Nandita: Feminist by default
Nandita Das says it is merely a coincidence that she has done only women-oriented roles since her foray into films.
"I am a feminist by default," she remarked at a reception held in her honour at the Indian embassy here by Ambassador Lalit Mansingh.
She has enacted with aplomb roles depicting women fighting for justice whether it was in Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma or Bawandar.
She said: "I just happen to be doing women-oriented roles. It was never a conscious decision. I have been selecting my roles instinctively. Thinking in those terms can only limit one as an actress."
Nandita, who has starred in 29 films and directed documentaries on AIDS and other social issues, says the silver screen has proven to be an outlet for her message on social issues. "It was another medium in which I could share ideas and causes," she said.
"One film led to another, and then to bigger productions. I put my best into them, but it is social work and development that are my true calling."
Although she has created a niche for herself, she says she has no plans to refuse commercials films. "I am not saying I will never do the regular song and dance routine. Tomorrow, if there is an offer that I find impossible to refuse, I will take it up. I have never been the kind to say that I will do just this or that," she said.
She also felt that since cinema is a medium to convey a powerful message, it could create quite an impact on the youth, who go to the movies regularly.
Yet she regretted that film stars shun from asserting themselves on social issues for fear of becoming controversial.
The actress was in the US with her husband Saumya Sen to promote their documentary filmmaking venture Leapfrog, which she said would go a long way in fulfilling the communications need of the developing world.
Her dream, she says, is to work on development projects and small feature films devoted to public service campaigns involving women and children.
Nandita, clad in a mustard-coloured Kanjeevaram sari with matching jewellery, spoke about her experience doing the role of a wronged woman in Jagmohan Mundhra's Bawandar, which told the real life story of a middle aged woman, Bhanwari Devi, who was gang-raped in Rajasthan.
Nandita, who won the Best Actress Award at the Santa Monica Film Festival in 2001, recalled that even though she was only acting the role of Bhanwari Devi, she felt traumatised as it was a humiliating experience.
"It definitely is an important film as it raises lots of questions not just about rape, inequality, exploitation but also questions our judiciary system and the agendas of various people," she said.
She also spoke about her involvement with social problems and her work with GOs to improve life in the slums.
"I did social work before I became an actress. So my background is bound to affect my current thinking in whichever field I choose to be in," she said.
"Although some have labelled me a feminist for this, I'd rather be known as a humanist," she commented.
Mansingh, introducing Nandita at the reception, said: "She is not a typical Bollywood actress, as you can see." For quite some time she was known as painter Jatin Das' daughter. Today, however, Jatin is known as her father, he remarked amid laughter.
After graduating with a masters degree in Social Work from Delhi University in 1990, Nandita, 34, took a year off and taught for a few months at Rishi Valley School in southern India that was started by Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurthi.
In 1992, Nandita worked for NGOs in Orissa and Gujarat, conducting workshops for children and teachers.
She grew up in Delhi, went to Sardar Patel Vidyalaya and Delhi University and chose to live in Delhi with her husband, never feeling the need to move to Mumbai where all the stars live.