“I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.
I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.”
– Wislawa Szymborska. “Life While-You-Wait”, Map: Collected and Last Poems.
“I grew up in Delhi with a painter for a father and a writer for a mother. While my childhood was about a tremendous amount of artistic exposure, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to human rights work. I was very idealistic then, and I already had a social bent because of school, my parents, my Gandhian grandparents – and it was never simply ‘art for art’s sake’. People fight this didactic notion of art today, protesting the ‘holier than thou’ presumption if artists are found to have an agenda. For me however, the journey led to an intermingling of worlds into which I’d been initiated by my parents. I had always seen my father engage with many things besides his painting; he’d think about the livelihoods of the artisans and craftsmen, paint for the Bangladeshi war and some famine… I owe a lot to my parents for their values. While they were humanists by instinct, they were not so politically engaged even though their politics involved being inclusive and egalitarian. All these big words came later, but thankfully all the concepts were a huge part of living and listening.”
The Street Theatre Activist
“After getting a Masters in Social Work, I worked with NGOs on issues of women, discrimination, children, and education. For my work, I used a lot of role play that was influenced by street theatre from my earlier years. I began working with Jana Natya Manch (Janam) when I entered college, at the suggestion of my then classmate Sudhanva Deshpande. The four years spent with Janam were a turning point and, in a sense, my political training, and Safdar Hashmi remains an important influence. Previously, I’d been broadly exposed to the performing arts through Odissi dance training and school performances, but this was different. I began doing lead roles for Janam’s plays, and while I enjoyed the performance aspect, what really captured my enthusiasm was the process. You saw the subject evolve, and then took it to slums and offices and colleges in front of the hordes of people making eye contact with you because you’re right there… That journey of creating a play and performing it to receive instant feedback felt like ‘Oh, we’re changing the world, nothing less than that!’
Street theatre was more a means to reach out to people and try engage with their perceptions of the social world, and when I got into acting – completely by default – I did it for the same reasons, finding stories that needed to be told and having an interesting platform to do so. It remains a means, and I am not a full time actor inspite of common perceptions – I certainly give it the least amount of time out of all that I do! I find, however, that everything is interlinked. To an outside person, my human rights work and acting work seem different, but the choices you make in films – most of my films are shot in rural areas, and we’ve shot in ten different languages – expose you to stories that help in the human rights work, and the latter sometimes gives you insights into people and characters. Everything kind of feeds into one another.”
“As they say, our lives are often stranger than fiction. So often one comes across something that, if it was in a film, nobody would believe to be possible! I’ll never forget the time I was called for the “Hijra Habba” in Bangalore, roughly six years ago. Despite having done Fire and being a champion of LGBT rights, I had a fear of eunuchs as a child and hadn’t fully understood their space enough to get over the discomfort and deal with the experience. They convinced me to attend by talking about an oppressive police commissioner who was constantly putting members of the transgender and transsexual community in jail, saying that my presence there would be extremely beneficial.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when ten thousand people from the community showed up at the “Hijra Habba”. “Three hundred and sixty four days a year, I wear a pant and shirt and go to work, I have a wife and child and I lead a life that isn’t mine. On this one day, I am flamboyantly wearing a saree, and I’m myself,” several of them told me. Just for me to understand their world and fathom how insensitive and cruel as a society we are, unwilling to let people live their lives just because their lifestyles doesn’t fit into our definition of what is normal or what is right… It was a serious moment of personal growth, making me think not just about that particular community, but each aspect of society shunned as ‘The Other’.
I’ve spoken to young girls in Kashmir who wanted to commit suicide – what do you tell them, coming from such a privileged space? Everything you say sounds false, stupid, meaningless, insensitive. And yet, you’re there trying to give them some sense of hope, helping them speak and hear each others’ stories. You wonder, ‘I haven’t gone through their experiences, so what right do I have to tell them they should be more hopeful when there is very little to be hopeful about?’ Sometimes you go into these experiences believing that you’re the speaker, but what acting has done is provide me with different platforms to go places and learn and listen to whatever I’ve wanted to. You can wear your actor’s hat and then happily remove it once you’ve arrived where you wanted!
