Dusky, daring Das
‘The strong female bonding definitely appealed to me. Yes, it was a very bold theme, etched in sharp, daring strokes,’ NANDITA DAS reveals in a recent talk with MONOJIT LAHIRI about her baptism by fire
SENSITIVE, sensuous, exploitative, cathartic, anticulture probing, disturbing, dangerous... Fire continues to ravage descriptions and evoke hymns and hysteria as few films have in recent times.
Nandita Das, the dusky actress often hailed as the Smita Patil of the Nineties, shares her experiences during the making of the film. Excerpts from the interview.
How did Fire land in your lap?
Fire, for me, came totally by accident. I was in Mumbai visiting celebrated vocal maestro Pandit Jasraj and his family when their daughter Durga and her friend, actor Gulshan Grover, suggested I meet somebody they knew who was looking out for an actress. They both thought I fitted the bill, 50 1 went across and met them but it was not my kind of role. Grover then mentioned that another filmmaker friend of his, Deepa Mehta, was in town and casting for her new film. However, he warned me that it had a very bold theme revolving around a love relationship between two women and that if I was interested, he could set up a meeting for me. More curious than anything else, I went to visit her at the hotel.
I remember ringing the bell and Deepa opening the door, face down, and suggesting we go to the lobby for a chat. I recall being enchanted by her terrific dupatta and enthusiastically asking whether it was from Delhi’s Fab India. That’s when she looked up, smiled and invited me into her room. We got talking and hit it off straight away! She gave me a rough sketch of the story line, said she would he coming down to Delhi shortly, where we could meet for a more detailed session. In Delhi, I got together some samples of my work on tape which Deepa saw, then interacted some more before casting me. Soon after I was handed a copy of the complete script of Fire.
Were you shocked, horrified, disturbed or repulsed at the idea of a relationship between two women or the rather explicit love-scenes between them? Did that in any way make you hesitate before signing on the dotted line?
I read the whole script at one go and loved it. In all truth I was neither shocked or horrified with either the relationship between the two women or the physical chemistry between them, because to me it appeared a justifiable fallout in the overall scheme of things. The strong female bonding definitely appealed to me. Yes, it was a very bold theme, etched in sharp, daring strokes seldom conceived in Indian cinema. For a second opinion and to share thinking patterns, I passed on the script to my mother who also loved it. However, she wondered how I would react to playing the love scenes and the exposure part when, for the very same reasons, I had vetoed a lead role earlier in Mira Nair’s Kamasutra.
Detailed and in-depth discussions with Deepa convinced me that the scenes were necessary and would come off well. However, I backed off during the “exposing” scene, where I requested Deepa to use a double. I really wouldn’t be able to do that kind of stuff. I’d be too uncomfortable...
How did you feel while shooting those kissing scenes with Shabana?
A lot less difficult and embarrassed than I thought. By then Deepa, Shabana and I had struck a super rapport, discussed these scenes inside-out and worked ourselves in seamless fashion into our respective roles. During the rehearsals, we did our share of girlie-giggling; that certainly did ease some of the unspoken tension. Most importantly, the fact that a woman’s perspective dominated and that the film was directed by a woman, really helped.
Were you aware of the repercussions these scenes would have with Indian audiences?
Vaguely. We were all so caught up in the making of the film itself and the terrific responses we received at the International Festivals (14 awards) that we had not quite anticipated the response. I guess it was hound to happen. Fire does not pretend to be a wishy-washy cosmetic film. It openly questions, probes and explores dangerous territory that many consider taboo. It speaks of choices, alternative sexuality, female bonding — areas that exist but are quietly brushed under the carpet. Hence, while one section 01 the audience are moved and touched by this landmark film, others appear outraged. It disturbs the status quo. lt rocks the boat. It takes sides. This is too much for people with a comfortable tunnel view of life. Anyway, my view is that since people have been provoked into thinking (positive or negative) Fire has touched a chord at a collective level. That is rewarding. What is sad and shocking is the ugly politicisation of the film...
Where do you go from here?
I have completed Deepa Mehta’s Earth, an adaptation of Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man set against the backdrop of the Partition. The film was completely different from Fire. I had the opportunity to work with Aamir Khan who, apart from being a superb ac tar, is a fabulous human being. Totally unspoilt and normal with out any starry airs, Amir is full of fun and pranks. MTV VJ Rahul Khanna too is a great guy and has put in a wonderful performance. I have also finalised Malayalam and Oriya films which are quite exciting. Presently I am all charged and dying to start shooting for Aparna Sen’s new venture, co-starring Naseeruddin Shah. I admire Aparnadi like crazy and really loved her 36 Chowringhee Lane. She’s so composed, sophisticated and in control.
What about Bollywood from where, rumour has it, you revive tons of offers every week?
It’s not that bad! Yes, I do get offers from there, but most of them are routine stuff that don’t interest me because wouldn’t he comfortable doing them. 1 am certainly open to interesting roles big or small with some logic or intelligence thrown in. See, I don’t consider myself a full- time actress and certainly not a star. Hence, good projects are of prime importance.