Saturday, October 24, 2009

Actor Nandita Das opens up on life after “Firaaq”, her work as chairperson of Children’s Film Society of India and future plans

In the world of arc lights teeming with acquired personalities, actor, director and activist Nandita Das is fiercely her own person. For someone with a bachelor’s degree in geography, a master’s degree in social work, a teaching stint in a school, and experience of social work, showbiz seems an unlikely destination. Yet, she is one of the best loved faces of Indian cinema, although she never aspired to stardom. She has done more regional than mainstream cinema because she feels “there is more sanity and integrity” there. She continues to live in Delhi instead of India’s film capital because “Delhi allows you space and I don’t feel the need to go to any other city”. She travels to be on the prestigious Cannes jury with just two suitcases because “thinking of what to wear was secondary to the experience of being there”. While her oeuvre of work as an actor includes over 30 critically acclaimed feature films in 10 different languages, her directorial debut in “Firaaq”, set in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, was no less stunning. She was recently appointed the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI). Excerpts from an interview:

Your appointment with CFSI is a tad surprising, considering your moorings in serious cinema.

I was surprised myself. I had just taken a break after “Firaaq”. I am a mid-career person. This is a huge responsibility. I will be happy if I can make some difference.

Given the state of children’s films in India, is this a good time to be taking over the reins of CFSI?

There is no such thing as the best time to do things you really want to do. This is a great opportunity to make a difference to children’s films. But it is also a daunting task. I am still finding my feet. A certain kind of stagnancy creeps into old organisations. I am trying to make systemic changes in CFSI that are beyond individuals.

Would you get a free hand to do so in a government body?

I am getting good support from the I&B ministry. A whole lot of people in the industry are ready to help. I have been speaking to Gulzar saab, Vishal Bharadwaj, Nagesh Kukunoor, Shyam Benegal, and many others. We have to make children’s films a space where good filmmakers and scriptwriters want to come. It isn’t easy to change the status quo.

What are the challenges facing children’s films?

In CFSI’s biennial international film festival slated for November 2009, I wanted to have a separate section on Indian films. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough films that qualified and so we had to scrap the idea. The situation is dismal. Often good filmmakers don’t want to venture into children’s films as they fear their work will only remain in the cans. Often people use this platform as a stepping stone to do bigger films. The real challenge is to offer children content-driven, wholesome entertainment with the right values as a viable alternative to the television shows and mainstream films on which they are growing up.

Isn’t it strange that even multiplexes and 24x7 TV haven’t spurred filmmakers to look at children’s entertainment seriously?

Indeed it is, considering children form a huge film audience the world over. In India, economics gets in the way of everything, more so filmmaking. People often don’t want to take a chance, push boundaries. However, it is possible to make low or medium budget films that are strong in content and form, do not compromise on ideals and are a lot of fun. Unfortunately, our films for children are either preachy, badly made and boring, or fluffy and mindless.

Where does the problem lie?

There is creativity. And people also understand there is a market. I’m trying to figure out where the gap is. In the festival, we have a series of open forums where we will be discussing such issues as why are children’s films invisible in India, how do you define children’s films, and so on.

Do you think our children’s films are caught in a time warp vis-À-vis the changing sensibilities of children?

Today’s children are growing up on a completely different diet. We need to understand what they want, what their influences are and how they perceive children’s films. That’s why we have children participating in our seminars this time. We have a children’s jury this year where the children will decide which films they like. Even in the CFSI decisions, we haven’t involved children and we need to do that. They are the biggest stakeholders in this. Children need to be exposed to the kind of films that we are talking about. Where do they get the opportunity? If you are used to one kind of entertainment, you’d never know whether you like anything else.

Where do your social work and film career connect?

I was already into human rights work much before films happened. My experiences there have impacted my choice of films as an actor and a director. Films have given me a wider platform and so I am doing more advocacy than grassroots level work these days. To me, films and social work are two inter-connected ways leading to the same goal.

Being called an “intelligent” actress…doesn’t this constrain your ambit?

I don’t think about what labels people put on me. Some say I could have made it big had it not been for the choices I made, others compliment me for sticking to my guns. I don’t have a battle waging inside me. I’m doing what I like doing, work that resonates with my own interests and concerns.

Any update on your forthcoming projects?

I am in touch with Deepa Mehta for “Midnight’s Children”. That’ll take some time. I am reading scripts as an actress, but sadly nothing very exciting yet. My primary focus is on CFSI.

Expectations from you as a filmmaker are high now.

I am getting offers from producers in India and abroad. But it is a long process. “Firaaq” has taken a lot out of me. I will begin thinking and writing something after the film festival is over.


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