When I visited Lahore a while ago, I listened to young girls talk about what freedom is. They shared their feelings about belonging to what is becoming the most hated country in the world because of Pakistan’s global perception, and how they grapple with wanting to be critical and intelligent while simultaneously feeling defensive because their country – like every other country! – is a mixed bag, and they resent being painted with the same brush.
Moreover, spending time with the three Manto daughters, when I went to stay with the middle daughter, meant that I was constantly working with history and the present. The oldest was nine years old when Manto passed away and remembers little, and the other two remember even less. I did meet Manto’s sister in law, however, who had some fantastic trivia on ‘Bhai Saadat’. The daughters’ stories of him often come from discoveries of reading about him in the later years of their lives. After two years of research, I found myself telling them anecdotes about him which, incredibly enough, meant that they would piece together stories of their own lives with input from others!”
“I wanted to write a piece on why working women have to juggle so much and why working mothers felt stretched all the time, even in our educated affluent class; we often talk of inequalities in the uneducated lower classes, but we don’t really address the nuanced, subtler inequalities that exist in our class of people. We genuinely think we’re sorted, and I wanted to address that. My son was two, and I was juggling Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, writing my column, acting, and wanting to spend time with my child. It made me wonder, “Why am I so stretched all the time?” Wanting to put a film together but thinking it was too much work, I thought, ‘Let me write a play!’
Not that I knew how to write a play! I simply assumed that it’d be an easier medium and possible to write from home. When my husband told me he wanted to act, I said “It’s a husband and wife play, so we’ll rehearse in our hall and just do it.” Of course, at that time it seemed much easier than it turned out to be! The medium has just come my way – if you had asked me six years ago whether I’d write a magazine column, I’d retort that I didn’t know how to write! But I have been doing a monthly column for the last five years, and find it rather cathartic. You find different ways to share your own dilemmas and anguish, your discomfort and concerns – and the means come to you.”
The Documentary Film maker
“I’d love to make documentaries! In fact, when I was in college I made a documentary on Sardar Gurcharan Singh, the pioneer of studio pottery! He was in his 90s and very fond of my father and me – he used to give me a little clay and we’d do pottery under his neem tree, that sort of thing. My father once said, “He’s such a pioneer, but nobody will know – why don’t you make a film on him?” I had no idea how to go about it, but collaborated with a friend who’d begun to do some camera work, and we called it Imprint in Clay. I don’t even think I have a copy! However, every year on his birth anniversary, Delhi Blue Pottery – which he started – shows that film. They’ve given me a VHS, I’ll have to find a way to convert it!
Someone asked me to do a documentary for the NSD… I don’t even remember how that came to me, now that you ask! I ended up making a piece called Khel Khel Mein on how theatre can be used in education. And then someone at the Centre for Science and Environment said, “We want to make a film on rainwater harvesting. Would you be interested?” This was in 2003 when I was already acting, and I jumped at the opportunity. Telling a story in 90 seconds is quite a challenge! Ravi K. Chandran, a cinematographer who I’ve worked on several films with, did the camera work for me. And then Firaaq was my first film in 2008.
I think you do random things, but somewhere along the line all the dots get connected, and only when you stand back and get a little perspective do you notice the connections, and go, ‘Hmm, nothing in the universe feels random after all!'”
“Since all my work is provocative in a sense, I have hordes of people who come up saying, “Aren’t you ashamed you did Fire? Somewhere you must be feeling a little sense of shame, right?” Or “Very conveniently you did Firaaq – why didn’t you start the conversation with Kashmir, why keep taking us back to Gujarat?” Mind you, these are the same people who will endlessly invoke the Partition and Mahmud Ghazni! The idea relentlessly remains that one attempts to engage, to see whether one can get the point across. You can’t pay too much attention to the bigoted comments – even if I retweet an article on Twitter, I’m told “Take your child to Pakistan!” or “We’ll confiscate your passport!” or “You’re an anti-national, you’re a lesbian!”.
Art changes things very gradually and intangibly. You can only feel the change when you see your own responses altering. You think you’re very similar to your self twenty years ago, and yet you aren’t. I got a long letter from someone who told me that his girlfriend was from Pakistan, and they’d been almost resigned to end the relationship because of the resistance from their families when they saw Firaaq and thought, “If you can make the film, we can be together.” Another actor came up to me saying, “I thought I was very liberal, very secular, but now I find myself identifying with these characters and it makes me wonder.” Many different things have to happen simultaneously for a tangible change – it can be one film, one conference, one column, one Junoon talk – they all converge into this sea of stories out there! You’ve just got to keep the faith, otherwise you won’t want to work!
