‘I don’t have the desire to change my image,’ says Nandita Das after her new film Zwigato’s TIFF première

Nandita Das’ new film Zwigato recently premiered at TIFF and the actor is clear where her interest lies — filmmaking

Updated - September 24, 2022 12:08 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2022 12:04 pm IST

Nandita Das in Toronto

Nandita Das in Toronto | Photo Credit: Aseem Chhabra

In the mid-90s, Nandita Das was working with an NGO, after doing her masters in social work from Delhi University, when she was asked to audition for a “bold film” about two women. That was 26 years ago. Last week, Das and her co-actor in Fire,Shabana Azmi, reunited with their director Deepa Mehta in Toronto. The two actors were at the Toronto International Film Festival with the premières of their films — Zwigato, Das’ third film as a director, and Shekhar Kapur’s rom-com What’s Love Got to Do with It?, in which Azmi plays a supporting role.

Nandita Das calls herself a hesitant actor and director (despite helming three movies). But even when her acting career took off, she played the game the way she wanted to. “The choices I made freed me to work on my own terms,” she says. “Sometimes I did five films in a year, and at other times I didn’t work for a couple of years.” Along the way, she appeared in films directed by a range of master filmmakers: Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Mrinal Sen, Rituparno Ghosh and even Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Her only regret is that many people do not know her work.

Nanadita Das and Kapil Sharma attend the Zwigato première at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival

Nanadita Das and Kapil Sharma attend the Zwigato première at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival | Photo Credit: Getty Images

All that might change with her new film, Zwigato, in which she has cast popular comedian and television talk show host Kapil Sharma along with Shahana Goswami.

Man vs algorithm

Zwigato is the tale of a working-class couple coping with the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. After Manas (Sharma) loses his factory job, he becomes a food delivery man for a company called Zwigato, earning ₹15 per dispatch. Meanwhile, his wife Pratima (Goswami) gets a cleaning job in a mall. Manas is not happy with his wife’s work, perhaps because she earns more than him. The domestic pressures and the state of the economy merge into a moving human drama that only an activist at heart like Das could have made.

Also Read | Listen to Her, a short film by Nandita Das, exhorts women to break the silence on domestic violence

Instead of setting the film in Delhi or Mumbai, Das placed it in Bhubaneswar. She wanted to explore the city where her parents still live — a smart city with modern malls, high rise buildings, as well as small lanes and patriarchal attitudes. “When the pandemic started, I was talking to my friend Samir Patil, the CEO of Scroll [and a partner in her production company],” Das recalls. “We were talking about unemployment, whether the gig economy is a saviour or further creating problems, and the tussle between man and algorithm, as opposed to man and machine that [Charlie] Chaplin had captured in Modern Times [1936].” The film evolved out of this conversation.

Kapil Sharma and Shahana Goswami in a still from Zwigato

Kapil Sharma and Shahana Goswami in a still from Zwigato | Photo Credit: TIFF

“When you humanise these characters, then it’s not about the ratings and incentives [like the ones on Manas’ food delivery app],” she says. “It’s also about anxiety and the relentlessness of life. It’s about gender and class that intersect in that world.”

An unexpected casting

Originally, Das had planned an anthology with three other directors. However, the story she chose eventually became a film by itself. Patil co-wrote the screenplay.

Shahana Goswami in Zwigato

Shahana Goswami in Zwigato | Photo Credit: TIFF

Goswami — who brings grace and dignity to her character in Zwigato — had played a supporting role in Das’ first feature, Firaaq (2008). But Sharma was an unknown factor. Das hadn’t seen The Kapil Sharma Show, which mostly features Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt. “Forget about watching his show, I have not had a television for the last six-seven years,” she exclaims.

But then she saw a clip of Sharma co-hosting an awards show with Karan Johar, and found him to be natural and candid. On an impulse, she called her casting director and asked for Sharma’s phone number. “I told him [Sharma] that he represents an ordinary man,” says Das. “With all his success, Kapil is certainly not an ordinary person, but when he spoke I could tell he was coming from a genuine place. He was still not affected, and quintessentially represents an ordinary person.” Sharma comes from a middle-class family in Amritsar.

Nandita Das found Kapil Sharma to be natural and candid

Nandita Das found Kapil Sharma to be natural and candid | Photo Credit: TIFF

Das was not sure if he could act, and admits she “was surprised that he submitted to the whole process. He connected with the character because it reminded him of his days of struggle. He told me, ‘I had forgotten the sense and smells of crowded places’.”

Staying behind the camera

Das had once thought protagonists should be put on pedestals, but then she realised that “everyone is flawed. And I can be harsh to them because characters can be flawed” — be it the protagonist in Manto (2018) or now, Manas. “We are all flawed.”

Also Read | Manto would have been appalled that nothing has changed 70 years later: Nandita Das

For her, the most important thing was that Zwigato remain an indie film in its spirit. She did not compromise her craft because Sharma was playing the lead. “Just because Deepa cast Aamir in Earth, that didn’t change the film,” she says, about the 1998 film in which she acted opposite Aamir Khan and Rahul Khanna. “In fact, it is one of Aamir’s best performances.”

Zwigato is an indie film in its spirit

Zwigato is an indie film in its spirit | Photo Credit: TIFF

Now, with Zwigato out and another directing project in hand, Das has cut back on her acting projects. She has a cameo in Virata Parvam (2022), the Telugu film with Rana Daggubati and Sai Pallavi, and a cameo in the Indian version of the French Netflix show, Call My Agent. She has got several offers to act in other series, but her heart is now firmly set on directing films.

“Either I get offers where the character wants to change the world, or they say ‘we will change your image, like you can play a magazine editor and wear fancy clothes with a fashionable hairdo’,” she says. “Many people feel that they can change my image, as if I missed those chances. But they don’t understand that I continue to do the kind of work I like. I do not have the desire to change my image.”

The writer is a film festival programmer and author.

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