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High on the way

Nandita Das refuses to be slotted. More excited by the journey rather than the goal, the actress of Fire fame picks roles that inspire her and has no regrets about those she has ignored.

Nandita Das: `The process is more important than the end.'

PRESS CONFERENCES can be disorienting, with each question pulling in a different direction. To make matters worse, there were awkward silences at the meet at Oberoi that preceded the staging of The Spirit of Anne Frank, the proceeds of which will go to Arundathi Nag's ambitious Ranga Shankara project. What with Shabana Azmi, Zohra Segal, and Nandita Das — the can't-get-more-impressive cast — sitting in a row. And when one managed a moment's peace with Nandita on the impeccable lawns of the five-star hotel (with fibreglass rocks thrown in for effect!), the event manager soon came along with the ultimatum: "You can ask your last question now."

Being part of the tribe that stands and waits, one lingered until the actress of Fire, Earth, Bhawandar, and our own Deveeri fame took pity and said with her signature earthy smile: "Well, you could come into my room if you don't mind the mess. We could talk as I fold my clothes."

But with due reverence for the dictaphone, she let the clothes be and settled down for a chat. "I am glad you are using the dictaphone," she said with a college-girlish laugh. "I tend to chatter a bit. I haven't yet learnt to give those quotable quotes!"

Here are excerpts of the chat we had, until a Tamil film producer arrived ahead of his appointment:

Someone described you as a "reluctant star with a disdain for Bollywood". Are you comfortable with the description?

We all have an urge to label people and think no further. Anyway, I don't know what they mean when they call me a star because I am an actress. And there's no disdain, really. It's just that I can't relate to all kinds of roles. It's like it is with clothes. You may not like to wear a particular colour, but really appreciate it on someone else. But yes, I have been hesitant for a long time. That's because it was not like I always wanted to be an actress. I did my masters in Social Work, worked with women and children, taught for sometime at Rishi Valley, was part of street theatre, learnt Odissi for many years, and so on. So, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, even after Fire and Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma. I carried on as I came across some interesting projects, people passionate about work and so on... I was again going through a process of disillusionment when this play came along to rejuvenate some part of me. I have particularly enjoyed doing this play because we sort of built our own characters. There was no script and all of us brought a little bit of our own selves into it. For me, the process is always more important than the end. The process is the real high. But when you are in a public medium, it is as if you are answerable for everything you do and don't do!

The "disdain" tag probably comes from your refusal to move to Bombay.

Yes, even a lot of well-wishers tell me that it is a big mistake I am making, time is running out, and so on. But temperamentally, I won't be comfortable doing something I don't believe in. I can't be at war with myself all the time. I want to do just the kind of work I want to do and Delhi provides me a neutral ground. I have friends who have nothing to do with the film world and that's wonderful. They don't see films as anything larger than life, which it isn't anyway. So, I am more part of the real world here. Out there, it can be like a little cocoon. And everyone is very insecure within. I would probably feel the same way there, because it is all about who got that role, should I go to this party or that and so on. I like being free of these things.

Is it your love for "processes" rather than "ends" that has made you take such a circuitous route to films?

People often tell me that I waste time. But I think nothing goes waste. We are all rushing to reach God knows where. But every process is nice. You go through one, you organically leave things behind, and move to certain other spaces. You stay there if you like it and leave that too if you don't!

But isn't it important to be focussed, to know one's goal?

But the journey is so much more exciting. These days there is so much emphasis on specialisation. But why specialise if you actually enjoy doing different things? For me, be it going to colleges and talking about communalism or women's issues, doing workshops for children, acting in a play, or just listening to music at home... everything has a place of its own and everything is linked. I can't say this is "work" and this is "life". I just do things I like. I recently shot a film called Bas Yuh Hi, which is not such a "meaningful" one as they would call it. But at that time I had done three heavy films in a row and needed a break. It's also a personal journey. One can't live to give interviews!

But can everything work by sheer instinct?

All of us, no doubt, come to crossroads where we are forced to make our choices. The way you are brought up, your influences, and things that interest you guide even your instincts, I would say.

The shift from social work to films can't be easy.

I consider myself lucky to have been exposed to a certain other reality. I have seen people with far more serious problems than some of the one's we create for ourselves. But one tends to move on and get used to conveniences. Now that I have taken up this profession, I can't be nave any more. I am still very idealistic, but have also learnt to be realistic on the way. No regrets about that.

I am told you screen tested for Lagaan and you missed the role because you have "too much intelligence in your eyes"! Why can't the Indian film industry accept a dusky complexion and intelligent eyes in a woman?

That's what the director said, I heard! But also, for that kind of role — just in love and jealous — spending six months would not have been worth it. It's a very 18-year-old character and I am much older. I frankly didn't feel that way even when I was 18! And talking of dark complexion, let us face it, most Indians are dark. Make-up men often tell me: `You have nice features, but you are dark. Doesn't matter, I will make you fair.' And I always tell them: `Please don't do any such thing!'. I insist on not getting fairer. In fact, I prefer to do my own make-up.

If the character is supposed to be fair, then I am wrong casting. If that is not part of character, then how does it matter?

Is your colour an advantage in that it keeps away those who are looking for just fair-and-lovely faces?

Not always. I might miss a fun-filled film for the complexion and my "serious" image.

What is it to be an "actress" in these times?

This is surely not the best time to be an actress. I would have loved to be a Guru Dutt or a Bimal Roy heroine. They had so much focus on story and characterisation. They had song sequences alright. So, it's not that one has problems with that. Only that things tend to get a bit too flaky a bit too often these days.

You have acted in many non-Hindi films, including Deveeri in Kannada. How it is to emote in a language one does not know?

It's tough as hell. First two days, I feel like rushing back, specially with languages like Malayalam.

But slowly I get so involved that I have even dreams in that language! There is an incredible lot of talent in other language industries. Deveeri remains one of my cherished experiences.


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