“I'm not really an ambitious actor. What draws me more is the scope to narrate stories, because there are so many stories waiting to be told” -- Nandita Das summed up her journey from being an actress to an award-winning filmmaker in very few words, speaking yesterday morning at the Hay Festival Dhaka. At the literary festival, being held at Bangla Academy premises, Das and Catherine Masud shared their insights, philosophies and experiences as directors.
Das made her directorial debut with “Firaaq” in 2008, after establishing herself as an able actress. The story, against the backdrop of the communal violence in Gujarat, India in 2002, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival 2008, and won numerous Indian and international awards.
Speaking at the discussion, Das said the reason that drove her to make the film was the frustration and helplessness of not being able to dealing with the mindless cruelty that had touched her so deeply, and the prejudice that she found lingering on when she scratched the surface of the so-called liberal minds. The film portrays the after-effects of the carnage that seeps into the lives of those affected. Shedding light on different perspectives of the scar that the incident left, on different levels of the society and the people belonging to them, was the target of the story, Nandita said.
Catherine Masud co-wrote and produced “Matir Moina” (The Clay Bird) -- directed by her husband, the late Tareque Masud and released in 2002 -- that received the FIPRESCI Prize in Directors' Fortnight category at the Cannes Film Festival 2002. “Matir Moina” is also Bangladesh's first film to compete for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Speaking on the film, Catherine Masud said that despite their background in documentary filmmaking, Tareque Masud and she decided to venture into a fiction, driven by Tareque's childhood experiences as a madrassa student during the increasing tensions in the then East Pakistan which culminated in the Liberation War. It was not easy to make a documentary that could efficiently encapsulate all the subjects; a feature film was better suited for this. The film shows scope of debate and different opinions even in the small bounds of the madrassa, Catherine said, adding that it was more of an exploration into the backdrop, rather than taking a stand.
One striking similarity between these two accomplished filmmakers is the portrayal of child characters in their films. On that, Nandita Das said, after a failed attempt to recruit a child actor from Mumbai, because they were all too “Bollywoodised” and really did not fit the character, she went looking for child actors at different schools in Hyderabad, where the film was to be shot. Eventually, a boy, who in real life was very happy and full of life, beautifully played the role of a traumatised youngster.
Catherine Masud said it was rewarding, albeit a little challenging, to work with non-professional actors -- sharing her story of finding two very different 10-year-old boys, who played their roles flawlessly, and shared a National Film Award. One of them never went back to school and chose to return to street life, while the other studied and later joined Catherine Masud's production team.
Nandita Das also shared her experience in theatre, saying that it has helped her develop as a storyteller, and adding that she might start writing a script for her next film soon.
Catherine Masud, on the other hand, shed light on the filmmaking scenario in Bangladesh, saying that while the industry is fragile with not a lot of scope for films being made or shown, “democratisation” of the digital media remains as a ray of light, allowing many young filmmakers access to the realisation of their goals.