Nandita Das on turning director and the politics of power.. in conversation with Roshmila Bhattacharya.
Firaaq is finally coming to the theatres and the timing could be off. Given the content and the fact that general elections are around the corner, could the film be politicised since it’s set a month after the 2002 carnage in Gujarat?
I don’t want to spark off any unnecessary controversies. I’ve put my heart and soul into Firaaq and I don’t want it to be misused. The release was delayed a couple of times.. it’s not by design that it’s releasing before the elections. In times like these, I can understand that a film like this becomes more difficult to market, but I feel that people will champion it themselves.
I say this with some confidence as travelling to several festivals with Firaaq has reaffirmed my faith that human emotions are universal. Everywhere, people have connected with it. I have seen even in the screenings in India how deeply people were moved and got engaged with the film. At a q-and-a session, a man put up his hand to ask a question but was so choked with emotion that he couldn’t speak. He asked if he could email me later.
The self-proclaimed custodians of our culture should not take away our right to decide what is good for us. Violence is an issue our politicians need to address.. and the film creates a dialogue around it. Firaaq is not a blame game film or prescriptive. It merely holds up a mirror in which we will be able to see our own fears, prejudices and responses to violence.
You have said that the film has no heroes or villains..
When so many have suffered, how does one glorify the story of just one or hold one person responsible? There are perpetrators, victims, but most of all, those who watch silently.
In fact that is how the ensemble structure evolved. I have consciously chosen ordinary stories and characters, instead of being tempted by more dramatic ones that may seem cinematic, but are not easy to relate to. Here you see a part of yourself and those that you know.
But a five-story structure is difficult even for a seasoned director to handle.
Firaaq started out as one story but organically evolved into five stories which were inside me.. waiting to be told. For three years, my co-writer and I wrote and rewrote the screenplay.
I don’t know how many drafts there were or if you could even call them drafts. There were so many little changes that made the script more layered and nuanced as many conversations and incidents found their way into it. I even added a scene while I was shooting! Some scenes had to go during the editing. Still, it’s very close to the original script and I have been told that it’s not often the case.
Didn’t you have heated arguments with your editor when you were told to yank off a favourite cinematic moment?
No, actually it was surprisingly easy to let go if I was convinced something didn’t fit into the larger picture. There was one particular scene which involved a 100-odd junior artistes.
Even getting the right setting for it had been difficult. But during editing, Sreekar (Prasad), my editor, and I felt it was slowing down the pace. And I agreed, without protest, to let it go. He told me later it’s not easy to convince directors, more so if they are also the writers, to see things objectively.
Making the film was like going through a spiritual journey. You learn to let go. For the good of the forest, you don’t hold on to specific trees. Your ego diminishes drastically as you are dealing with so many and you can’t afford to lose the equanimity on the set. You almost become like a parent!
Would you agree that direction is a more stressful job than acting?
Stressful yes, but it’s also more exciting, challenging, all-consuming. There were so many actors, locations and production issues.. factors beyond one’s control. And post-production that was an unexplored terrain.. sound, editing, background music, a zillion things to do. I have learnt so much.
Every few days, I was on to something new. Thank God for that or staying with one project for over a year can be quite draining for someone who is used to doing so many different things!
You took the film across the border to the Kara Film Festival soon after the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. And Firaaq was well received in Pakistan.
They were so grateful that I had come to Pakistan for the festival which is organised by filmmakers, despite the how-can-you-go-there questions back home. People there were almost apologetic for what had happened. Though they were personally not to blame, they were feeling terribly guilty.
It’s easy for us to have knee-jerk reactions and point fingers across the border. But the fact is that the people there are not living in a cosy place either. We have no idea what it is to live in a military rule for so long.
Their own leader, Benazir Bhutto, was gunned down. The attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers proved that terrorism has no nationality or community, no race or religion. They are victims too.. and suspects as well. They are suffering like us, may be more,because Pakistan today is one of the most hated nations in the world. Our destinies are intertwined, so our stability is linked with theirs.
That’s a positive way of looking at things given the sense of gloom and doom in the world today.
Terrorism isn’t the only reason for this gloom and doom. Our economy and ecology is in a mess too. All these upheavals are trying to tell us that our destinies are intertwined. Eventually we are one world.. one people.
If something happens in one place, the repercussions are felt all over. You have to go to Pakistan to realise that while our politics may be in a mess, bad democracy is any day better than military rule.
Direction seems to have taken you away from acting.
In the last two years, yes. But before that I’ve been acting, mostly in regional cinema. It took me to amazing little corners of the country, made me a part of a variety of stories which needed to be told. I worked with eminent directors like Mrinal Sen and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, learnt new languages, savoured a range of cuisine.. and there are audiences beyond Delhi and Bombay, who watch films!
Your Podokhep co-star, Soumitra Chatterjee, finally won a National Award for Best Actor for this Bengali film and went on record to say that he wouldn’t rank it amongst his best performances. Comment.
Soumitrada is a fine actor but, as we all know, an award is not the ultimate benchmark.. it’s not the only endorsement for a great actor. Awards have a lot to do with time, place and so many other factors. I’m so happy for Soumitrada.. better late than never.
Is Bollywood strictly a no-no today?
You know, a lot of people are surprised that despite being an actor, I’m not doing mainstream Bollywood cinema. They think I’m fighting a great battle to resist the temptation!
But it’s a choice, both instinctive and conscious. I didn’t grow up watching mainstream cinema and I don’t relate to it. So, while I don’t look down on these films, I don’t really have to force myself to do them either.
Right now, I’m really excited about the screen adaptation of Midnight’s Children. Salman (Rushdie) and Deepa (Mehta) have spoken to me about Padma. I read the book years ago but I remember Padma as a feisty character. I’m in talks for another film I can’t discuss now.
For me, film is a medium through which one tells a story. And if I think it’s a story worth telling, I’ll do it, never mind if it’s Bollywood, Tollywood, Hollywood or no wood at all!