“Art for art’s sake is fine, but with a social consciousness it’s even better” – Nandita Das

IMG_5338-Nandita I met Nandita Das for the first time at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, 2004,  introduced by our mutual friend, the activist Shabnam Hashmi, sister of the late Safdar Hashmi. Since then I have caught up with Nandita several times, most recently at Brown University in Providence where she talked about her life and work. Here’s my article about her for The News on Sunday – it includes bits they had to delete due to space constraints. Also published in Times of India blogs.

Nandita: The Das difference

By Beena Sarwar

It was a street play about a dowry death. Afterwards, the women at the Delhi slum where Safdar Hashmi’s street theatre group Jan Natya Manch was performing, came up to the young actress who had played the dowry victim.

“They kept touching me to make sure I was okay,” she remembers with a laugh.

Nandita Das and Amir Khan in 1947 Earth

Nandita Das and Aamir Khan in 1947 Earth

The slum dwellers, with their limited world exposure, had no concept of what a play was. They took it literally, even though the fire was depicted with orange streamers. More than that, the issue of dowry death was very real to them, as many of them had personal experience of such tragedies.

That was in 1985, and it was Nandita Das’ first play as a young adult. She worked with Jan Natya Manch for the next four years, performing in plays for factory workers and slum dwellers.

It was while she was on a break from theatre, teaching at the Rishi Valley School that armed political goons set upon a Jan Natya Manch production in 1989. Safdar Hashmi was killed in the attack.

Visiting the USA from Mumbai where she lives with her husband and young son, Das shared her story in a keynote address kicking off the Feminist and Women’s Media Festival at Brown University last week, following the screening of her powerful directorial debut Firaaq (2008), an Urdu word meaning both separation and quest.

The film links the stories of ordinary people, a month after the Gujarat carnage in 2002, violence in which over 3,000 Muslims were killed, countless women raped, and hundreds of thousands rendered homeless. “Firaaq is a work of fiction, based on a thousand true stories.”

She took the title from a poem by the pioneering Urdu poet Wali Muhammad Wali, also known as Wali Gujarati, who died in 1701. Nandita originally planned to use his poem “Dar Firaaq-e-Gujarat so hai khaar khaar dil” (Parting from Gujarat leaves thorns in my chest)” in the film, but eventually left it out.

One of the most poignant scenes in the film shows Khan Sahib (Naseeruddin Shah) bewildered at the disappearance of Wali’s tomb, oblivious to the violence that has racked Gujarat, which included a frenzied mob razing down his tiny grave outside the Ahmedabad police commissioner’s office on Feb 28, 2002, and paving the road overnight.

“I’ve acted in many films, but Firaaq is the only one I consider ‘my film’,” she says. It was the only one she has been fully involved in from conception, casting (auditioned 200 children for the role of Mohsin), scripting and production to distribution. She shot most of it in Hyderabad rather than in the place where it is set, Modi’s Gujarat (“I didn’t want to be a martyr”).

Firaaq played twice to packed houses in Karachi at the Kara Film Festival (Best Feature Film, 2009), leaving audiences stunned with its deft portrayal of the human stories behind violent, cataclysmic events.

Mahesh Bhatt and Kara Film Fest director Hasan Zaidi, with Nandita Das

Karachi, 2009: Mahesh Bhatt and Kara Film Fest director Hasan Zaidi, with Nandita Das

That Das came to Karachi for the festival, along with director Mahesh Bhatt, so soon after the Mumbai attacks of 26/11, speaks volumes for their courageous, long-standing commitment to peace and better relations between India and Pakistan.

Brought up by a famous artist father and writer mother  – “my parents are just regular, humanist, secular people with no isms” – Das is not only highly socially and politically conscious, but is also well aware of the discourse about ‘art for art’s sake’ and aesthetics as a value in itself — but “if art can have a social consciousness, it’s even better, even if it is a drop in the ocean.”

Nandita Das - Dark is beautifulDas’ social consciousness comes clearly across in all her work, from her street theatre days, to her Social Work degree (Masters), the roles she takes up in films starting with her first film ‘Fire’ (1996), and her refusal to take on commercial endorsements for products she doesn’t believe in. A cause she has taken up, particularly close to her heart, is the ground-breaking ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign stressing that a woman’s skin colour should not define who she is.

