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Her own person

Nandita Das does not live in the shadow of her famous parents. She appears in films that appeal to her heart and makes short ad films with a social message. H. BALAKRISHNAN finds out what makes her different.


Nandita Das ... concerned about children.

SEVEN years ago, someone who observed Nandita Das on the sets of a film in Orissa observed, "If this girl keeps to her tracks, she should go far beyond Aparna Sen. She has got the talent, grace and the beauty. She can do it even without a Satyajit Ray to hone her talents."

I have known Jatin Das for decades but had not really interacted with his daughter who set the media on "Fire", but is down to Earth in saying what she means.

Nandita was in Bhubaneswar around Deepavali for what was meant to be a private visit but was anything but.

"To be honest, these four days have not been restful at all. Maybe next time I should come with more time and incognito for a few days." But during our chat, she gave me the news, "By the way, `Water' got finally made. Shabana and I are not in it. The cast is changed, but Deepa Mehta completed the film in Sri Lanka. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing it."

Exception to the rule

Nandita is an exception to the rule of filmi wisdom. She does not live in Mumbai, but prefers Delhi where she was born and grew up. "For someone to pull away and uproot herself from a place where she has grown up, there must be a powerful attraction. Nothing particular about the city per se, though I think it is a bit claustrophobic. If you have lived with trees and space, it is difficult in Mumbai that has very little space...

"Also, Delhi provides me with a neutral ground. All my friends there have nothing to do with cinema. They come from different walks of life. It makes my life selfishly richer! I am exposed to different minds who don't think that films are the ultimate but just another profession. Delhi keeps my head on my shoulders. My family and friends are good reality checks on me. I found no reason to uproot myself."

This gutsy, dusky, ebullient star has a mind of her own. Early in life, she rebelled against painting just because friends would always refer to her famous painter-father and assume that she would also take to painting.

Today, she thinks it was a bit foolish to do so, "I was very young at that time". She did street plays with Safdar Hashmi for six years while still at college.

A year off

After graduating in geography, she could not decide on a subject for her post-graduation. She told her parents "I would like to take an year off, travel and explore what I want to do."

She dashed off a letter to Jiddu Krishnamurthi's Rishi Valley School saying that she wanted to do something there. Back came a reply asking if she would like to teach Std. V.

So, Nandita taught kids for four months, spent the next six months travelling, worked with tribals in Phulbani in Orissa without electricity or water supply for two months, and decided to do her MA in Social Work, exactly after "an year off".

Nandita divided her summer holidays through school between her maternal and paternal grandparents' homes — one month in Bombay and the other in Baripada.

Her memories of the latter are vivid: "In Baripada, I would gather all the other children, compose songs and plays, which we enacted. We also sang songs that my cousins and I learnt in our respective schools. Two of my cousins were in Shantiniketan. I remember playing a fighting housewife in a sari with a jhaadu in one hand. We played `Antakshari' where I would make up my own songs. When others protested that there was no such film song, I would say, `Of course! It was released in Delhi'. That only goes to prove that if you lie a little as a child, you don't become particularly a liar."

Rebel with a cause

Nandita is now a rebel of a different kind. She is a rebel against social inequity and for the cause of the underprivileged. Today, with more than 30 pictures in 10 languages to her credit, this antithesis of the Bollywood syndrome is bubbling with ideas for making this world a better place.

While she accepts roles in films with stories that touch her heart (in any language!), she also collaborates with husband Saumya Sen in making short films with a social message.

Saumya resigned from his job as creative director of Ogilvy & Mather to do meaningful work on social communication. Leapfrog, the organisation the couple began, has already produced a number of stunning ad films that leave an indelible imprint in the mind of the viewer.

Nandita expresses her anguish that TV channels, which make tons of money showing commercial ads are asking for these gems to be edited to mere 30 seconds or 20 seconds. As of now, Star, Zee and lately Sony, have responded to these two artistes with a cause.

Citizen of the World

"I feel like a Citizen of the World", says Nandita who is grateful to her parents for her non-parochial, non-denominational upbringing. "One has to choose what is close to one's heart. Issues of women, children and peace are closest to me. Here, I am using the word `peace' in the larger sense. Anything that divides us and makes us opinionated disturbs peace — whether it is caste, religion, gender or sexual preference — anything that smacks of We against They. This itself is vast, but I try to do what I can for these causes."

Nandita Das comes through as a clear-headed person with charm, a heart of passionate intensity and a sharp mind.

There are elements of not only Aparna Sen, but commonalities with Shabana Azmi and Jaya Bhaduri of yore. But make no mistake. Nandita is nobody's clone. She is what she is.

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