When Nandita Das walks into a film studio tucked away in a quiet lane in Mumbai, an indolent November noon suddenly finds its purpose.
The 50-year-old actor-filmmaker, one of India’s most celebrated faces in parallel cinema, has a striking urgency to her gait. She’s here to get a job done, and in the process, hold an audience captive for the next hour.
Nandita is just back from the national capital, where she was part of a panel discussion hosted by UNESCO. It followed the launch of her latest initiative, India’s Got Colour, which seeks to celebrate the diversity of skin tones in this country.
The two-and-a-half-minute music video released end-September and has already collected over half a million views on YouTube and Facebook. India’s Got Colour is an attempt by a group of local actors and musicians to challenge desi society's unhealthy obsession with fair skin and the absurd demands it puts forth its women.
“We are a nation of 1.3 billion, and there are that many skin tones. We are no one thing. How we look is not the only way that defines us. Each one of us is unique and should be comfortable in our own skin colour,” Nandita told MAKERS India in an exclusive interaction.
The intent in her voice rips through the silence of the afternoon.
It is a voice that is tempered with both caution and hope. It is a voice that she’s lent to myriad social causes down the decades.
From fighting for children’s rights and spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS to speaking out against gender-based violence and working towards the upliftment of Indian widows, Nandita has been a crusader for all seasons and all reasons.
For this anti-colourism campaign too, she’s been the “default face” since 2013.
Challenging Colour Bias
India’s Got Colour is a reinvention of the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, which was started by Chennai-based nonprofit Women of Worth in 2009. “They approached me in 2013, and I’ve been associated with the cause since then,” says Nandita.
Now that the campaign has completed a decade, the team got together to do something different. “Also because I do not like the word ‘dark’. It kind of reinforces a colour stereotype…and as women, we are already burdened by it,” she says.
What adds further credence to India’s inexplicable fair skin fixation is the portrayal of women in cinema and popular culture. “So many of our actors are getting lighter and lighter with every film,” Nandita remarks.
“Whether it is in hoardings or magazines or television or films, we are represented by a much lighter skin tone. But that is not our reality. We are a largely ‘dark’ skinned nation. Yet, we do not see ourselves anywhere in these images that are thrown at us constantly,” she asserts.
This, of course, needs immediate course correction.
What also needs to be curbed is the use of pejorative terms like ‘wheatish’ or ‘dusky’ that are often used for Indian women, who do not adhere to patriarchal standards of beauty.
A lot of it is conditioning, says the actor. It is how we are brought up.
She elaborates, “If you’re dark, everyone at some point in their life is reminded of that. Luckily, my parents didn't put that [inferiority] complex in me. So, even if I was aware of the colour bias that exists in this country, I didn’t gauge the enormity of it until this campaign came to me.”
Nandita proudly shares that Dark is Beautiful has touched a raw nerve, and scores of Indian women have at once felt validated. They found representation and had their stories heard. “That is why I stayed engaged with the cause,” she says.
In fact, lending her support to social causes gives Nandita a deep-rooted satisfaction and sense of fulfilment as much as films do. Or, perhaps more.
An Accidental Actor
“Honestly, I never wanted to be an actor,” she says. “Fire [her first feature film] happened to me by accident. Then one thing led to another. Now, I’ve done 40 films in 10 languages, and worked with eminent filmmakers and absolute newcomers.”
Incidentally, Nandita holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Delhi University. Not only this, she was anointed a Youth Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010. She also became the first Indian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the International Women's Forum in 2011. And, in 2014, she was chosen as a Yale World Fellow. Nandita has even served on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival twice.
In that sense, she’s a truly global figure and way more than the sum of her parts.
She continues, “Cinema has always been a means to an end for me. The acting work has given me opportunities to talk about the things I cared for. There are many more people who might know much more than I do about these issues. But, one’s area of influence sort of increases when they are in a public sphere. So, I continued to act.”
In a career spanning over two decades, Nandita has been a part of some path-breaking Indian films, starting with Fire (that depicted a lesbian relationship between two women played by Nandita and the legendary Shabana Azmi) in 1996.
Even today, her eyes light up when she speaks of her debut film.
Nandita recounts, “Fire was much ahead of its time. It happened when homosexuality wasn’t even a part of our dictionary in India. Journalists would come to me and struggle to ask questions. The film was taken off theaters after 13 days and there were protests on the streets saying that it was against our culture. But Fire made people question India’s arranged marriage system and the choices of women.”
Two decades on, in a landmark judgement in 2018, India’s Supreme Court struck down Section 377 - the draconian law that criminalised homosexuality. It was a vestige of the British rule that continued to haunt same-sex couples in India.
Nandita sums it up aptly.
“Change is a slow process, but you have to believe that it will happen someday, and every conversation that films trigger leads to it.”
