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     Volume 4 Issue 26 | December 24, 2004 |

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A Roman Column

Meeting Activist-actress Nandita Das

Neeman Sobhan

Her photograph does not do her justice. Nandita Das's dark, sculpted beauty is so full of nuances and so vibrant that it can only be captured in motion picture or in paintings. It is a poetic coincidence that her father is the famous Indian-Bangali painter Jatin Das. When I met him in Rome, I should have asked him whether he ever painted the exquisite mobility of his daughter's face. Nandita speaks fluent Bangla, although her mother, writer Varsha Das, now divorced from her father, is non-Bangali.

I first saw Nandita as the sensuously pretty Ayah to the crippled Parsi girl in Deepa Mehta's film '1947 Earth' based on Bapsi Sidhwa's novel 'The Ice Candy-man.' Then I saw her in the other Deepa Mehta film, the controversial 'Fire,' whose subject and treatment I wasn't comfortable with, but in which Nandita held her own against a veteran like Shabana Azmi.

"It was my debut film, " Nandita tells me as we stand in the lobby while waiting for her other film 'Hazar Chaurasi ki Ma' to start. Thirty-some Nandita could pass for a schoolgirl, but in conversation she is not girlish but extremely articulate and self-possessed. "You and I may not agree or approve of the socio-psycho-genetic phenomena that 'Fire' dealt with, but pretending something doesn't exist wont make it go away. It has paved the way for other films dealing with various aspects of relationships that should not be kept in the closet. I believe that as long as one is not harming anybody else, one should be sensitive and tolerant of other people's way of living and choices."

I ask her about shaving off her head for the last of Deepa Mehta's trilogy "Water" which never got made. "I was playing a young widow whose head gets shaved and I shaved mine too. Then the film ran into controversy and stalled. I had long straight hair and I don't think it will ever grow back to the same length but there's more to life than your hair! Shaving it almost became liberating."

Mira Nair had offered her the role of Maya in 'Kamasutra' but she turned it down because she was uncomfortable with the way some of the scenes had been conceptualised! I am taken aback. What about 'Fire,' I want to ask her. She anticipates it: "People ask me if I were embarrassed doing 'Fire', but I would be far more embarrassed mouthing lines that nobody ever speaks in life, portraying regressive goody-goody women, running around trees than doing a real character who decides to live life on her own terms."

She started acting when barely out of school. " I worked for 6 years with a street theatre group in Delhi called Jan Natya Manch which staged plays about social problems like illiteracy, communalism etc. More than the acting, the ideals and issues raised were important to me." She completed her B.A in Geography and taught for a while. Then she did her M.A in Social Work and started working with children from underprivileged homes at an organisation called 'Alarippu,' concerned with making education enjoyable for children. She ran workshops for primary schoolteachers…"Wait," I smile in confusion "This is the life of a social worker, but where does the actress figure in this?" She laughs. "Acting was never a career option with me. It's social issues which concern me." She prefers films based on facts that raise social questions.

Among some of her recent films that I have not seen like 'Supari' about how students become criminals, she particularly recommends 'Bawander' based on a true story about a Rajasthani lower caste woman activist who was raped by upper caste men. Instead of keeping quiet, the woman fought the biased, corrupt political and judicial system and got justice.

She did a film called 'Ek Alag Mausam,' concerning the issue of HIV/AIDS. " I went to this place tucked away outside Bangalore where people with HIV/AIDS get counselling, medication and live with their families. I went thinking it would be depressing but after meeting the people there I realised that when you know the clock is ticking away you just perceive life, the world and people in a totally different way - it opened my eyes and I am glad I did the film, and since then I have sponsored HIV positive kids to get medical treatment."

She is married to a Bangali Somya Sen who is an advertising agent in Delhi. "My husband and I have formed a little company to make short films on social issues." And this is what I go to see the next day. First there are some short documentaries against child labour sponsored by ILO for which she gives an introduction. They show the horrendous working conditions of minor children in glass bangle factories in India where they are forced to sit for hours in front of blazing furnaces in airless enclosures; also at construction sites where children carry weights on their heads all day and breathe the polluted air that damage their lungs.

A shorter film uses a simple repetitive format that is most effective in driving home the point that 'any child out of school is a child labourer'. It shows a classroom where the teacher takes the attendance and calls out the roll number; after every few 'Present, Sir' is a resounding silence projected on the screen by a head raised from some intensive labour in which the child with the absent roll number is busy and so cannot answer when he hears his number being called out. It's heart breaking to see children deprived of their childhood and of their basic right to the life of a human being and not that of a beast of burden.

Next, the 90 seconds films in a genre called 'Public Interest Ads'. She explains, "These are not ads for consumerism but about social issues, meant to increase awareness. These plugs, which use images and visual metaphors, carry social messages to a wide audience." One is on rainwater harvesting, and two on creative education for children sponsored by UNICEF. It's like reading a short poem, a visual haiku with an immediate emotional impact. The first one on rainwater harvesting is lyrical. On a rain-lashed street some people find themselves inadvertently inspired to collect rainwater when someone's umbrella flies away and lands upside down like a bowl collecting the falling rain, setting off a series of similar images that demonstrate how easily rain can be stored instead of being allowed to drain away.

The next two films charmingly instruct the importance of stimulating, child-centric education. In 'Car Park', a mentally sharp but bored boy-attendant wiles away time by turning a car's number-plate into an equation by scratching math symbols between the numbers, turning say, 7815 into 7+8=15. The owner catches him in the act, thinking the boy is defacing the car, then melts on seeing the intelligent result of the boy's graffiti and asks: "Do you want to study?" The boy shakes his head saying, "It doesn't interest me." In 'Jalebi' the situation is the same except here the small boy in an unguarded moment uses the bag of dough to squeeze out English alphabets into the hot oil.

I say a warm goodbye to this admirable woman and reluctant actress. "Acting is my journey not my goal. Acting is not my true calling! I may go into direction, or start a school. I am exploring different things and like I often say if you are wandering, you are not necessarily lost!" Not only is she not lost, I feel she is gifted to show the way to many lost souls. I am enriched by my encounter with this beautiful young woman whose compassionate involvement in her fellow human beings seems to be her true calling.


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