Actor-director Nandita Das talks about turning theatre director with the play Between The Lines

Actor-director Nandita Das makes her debut as a theatre director and playwright with the play Between The Lines, which will be staged in the city on Saturday (June 29). Nandita and her husband, Subodh Maskara, play the two central characters, Maya and Shekhar, in the play that explores gender inequalities in a marriage. In an e-mail interview, Nandita talks about the play, her stint in Malayalam films and her latest projects. Excerpts...

After a successful stint on the big screen in various roles, you have returned to theatre after eight years... this time as director and actor.

I have never planned my life and have done different things at different times. Somehow the circumstances of that time gave birth to the project. I started working on the play when I was juggling the many roles I had to play – mother, Chairperson of Children’s Film Society of India… Like most working women, I was multi-tasking a lot and going quite crazy! I felt the best way to channel myself creatively would be to write a play about the challenges of being a working woman and dissecting the gender inequalities that exist even within the privileged class. My own life and those of many women around me was the trigger for the play. I feel it is very much possible to make engaging stories with a social conscience. For me it is the content that dictates the form.

How different or same is direction and acting in theatre?

Film and theatre are different mediums and they have to be approached differently. I have only done two professional plays and contrary to popular belief, I have not really come from theatre. But it is also exciting to explore a new medium and have the opportunity to play with it. I come from the realistic genre of filmmaking, so I instinctively am attracted to stories that reflect real life. But theatre has its own language that has its own realism and I have enjoyed exploring that. The style has emerged very organically. But acting and directing in the play has been challenging as it is not easy to be the third eye while being on the stage. Initially I used to find it more difficult to focus on my acting as I was always watching over the other aspects of the production, including worrying about Subodh’s performance!

Any reason why the medium of theatre was chosen for this theme?

Not really! I just thought doing a play would be easier than a film, amidst all the responsibilities I have at the moment. Although now I feel, it has its own challenges. But exploring the subject of gender inequality, an issue close to my heart and through a new medium was reason enough to take the plunge. I am happy to be on stage…after eight years.

As an actress and social activist, you have explored different aspects of society and injustice. What motivated you to explore inequality in marriages and gender?

The privileged class often feels inequalities exist in only the poorer and uneducated class and that ‘we are all sorted’. But I feel urban, affluent India is caught between modernity and tradition. Contrary to common perception, gender inequality is more subtle and deceptive in the educated class and therefore it is more difficult to negotiate through it. The play intends to raise many questions, answering a few, and hopes to leave the audience with many lingering thoughts.

How was it to work with your husband? Does the play have vignettes from your personal life as well?

Yes, to direct your husband on stage is not the easiest thing! At times egos come in, we bring home arguments on to the stage and vice-versa, but all in all, it was an amazing experience and actually helped us get to know each other better. From the time I have known Subodh, I have seen how comfortable and creative he is when he is narrating stories or mimicking people. He has a natural flair for acting and always wanted to explore this side of himself. As a partner I thought what better way to give him that opportunity, than to make him act in our home production. He took it quite seriously and did workshops with Waman Kendre and Mahesh Dattani to learn more about the craft. He is also the producer of the play and there I had no doubts at all as he has been an entrepreneur for a long time now. He was an inherent part of the writing journey as well. Through our rehearsals and shows I saw him getting closer to the character he is playing.

Since I have also scripted the play, many of my personal experiences and those that I have been privy to are part of the play. Our endeavour was to make the play soul-stirring without being preachy, and witty without being frivolous. Subodh and I often say, that 50 per cent of the play is our life…but you have to guess which 50 per cent!

You are a favourite of Malayali audiences, having worked with some of the leading directors such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, V.K. Prakash and Jayaraj? How was the experience?

I have enjoyed doing many of the regional films as I find the stories to be more interesting, often taken from powerful literature, and the directors have greater conviction and seem to make less compromises. Malayalam cinema, in particular, has had a history of amazing films and I feel fortunate to have worked on the three films you mentioned. Each of the directors was different in the way they interact with actors and in the way they tell their stories and so the memory too is quite distinct. VKP’s shoot was fun as the director had a joyful spirit. Jayaraj’s was gruelling as it was a very tight shoot and I had to do tough things like put a live snake on my lap, with my heart pounding uncontrollably. But working with Adoor Gopalakrishnan was truly special. For one, he doesn’t tell his actors what their characters are! So they come without any baggage or pre-conceived notions. But as I didn’t know his method, I had asked him right in the beginning and he did tell me my character!

I was the privileged one, also because he seldom takes a non-Malayali actor! He is extremely focussed and the process is nicely intense.

As someone who has worn several hats, is there a favourite amongst them?

I am a restless person, with many different interests, and I hope to continue to explore and enjoyed them. I don’t see any reason why one has to make choices between this or that when one can potentially do both this and that. For me, the different things I do lead to the same end and in some ways feed on each other. Each form of expression challenges and excites me in a unique way. So why would I want to do only one of them. But I have to admit, directing a film is the most consuming of them all and precisely for that reason, I would want to do other things between directorial projects, to recoup my energies and live life a little! But then it also helps in the convergence of my various interests and therefore it is also the more satisfying one.

Your latest projects?

I just acted in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aaata Hai, directed by Soumitra Ranade. It is a contemporary take on the film that was made more than 30 years ago by Saeed Mirza. I enjoyed the shoot and found the team very committed, which is a rarity, especially in Hindi cinema!

These are two projects that are yet to be fully funded, but are very interesting. I am engaged as an actor and director, respectively. Traces of Sandalwood is a Spanish film, with half the film shot in India, with an Indian cast. The shooting is in Mumbai and Barcelona. Corpus is a very exciting project that explores different perspectives on the body. Seven directors from around the world will make short films that will be strung together by a French producer. I met one of the directors, Naomi Kawase, who was in the main jury in Cannes this time. There is complete freedom in the way each of the directors can explore the subject and I am itching to begin this. But they too are still working to close the financials. I hope both get fully funded soon and go on floor later this year.