She followed up Fire with 1947: Earth and Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa - both intense socio-political dramas set in the backdrop of the Partition and the Naxalite Movement, respectively. These films furthered Nandita’s reputation as an actor of substance.
For the next decade, she featured in the works of some of India’s most recognised and award-winning filmmakers, including Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam, Rituparno Ghosh, and others.
Ask Nandita about her choice of roles and the implicit pressures of being seen as a socially responsible actor, and she offers an almost poetic explanation.
“I think when you don't have an ambition or a goal to reach, it frees you up. It frees you from the fear of failure. Because I didn't want to reach anywhere, I could be much more of a ‘journey-person’. I could do different things at different times. I came from a background of social work and moved into social advocacy. Acting was just my interface with the public. I never felt pressured to do it,” she states.
Behind the Camera
But, in 2008, things took a turn, and an almost burning desire to narrate a certain story pushed Nandita into filmmaking.
Firaaq, her debut directorial, is a searing account of the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots that shook the entire nation.
So, what really inspired her to don the director’s hat?
“I think I always had a director's mind and was interested in the art direction, costumes, etc. But when I saw the Gujarat violence on live TV, something changed in me. I wanted to talk about it - not the violence part, but when the violence settles down and the things that linger on... That is how Firaaq was born. I so badly wanted to tell that story,” Nandita says.
Firaaq went on to collect multiple national and international honours, establishing Nandita as one of the most powerful storytellers of our times.
But she laments that the film’s theatrical run was cut short by big Bollywood releases, which tend to occupy a lion’s share of multiplex screens.
“Firaaq struggled theatrically. It was a pre-digital media release. There was limited buzz, and we were pitched against these big Bollywood films of the time. I was sure that I was never going to make a film again, but then…,” her voice trails off.
It was the centenary year of Saadat Hasan Manto in 2012. Manto, a celebrated Hindi-Urdu writer born in pre-independent India, is credited with some of the best Partition literature. His writings, often considered “controversial” for their explicit truths, chronicled the atrocities and societal injustice that defined the Partition era.
“A lot was being written about Manto in 2012-13, and I felt a deep connection with his stories,” Nandita observes. “I realised that nothing much has changed over the years, and if I had to respond to the present day, I could do that with his stories,” she says.
And, thus, began her second directorial venture: Manto. The film premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation and went on to garner significant praise from audiences worldwide. It was also picked up by Netflix later.
Despite all the glory surrounding her filmmaking career, Nandita has directed only two films in over a decade.
Why so? Is it more challenging for women to be behind the camera? Are funds more difficult to come by in a deeply misogynistic film industry?
She says, “Women filmmakers do have to struggle more to raise funds. The producers are never sure if she can pull it off, whether she’ll back out of a project midway, how she plans to divide her time between work and family, and so on. Many women have wonderful stories to tell, but they drop out of the system after becoming mothers. It is a sad reality and if the world doesn’t support us, it doesn’t make it any easier!”
‘Be the Change You Wish to See’
Nandita now advocates the need for society to create safer workspaces for women. But she also believes it is a chicken-and-egg situation.
“Safer spaces are naturally created when there are more women in the system. Whether in a bus, train, lonely street, or an office... you know that they will protect you at some level,” she says.
“So, we, as a society and those who are in positions of power, should enable this by including more women. We have to try harder to find women because that is what you need to correct historical wrongs,” she explains.
Nandita’s own unit consists of women technicians, assistants, agents, publicists, etc. The filmmaker believes that a decade from now, when these young women assume bigger roles, they will bring in more women and create the much-needed safety nets.
With her persistent focus on women’s causes, Nandita admits that she’s often been stereotyped and disdained as a rabid ‘feminist’ - an overused and abused term today.
“I get a lot of these roles where they go ‘Oh, you’ll like it, this is a feminist part!’ It basically means that the heroine is going to kill the villain at the end. But, that's not how I see feminism. Just because a film is women-centric doesn't mean it automatically has a feminist gaze. There are so many films with lead women characters that are titillating and regressive. So, these nuances are often lost.”
So, what does feminism entail and what does it mean to Nandita Das - the actor and the filmmaker?
She pauses. Then, chuckles.
“It’s going to be a long answer you know…”
That’s fine, we can wait.
She contemplates some more.
“Feminism means different things to different people. For me, at this point, it means freedom. It is the need to be treated as an equal person. I do not want to be reminded everyday that I am a woman. That is my second identity. First, I am a human being. And, that also impacts how I look at myself. That is feminism.”
In a society that almost always uses broad brushstrokes to paint narratives, Nandita Das is that rare torchbearer of subtlety and nuance. She truly is a changemaker!
(Producer: Urmi Chatterjee; Cameraperson: Rukmangada Raja; Content Editor: Tenzin Pema)