Nowadays, there are many labels, aren’t there? Are we being secular? Does this count as social activism? When what it really comes down to is living with a certain social conscience, and seeing everything you do as an extension of that conscience.”
“Being half Oriya and half Gujarati meant that, during every summer in my childhood, my parents took me to Orissa for a month and Bombay – where my mother is based – for another. The food, the language, the sounds – everything becomes a part of you. I do films in different languages because I spoke four languages when I was two! You start making connections, and I find that I can sometimes understand Telugu words by their Tamil roots. My father’s hometown was a village with a well, and my mother’s Bombay was a shining big city where nothing for me existed beyond Worli! I inhabited completely different worlds, and the inherent contrast in my upbringing meant that I didn’t judge anything.”
“I feel most strongly about the practice of form and content always going together. I’m not a Method actor – I have dozens of questions when I read a story, but my process is only between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ when it comes to film acting. Not being formally trained, I don’t really know the grammar of acting, and often wish I had better focus when I watch my older work. I’m a instinctive actor but I don’t think that one’s instinct is always right, and often would like to be pushed beyond my instinct to avoid predictability. Luckily, I’ve worked with a wide range of directors – some first timers who come with an invigorating passion, and some eminent veterans who come with a body of knowledge. They’re as different as can be.”
“The one thing I owe my father tremendously for is the lack of fear of failure. I was raised to be less wedded to the outcome than to the journey – which isn’t to say I wasn’t terribly tense for the premiere show of Between The Lines! As a result, I went into direction quite seamlessly. As an actor, you are the means and the vehicle on stage. But I was also the writer and director, so initially my mind also jumped to the light that didn’t go on, the line that didn’t quite sound right, the varying sound levels! When I did Firaaq, I didn’t have a director’s training. My co-writer brought it a lot of the grammar, but I remember a director friend telling me, “You can make out that you aren’t trained because you sometimes break the grammar, not having a rule book to stick to.” I winced, but he meant it as a compliment. There are advantages and disadvantages, and without making value judgements, I’ve found that spontaneity can lead to interesting revelations! I see so much of my upbringing in the aesthetics and art direction of Firaaq. As a director, the fun of it is that you can do what you want!
As for the feeling that I am a woman – am I conscious of it when I’m directing? Do I perceive myself as a ‘woman director’, as many panels call me? The fact that I’m a woman must influence some things, and you recognise that. Just as there is a male gaze, there is a female one. As for the label, you resist that!
The gaps between directorial ventures are long. It’ll have been 8 years since Firaaq when I finally shoot Manto, which should start next year if I get the money – no, when I get the money! What I like about film direction is the coming together of my interests and skills, the art, the words, the sounds… it’s a composite art that grows in phases. Currently, I’m thoroughly enjoying making up scenes for Manto, taking a piece of his history and throwing something new in. As an actor, I perform everything I write, and we improvise! Even editing is such a powerful skill – I remember the significance of cutting one second off from the whole with Firaaq, and the impact it had. I loved that! Of course, now when I see Firaaq I see hundreds of mistakes, but hopefully I won’t repeat them with Manto. I don’t want to be ‘prolific’ and push out a film every two years, and don’t feel the need to make films unless the stories consume me.”
“I’ve been reading Saadat Hasan Manto since college. Back then, I had a collection called Dastavez which was in devanagri script, and felt like making a short film. Later, I started reading his essays and discovered what an incredible life he had led. I found a lot of things about my father that were quite Manto-esque – I’ve always wanted to wanted make a documentary on my him too, but am too close to the subject to be able to step back and get perspective! Anyway, this project is the acknowledgement of a misfit who has really lived on his own terms in completely honest ways. I’ve had fleeting thoughts about its potential for years, but kept thinking, “I’d never be able to recreate the 1940s!”
