Actor Nandita Das on her work and why she's not seen on screen more often.

Many years ago, when “1947-Earth” was being released, I read an interview where Nandita Das, that dusky chronicler of dystopia, spoke of living in a Delhi barsaati. This, even in those penniless days, seemed queer.

Why, pray, one had to ask, was a Hindi cinema actor living in a barsaati, which is literally a room on the roof, in Delhi?

Over the years, as Nandita Das' career careened from the odd heart-stopping performance here and there, to the odder appearance as Amitabh Bachchan's wife in “Aks”, it was clear that Das had turned the barsaatiinto a metaphor.

Social work

She was lofty, swimming in a sense, above her Hindi cinema contemporaries, if nothing else, in her sheer, resolute desire to not share space with them.

From her high haven, she has, naturally, spurned any real earning from cinema and worked extensively in what is broadly defined as the “social work” — the resume on her website, apart from the films and plays, records membership of the advisory board of the Alliance for a New Humanity, participation in Beyond Boundaries, a cricket for India-Pakistan peace initiative, spokesperson-ship for UNDP, membership of South Asians for Human Rights and work in the slums of Delhi.

In between all this, her films has been myriad and multilingual — from Tamil and Malayalam to Bengali and Urdu — the last a memorable performance in Mehreen Jabbar's “Ramchand Pakistani”.

And all this while, she has continued to live in Delhi. Her home, eclectic (perhaps still rented — I did not ask — though no longer a barsaati). But it is the home of the not-wealthy Delhi intellectual with jute chataais, suitably book-filled and the customary flustered maid. There is also, in the austerity, a sense of a woman not often at home. The maid said, ‘Madam is getting ready'.

Presumably, actors, even far away from Bollywood bling, need some vanity time before facing the camera. When she appears, Das looks as real as her resume suggests. I can only decipher some hair brushing and a dab of kohl.

Artist and activist

We speak of the artiste as an activist and whether that works anymore. My criticism is that people like Arundhati Roy have probably polarised more people than pushed real change.

“But at least people like Arundhati are creating that space to push the boundary and discuss aspects that are hardly ever discussed,” says Das. “At least they are pushing the boundary and in that their role is invaluable.”

We discuss the parallel cinema movement. “There is hardly any parallel cinema anymore,” smiles Das, “and it is certainly not a movement.” We discuss her full length directorial debut, “Firaaq”. She is angry with the producers.

“There is absolutely no level playing field. The way films like ‘Firaaq' are released compared to a commercial film, there is absolutely no comparison. Somehow producers do not have the confidence (in smaller films) to push it with the right kind of marketing. I don't know why but I really feel that who are we to judge what people like understand or not. At least give the film a chance to reach the maximum possible people. When my driver saw the film in a Delhi screening, he came out and said, ‘ Didi, why do people fight so much?' We complicate things and analyse films when we see them. For most people, they are either moved by a film or they are not and that's all there is to that.”

Before I went to interview Das, someone told me, Nandita Das is the journey Konkona Sen started out in and yet Konkona as gone really far, crossing over and making a name in mainstream Bollywood. I say that to Das and she laughs, and completes, in a sense, the sentence: “And she has remained behind…”

Faced with modesty in a strikingly handsome woman, I retreat: “No, no, it could just be that we want to see more of you on screen!”

“Well,” says Das, “I want to do more films but not every good script comes to me. And you see, I am not judging anyone. Everyone leads their life and career the way they choose. I prefer to be in Delhi, far away from Bombay, and do many things that I have wanted to do. I have chosen to be laidback. I am not ambitious and that's the way I want to be.”

Of course, her website quaintly notes that she got a ‘1st Division' in both college (B.A. Hons. Geography) and post-graduation (M.A., Social Work) but this could be more the Indian “I was good at studies” thing than real ambition.

Showing spunk

In her new task, though, Das is showing some distinct Hindi cinema spunk. Her new job, as head of the Children's Film Society of India, is to promote the much-ignored children's film genre. In this role, Das is actively campaigning and using her Hindi cinema contacts to bring much needed talent and corporate support to children's film.

“From Vishal Bhardwaj to Nagesh Kukunoor, they have told me, ‘now that you are there, let's do something'. That is very encouraging. If they bring their talent and their voice to children's films, we can do wonders!”

Now she is working to get the corporates to pour in the money. “My whole point is that we need corporate support. Then we can change the whole thing and create new brilliant stuff. We have a wealth of material in our Panchatantras, our folktales, our legends and I wonder are our children so far away from all the things we grew up with that we cannot create content that appeals to a whole new generation.”

Then, showing rare ambition, she says: “We can have our own Harry Potter.”

Hindol Sengupta is Associate Editor, Bloomberg UTV