Bhubaneswar: One cannot help but be bowled over by her grace and strong opinion on a variety of subjects. She has acted in about 40 feature films in 10 languages that have won international accolades and critical acclaim world over. From shaving her head for Deepa Mehta’s Water to portraying a woman who fell in love for her sister-in-law in an era when same-sex relationships were totally unheard of in Fire and supporting numerous social campaigns, Odisha’s Nandita Das has carved a glorious niche for herself in the worlds of India cinema and social activism.
Odisha Sun Times got an opportunity for a chat with her when she was in Odisha capital for the Tata Steel Bhubaneswar Literary Meet. Excerpts:
The love for Odisha
It has been an incredible journey for renowned artist Jatin Das’s daughter from Odisha to New Delhi, Mumbai and beyond. Though she was born in Mumbai and lived a major part of her life in Delhi, Nandita spoke candidly about her month-long summer vacations in Baripada. “Me, my brother, cousins, uncles and aunts would gather in my paternal home. Fishing in the ponds, bathing in water drawn from wells, visits to Ratha Jatra and relishing the delectable Odia dishes are some of my most cherished memories of childhood,” she reminisced.
Playing actor, director, writer and social activist
Nandita, who has a master’s degree in Social Work and worked for NGOs, said acting happened to her by default. She has acted in feature films, short films and plays. She has also written plays and her first film Firaaq won her critical appreciation as a director. She has been actively campaigning for social causes such as gender bias, complexion bias, AIDS, child survival and violence against women.
However, being a director has been her most challenging role yet. Comparing it to the life-altering experience of giving birth to a child, she explained, “As an actor, your involvement in the film is restricted to your role. As a director, you are engulfed in the process of filmmaking, beginning with the central idea of the concept till the very end, i.e. release of the movie. It is a complete journey in itself. There’s a lot of struggle involved, as well—arranging funds, shooting, marketing, distributing and the list goes on. It is challengingly exciting and complex, because as a daughter of an artist and being an artist myself, I don’t understand the concept of ‘money matters.’ I think, Odias are like that. We don’t calculate everything in terms of monetary value.”
Making emotionally charged movies
While Firaaq was based on 2002 Gujarat violence, Manto, Nandita’s current movie is based on the life of Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto and the ensued violence of 1947 partition. As a director, though she was engrossed in the technicalities of film making, the central themes of these movies are issues that have always intrigued and plagued her.
“I believe that an individual has multiple identities and some of these are thrust upon people. Moreover, I also touched upon violence in both my movies, as it affects human life leaving behind various emotions. Manto is an intimate story about a writer who wants to be himself and speak the truth and how the society makes it difficult for him to live,” she explained.
Can women have it all?
Nandita believes that though theoretically women can have it all, practically they have to work towards it every minute and that sometimes is tiring. It is because of the deep conditioning, women have been getting the short end of the stick, since time immemorial. “Women are constantly aware and consistently reminded of their identity on the basis of gender. After eons of historical wrongs that women have been subjected to, the psyche of being lesser than men is deep-rooted, despite all the education, exposure and awareness,” she said.
She recalled writing a play called ‘Between The Lines’, that was also staged in Bhubaneswar some years ago, based on the subject of gender inequality. “I used to see such bright working women become so domesticated and make their children the centre of their universe and then live in the guilt of not working enough or not being good mothers, or trying to be a superwoman and doing everything. I realised that after becoming a mother, I too was falling into the same pattern despite working on gender issues for ages. The Bawandar actor went on to elucidate that in reality it’s not a battle of the sexes, but rather, a force beyond us—patriarchy.
Dark is beautiful
Nandita has been a champion of the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. She blatantly quashes the need for fairness/brightening creams and use of makeup to enhance the beauty of women. “It’s all about how society sees women; from objectification, sexual assault, projection in films, treatment of girls such an infanticide and female foeticide and lack of equal opportunities. There is this persistent pressure to look good no matter how educated, qualified or talented you are,” she said. Nandita went on to advice that women should quit trying to fit into the mould and the standardised beauty benchmarks.
Need to reinvent the culture of Odisha
Though genetically, only 50 per cent Odia, she feels more connected to this eastern Indian state. “My father instilled in me the love for Odisha. I have immense love for our heritage that we have in terms of architecture, cuisine, handloom, Dhokra casting, jou dolls, among others. However, that is our glorious past. For example, the unique classical saree designs from Odisha have become extinct and been replaced by confusing patterns of indistinctive styles. We not only need to preserve it, but also reinvent ourselves in the context of cultural heritage,” she said before signing off.