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September 20, 1999


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'I am quite happy to be away from Bollywood'

Nandita Das Nandita Das, who made her debut as the stunning second lead in the controversial Fire, is no empty-headed starlet. In fact, if anything, she is a very reluctant star, and candid about her disdain for Bollywood.

She is bright, gutsy and extremely articulate. From the city she prefers to live in (Delhi) to the kind of roles she won't do, Nandita has firm views on everything. After receiving rave reviews about her performance in 1947: Earth, she now awaits the release of Nagesh Kukunoor's Rockford. Nandita, who is painter Jatin Das's daughter, spoke to Suhasini Haidar about her love-hate relationship with the film world.

Tell us about 1947: Earth.

It's the story of a small group of people whose world was changed by Partition. There is this little Parsi girl and I play her ayah. My character is this sensuous, but innocent woman, in the middle of a love triangle. As the events of 1947 unfold, with Independence and Partition, she sees her small world collapsing. It is about how decisions taken by a few men at the top changed everything for these people, who were so far removed from them.

This is your second film with director Deepa Mehta... you seem to have formed a special relationship with her.

This is the second film in a trilogy. The third film, Water, will be shot later this year. I have got to know Deepa quite well. She is a wonderful director who allows her actors to think for themselves. For the filming of 1947, she was constantly taking inputs from me, from Aamir (Khan), from Rahul (Khanna). Even now, as she is finishing the screenplay for Water she calls me up for hours and reads the scenes to me for my reaction.

You are considerably older (she's 30) than most actresses are when they launch their careers. Where have you been all these years?

I started acting when I was barely out of school. I worked with a street-theatre group in Delhi called Jan Natya Manch. We staged plays about social problems like illiteracy, communalism etc. I worked with them for about six years. It was a voluntary thing, and I think more than the acting, the ideals and the issues raised were important to me. I worked on small theatre projects after that. During this period I completed my bachelor's degree in Geography from Delhi University.

You know how it is here, you just study something without any idea what you plan to do with it. Luckily for me, my parents never pushed me into anything -- I could do what I liked. After that I taught at the Rishi Valley School (started by J Krishnamurti) down south.

Next, I did my Master's in Social Work, and started working with children from underprivileged homes at an organisation called Alarippu. We used to run workshops for primary schoolteachers, where my theatre experience came in handy.

But you also need to survive, and there was very little money coming in. I needed some projects to get on with.

Is that how you moved to films?

No, you may find this funny, but acting was never really a career option for me. I had never considered it my profession. It was an interest, and I think that, to a large extent, it is still more an interest.

You don't think of yourself as a full-time actress?

Well, until now I've only done two films a year. And because I never thought of acting as a career, I never went to any director, any producer, sit in Bombay or anything. Also, I was waiting for the release of Fire, to see if anyone appreciated that.
Unfortunately, the release kept getting delayed, and I only did one Hindi film -- Govind Nihalani's Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa -- one film in Oriya and one in Malayalam. So, I've had a lot of time on my hands in between for my other interests like pottery and my workshops.

But you have rejected roles that were offered to you, such as the lead in Mira Nair's Kamasutra as well as the chance to play the heroine in Indra Kumar's Mann. Are you just choosy?

As far as Mann goes, I really wasn't cut out for the role, and I think even they (the producers) realised it just wouldn't work out. Aamir (Khan) was very keen, and he convinced the producers to offer me the role. He said I should just come to Bombay with an open mind.

But when I got there, I realised we were speaking two different languages, and had two completely different ways of looking at the film which was based on An Affair To Remember. By the end, I was trying to tell them how I wasn't right for the role!

As far as Kamasutra went, I was offered the role of Maya, the heroine, before I had done Fire. But I didn't feel strong enough or confident enough to do it then. I also felt a bit uncomfortable with the way some of the scenes had been conceptualised.

Nandita Das and Rahul Khanna in 1947: Earth Are you worried about the perception that you are only an 'art film actress'?

To begin with, I think the lines between the so-called 'art cinema' and 'commercial cinema' have got blurred in the last few years. I mean, otherwise what do you think an actor like Aamir is doing in 1947? Nowadays, there is only good cinema and bad cinema.

I would rather just work in films I feel comfortable with. I will not work in films that stereotype women or portray them as weak and stupid. Or sing songs and run around trees the way they do in Bollywood. I have nothing against songs, but they must fit in reasonably. Equally, of course, I would rather not work in some of these pretentious and boring films that are made in the name of art cinema.

You seem to have a lot of ideals. Have you seen yourself change at all after working in Bombay?

(Laughs) I would like to think I still have my ideals. It's one of the reasons I continue to live in Delhi, away from the hype and incestuous gossip, and all the self-promotion. Here I am comfortable with my old friends, who will bring me back to reality the moment they think I'm flying too high!

In fact, I had met Shyam Benegal, after he attended a private screening of Fire, some years ago. And he had said, 'It's all very well for you to have insisted on living in Delhi while acting -- so far. But I have seen it before, with Shabana (Azmi), Kulbhushan (Kharbanda), Anupam (Kher) etc, and it never works for long. I guarantee you will move here (to Bombay) in six months.'

It's been three years now, and I am still quite happy to be away from Bollywood, you know. I might make mistakes, in terms of the movies I take, but I will stick to what I said about the roles I will not do.

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in Fire

Were you upset with the furore caused by the Shiv Sena over Fire?

No, I think it was a politically motivated campaign by a handful of people. I mean, they were entitled to their opinions, but not to their violence. Eventually the media, and the people came out spontaneously against them, and I am very happy about that.

Do you think our Censor Board has become too scissor-happy these days?

I think in an ideal society, there should be no censorship. The idea that a small group of individuals can judge what they think you should or should not see is offensive. But I understand that in a volatile country like ours, where feelings can be fueled by the wrong sort of movie, it may be necessary. I think that what the Censor Board should do is issue guidelines, and not make rules or order cuts in a movie.

What are the films you are working on now?

There is Water with Deepa Mehta. I have Shyam Benegal's next film, Hari Bhari. Then there is my first Kannada film. I have also been offered a role in Buddhadev Dasgupta's next project, but I don't know if I can commit the time to him, as I seem to have taken on so many projects.

But you said you had only two films a year?

(Grins impishly) I guess I've gone from two to too many!


The Earth review

The Deepa Mehta interview

Aamir Khan on Earth

The Rahul Khanna interview

The Fire controversy

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