Moreover, I don’t think I had the emotional depth as a director a few years ago to take on the range of experiences Manto lived through. Presently, I feel much more equipped – both creatively and emotionally – to take on the project, to take on this man who most people don’t know anything about! We’ve taken about eight years of his life, and are now creating an homage to this progressive artist whose fantastic life and stories – like those of many undiscovered others – are deserving of a wider audience.”
“To be asked about my exact profession is a nightmare – if you asked me today, I’d say that I spend most of my time being a mother! It has changed my life utterly, and takes precedence over everything else. Vihaan’s presence is constantly impacting my choices, but if someone asked me to write down my profession, I couldn’t write ‘Mother. Advocate of social issues. Actor.’ Note that money isn’t what you’re basing this list on, since you call yourself an activist (for which the work is completely pro bono) which is something you just do. But even as a mother, you do a lot of things!
I use stories as a vehicle to teach Vihaan, but just as we don’t like films that are too heavy handed and message-y, children don’t like being taught big values in a big way. Once in a while when I try, he completely dismisses them and rightly so. It reminds me that I’m being quite didactic and boring, that these values have to be lived. He’s such a great teacher – if you’re being even a little dishonest to yourself or to him, he’ll catch you in a second. Children make you much better human beings for sure – and that’s the struggle, because they reveal your demons to you, and you don’t want to be the person they reflect back at you!
Sometimes, I try to give him the upbringing I had, or try to rectify the things I went through – but of course it doesn’t always work. I strongly believe that children should grow up in nature, that they’re stuck too often in a room with plastic toys, and so I try take him everywhere I go. We’re performing in Singapore this weekend and I can’t take my nanny along with me, which means that he’s going to be sleeping and eating with somebody new. I’m performing about these very issues, and worry about them all the time.
That said, I think it’s very important for children to see their mothers work. Sometimes, when I have to go out, he asks, “Why? You work from home.” He’s learned to take it for granted that while Papa can go to office, Mumma must work from home. But it’s very important for children – for the respect they will inculcate for women – to see their mothers doing things, and for us to try not to fall into the guilt trap, which comes so easy.”
The Collector of Storytellers
“Growing up in Delhi meant watching a large number of performances, exhibitions, and concerts – I saw plays at the National School of Drama (NSD), and I distinctly remember the open air theatre at Triveni Kala Sangam, where Habib saab did Charandas Chor and Agra Bazaar. And as a child I was struck by Naya Theatre; it was very animated, with beautiful music and folk artists, and is something that has stayed in my memories. Many years later, I worked with Habib saab on a play, so it all came around.
I’ve been fortunate to have met very interesting people through both my film and human rights work, who are doing some incredible work without any media glare, and lead lives of such deep conviction and courage. Of course, all of us have a story within us, and some stories remain in our consciousness. I’ve this incredible friend, a lady called Mercy Mathew who is fondly called Daya Bai by the village. She is a Malayali who lives in Madhya Pradesh, and works independently on issues related to land rights, the selling of girls, and general issues of women. You know, when the media asks me about ‘my inspiration’ expecting a famous name, I start going on and on about her. She’s living by example.
Another wonderful storyteller friend called Indira Mukherjee tells stories to rural children and government school children, teaches young educators about storytelling, and goes to the North East and collects folk and tribal tales and grandmothers’ stories. It’s a real reservoir of stories that she exchanges, acquainting one part of India to another part through their stories. How often do we hear fictional narratives from the North East? She released this book called Who is Ming Xaiou? or something, a name with many Xs and Os… and when they said, “Why can’t you change the name?” she retorted, “Why? That is a name of somebody from Manipur or Meghalaya, and we need to know those names just as we know others.” These are the people I admire, who aren’t bogged down by the usual rat race and are pursuing their personal missions, with complete understanding of the fact that none of us are really changing the world. At the same time, we all have our little role to play. It’s that fine line we tread, and there are many who tread it so beautifully.”
Conceptualised and interviewed by Tanvi Shah.
Join us for Nandita Das’ open session on the Journey of Making Firaaq, at MCubed Library (opposite Bandra Gymkhana) at 7 pm on Thursday, September 3. The session will look at her experiences creating a work of art that has a strong social conscience, with the multiplicity of perspectives, stories and challenges it puts forth. We look forward to seeing you on the 3rd!
This session is part of Junoon’s Mumbai Local series.