Ramchand Pakistani director Mehreen Jabbar with Syed Fazal Hussain who plays the child Ramchand

Ramchand Pakistani director Mehreen Jabbar with Syed Fazal Hussain who plays the child Ramchand

Doing a major role for Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani (released in 2008), was, says Das, “one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had.”

Already involved in India-Pakistan peace initiatives, the role gave her an opportunity to spend a substantial amount of time in Pakistan, which she loved.

In India we think that “Pakistan is Urdu”, she says. But being outside the big city, in Mirpur Khas where the film was shot, Das, knowing Gujrati and Marwari, could understand Sindhi and communicate with the locals far better than the Pakistani cast and crew who had come from Karachi.

Nandita Das with Prof. and Mrs Ashis Nandy: old friends from Delhi catching up at Brown University

Nandita Das with Prof. and Mrs Ashis Nandy: old friends from Delhi catching up at Brown University

Das is open about her distaste for the hostilities between India and Pakistan. She agrees with the observation of the respected political psychologist Ashis Nandy – who was also present in the hall, as he was visiting Brown University and had given a talk there earlier – that if there wasn’t a Pakistan, India would have invented one, and vice versa. Each needs ‘the other’ to create a feeling of national identity. “Ramchand Pakistani brings these issues to the fore”.

Ramchand Pakistani is in fact “unsettling” as Vazira Zamindar, professor of history at Brown University put it, because it “fundamentally questions the nature of the Indo-Pak divide”.

The film, said Zamindar, “questions it as a Hindu-Muslim divide, and one could argue that it urges us to think of the Indo-Pak border an internal border rather than an international border. India/Pakistan, Hindu/Muslim identities are deeply intertwined, within each of us – as Prof. Nandy said earlier – that which is a part of us, which cannot be whole without the other.”

Ramchand was also Das’ first independent film. “Mehreen is a wonderful filmmaker and person, who genuinely wants to do something. All the actors were from television, and had so much passion and commitment; very refreshing. In India, films that are said to be independent aren’t really so, there’s too much compromise right from the start for commercial reasons.”

The entire production budget of Firaaq, says Das, equalled a third of Karan Johar’s marketing budget for his ‘independent’ Shahrukh Khan-starrer My Name is Khan. “So where’s the level playing field?”

Nandita Das Shabana Azmi FireThe film that catapulted Nandita Das into the limelight was Deepa Mehta’s Fire with Shabana Azmi, which takes up arranged marriages and lack of choices but became controversial for its additional focus on a lesbian relationship. She also played a leading role in Mehta’s 1947 Earth, based on Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man (marketed in the USA as Cracking India)

“Amazingly, the film was released without a single cut by the Censor Board. It was only on the thirteenth day that attacks on the theatres began,” recalls Nandita.

On the flip side, the controversy brought the discussion into the public domain. That, Nandita believes, is the power of film. “Films can have a tangible impact, lead to questioning and a shift in the sub consciousness.”

The issue could no longer be swept under the carpet. The public discourse following ‘Fire’ may well have been behind the Delhi High Court’s 2009 ruling that de-criminalised homosexuality (an order overturned in December 2013).

Das’ refusal to accept blatantly commercial roles with “item numbers” speaks for her deeply held beliefs about human dignity and rights. The “Item numbers” she observes, are “mostly about women saying no, and then yes, to the men chasing them. Has this increased the incidents of rape in India? I don’t know. But molestation has increased.”

Even films that are ostensibly sympathetic to women usually end up denigrating them, she says, as they are packaged in a “male patriarchal mode”. She gives the example of “Dirty Pictures”, a supposedly feminist, “woman-centric” film based on a true story. “But even in that, there is a very male gaze, and by the end of the film there is no sympathy for the woman.”

Nandita Das writes a monthly column for a magazine (the “only discipline in my life”), and recently started getting into twitter (@nanditadas). “Social media is creating new spaces, neutral spaces,” she says. It’s what we do with these tools, how we use them, that will make the difference.

For Nandita Das, it’s all about making a difference. And that is something she does most effectively.

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