got at all the festivals so far. After every screening I had people wanting to engage, share their stories and ask a hundred questions. People of all race, community, age and nationality have had similar responses and I feel it resonates with them. What more could I ask for?! I am eagerly looking forward to the end of February release in India. Some of the comments are given below:
Salman Rushdie: "Nandita Das' Firaaq succeeds because it allows the humanity of its characters to shine through the darkness, even the horror, of the events it describes, and because of the skill with which the many narrative strands are interwoven. It's a remarkably assured directorial debut by one of India's finest actresses."
There are many others...some of them are:
"I returned from viewing Firaaq yesterday evening in a mood of profound sadness, but a sadness mingled with the frisson of pure aesthetic excitement that great art can give. I was deeply moved and shaken by Firaaq"
"I cried, I laughed, my heart raced-at various times, I was disgusted, ashamed, saddened, hopeless, hopeful, happy, and fearful. Watching the film was truly a journey"
"You made a bold movie and told a very important story with gentleness, grace and thoughtfulness. You wove stories together and gave a voice to so much that remained silent."
There was Jag Mundhra's Shoot On Sight based on the London Tube bombing. You've made Firaaq. How difficult does it become as far as research goes and what kind of research have you been a part of for Firaaq?
The unconscious research had started much before the film was even thought of. The film was born out of my interactions with people at large and victims of violence in particular. The script writing process took 3 years, and while I continued to do other things, many national and international events, conversations and experiences found their way into the script... The film began with one story but then there were all these other stories that I had seen, heard, felt and read, that needed to be told. And that is how an ensemble structure evolved, with multiple stories. Also, sectarian violence cannot exist in a vacuum, as there are so many other layers of class, gender, attitudes, that also exist. But complexities need to be communicated in a manner that is simple and accessible.
You remind me of the great Smita Patil as far as your looks and talent goes. How do you take this compliment?
I feel anyone who is dark and is seen in an art house cinema is called Smita Patil. She did many great films and her performances are unforgettable. I frankly feel it is an unfair comparison. But sure I will take it as a compliment, although I truly think I don't deserve it.
Was casting for such a kind of film a tough task?
While writing the script, I would mentally start casting. Although I was not lucky enough to get all of them, the four I did were precious- Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Raghuvir Yadav and Deepti Naval. I got to experience a diverse range of talent as I searched for my characters; and finally an incredible cast came together. The additions to the list were Sanjay Suri, Tisca Chopra, Shahana Goswami, Nowaz and many other wonderful actors. But the most challenging audition was for Mohsin, a six-year-old child. I found Mohd. Samad in the first of the eight different schools I visited in the old city of Hyderabad. The reason he wasn't an instant choice was because he couldn't stop smiling! And our little Mohsin in the film was a sad child who smiled only once! So I pressed on through eight other schools before realizing that Samad was the one I was looking for. His eyes full of wonder, innocence, intelligence and resilience was what I was looking for.
Nandita Das Why don't we see much of your acting prowess now-a-days?
I have done 30 films in 10 different languages and most people wouldn't know the names as many of them are in regional languages. Also the last year and half has been only Firaaq, which completely consumed me. And just before that I did Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Malyalam film and Santosh Sivan's Before the Rains, which is yet to release in India. I am doing an exciting project soon after the release, but can't tell you the name as I am yet to sign in the dotted lines.
Is Firaaq going to be a one off attempt?
Not at all! I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of making the film, but it was also very stressful and consuming. So I don't think I will direct very soon and would like to do other things and see what stories emerge organically. I will surely direct more films, but as it is so all-consuming, I would want to have enough gaps between two directorial ventures and do other things in between. It would also allow me headspace to think of stories that I would want to tell.
With the crazy politics and politicians being nosy about such subjects, do you think the film will be received well in the state of Gujarat?
It is basically a human interest story and not a blame game film. So I see no reason why anybody should have problems with it. But we are also witnessing a lot of cultural policing and intolerance, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that people will not be denied their right to decide what they would like to watch or not.
With how many prints is Firaaq releasing in the overseas and do you wish such films should have a global audience?
I am not aware of that and you will have to ask my producers about it. Going by the response to the film, I have no doubt that such films have a global audience.
Any message for your audiences?
It is not a message film. All I want to say is that violence spares nobody, so wishing it away will not work. And the one thing we can do is, to choose one's response to violence? Should I be angry, empathetic, prejudiced, fearful, hopeful...? Can I really justify any violence in any form? Firaaq is not a prescriptive film, but it raises questions we hesitate to ask ourselves. And as with any creative work, each person will take from it what resonates with them.