Lights, Camera, Social Action

Nandita Das, an award-winning Indian film actress and director, is a Post-Graduate from the Delhi School of Social Work. She has acted in over 30 feature films in ten different languages, with directors of international repute. She is known never to shy away from controversial issues and unconventional roles, and has chosen to be part of stories which she believes in.

Nandita Das speaks with Marie Banu about how she uses films to advocate for social causes

You are a social worker by qualification and also by experience. You are in the media professionally. Which of these roles do you prefer?
I don’t think I really need to choose. My background is in social work, and I was engaged primarily in issues related to women and children. For me, films happened by default. The experiences I had during my work in human rights days have definitely impacted the choices that I made in films. So, I see films as a medium of social change. If you see my work as an actor or a director, it has primarily raised issues of social concern. One can adopt different means, but the goal is the same.

You have worked for Ankur, an NGO. What was your experience working with grassroots NGOs?
Ankur, a women’s organization was where I worked first. I was already doing my fieldwork as part of my Master’s degree in Social Work there. As I was attached to the community, I accepted their job offer.
I come from a very liberal family where the women got all the space to question and to make choices. But, while working with the community, I realized that all women obviously did not enjoy that kind of space. I feel that those of us who are privileged should take on a greater responsibility to become the voice for those whose voices are not heard. This experience was very precious to me, and it exposed me to realities that otherwise I would not have known. It was challenging, and at times emotionally draining, but served as a big eye-opener for me.
How far do you think that the women in India have come today?
Well, there is no simple answer. More women are working, more women have a voice, and more women are raising issues. While all that is true, we also know that there are stark figure for the dropping sex ratio, increasing sexual abuse, female foeticide, and dowry deaths. On every Women’s Day, I wonder if we should be celebrating, or introspecting as to why so many women continue to suffer right from the time of their birth. It should be both. We have a cause to celebrate but we have a long way to go before we can say that women have equal choices, or equal opportunities.

Being the chairperson for Children Film Society, what do you think is the most critical issue for a child to be sensitized about?
The mandate of Children’s Film Society, India is to produce good children’s films that are both entertaining as well as educative, and reach out to as many children as we can. While we are operating in a fairly narrow space, we know that films do impact on people’s mind and attitudes, especially that of children who are now growing up unfortunately on regular mainstream films, or reality shows, or often violent series that are aired on television. We have no control on those influences, but we need to create an alternative, an appetite for better and more appropriate films.
But, the most important thing for a child is to go to school. This is the first step towards empowering children. School is not only meant for studies. It has much to do with childhood itself, to be able to grow with other children, question, play, and blossom into adulthood.

Who has been your role model in films and in social work?
I really do not have any specific role model. Fortunately, I have met several interesting and committed people, those who have overcome challenges in their lives, and have made some very hard decisions. In films also there are many eminent film makers, actors, and technicians that I deeply admire, but there is no need to emulate, or limit oneself to role models.
In social work too, there are many people who have dedicated their lives to the larger good, far away from the media gaze. They are the ones who ought to be called social activist and social workers, and not people like me. I have met many such people, and I have deep respect for them, and have learnt from their perseverance, commitment, and creativity. From the outside, we might think that they have struggled and wasted their lives, and nothing much has been achieved, but they have brought about many changes that the people who have been affected by them will testify. For example Aruna Roy who worked along with her team in bringing in the RTI Act.

Which of the social issues are you most passionate about?
There are so many, that I do not compete with issues. All are important in their respective context. But, the rights of the marginalized, whoever that might be – women, marginalized communities, whether of religion, caste, or sexual preference, children, HIV positive people, anybody who is disadvantaged. Marginalized people often don’t have a voice, or the platform to raise their issues. So I try and do it in my small way, whenever I can.

You have produced and directed short films on education and rainwater harvesting. What has been the impact?
These are public service advertisements, and we made it for different organizations with a hope that the television channels would telecast them. But because of TRP rating and airtime being very expensive, the television channels do not want to give even a 60 second slot for free. It wasn’t easy to market it. But when the ‘Right to Education Bill’ was recently passed, the ‘Roll Call’ film that was done five years ago for Unicef was used for the campaign.
The PSA on rain water harvesting was done for Centre for Science and Environment. They have used it for their campaigns and we learn that they have had a lot of hits on their website. None of these will change the world but are tiny steps towards creating awareness.

What was your larger idea of doing controversial films such as ‘Fire’ and ‘Earth 1947’?
I think anything that we do not discuss openly and we shy away from is touted as controversial. ‘Earth 1947’ is about the partition and relationships that got affected by it, and there is nothing controversial in it. ‘Fire’ did become one of the most controversial films that I have worked in, as it spoke about the issues of homosexuality, questioned the arrange marriage system, and lack of choices women have. These are issues that we do not talk enough about. I think there was a healthy debate, and encouraged openness in the public domain. That is how an individual and society grows.