Q&A with 'Firaaq' director Nandita Das

Film on one of India's worst riots opened at home this month

NEW DELHI--After winning accolades for her acting in art house cinema, Nandita Das, a former jury member at Cannes, is drawing attention with her directorial debut as well: a film about one of India's worst religious riots.

Known for playing bold roles in unconventional films, Das took three years to write the script for "Firaaq," which opened in Indian cinemas this month after winning kudos at film festivals worldwide.

Human rights groups say about 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were hacked, beaten or burned to death in the western Gujarat state after a suspected Muslim mob burned alive 59 Hindu activists and pilgrims inside a train in February 2002.

Das' film, an ensemble project told through the eyes of ordinary people affected by the violence, follows multiple narratives set over a 24-hour period.

The 39-year-old actress spoke to Reuters about the cathartic effect of directing "Firaaq."

Q: Did you plan "Firaaq" to be your directorial debut?

A: "Not really. I did want to direct and was thinking about it for a few years. I didn't think "Firaaq" would be the debut film. This film happened primarily because many of the stories told were kind of inside me and compelled me to direct.

"I think it had to do with everything that was happening around me, my own helplessness, anger, anguish whatever you call it, response to the kind of growing violence, to prejudice, to waking up to newspapers with stories full of violence.

Q: The film is about the Gujarat riots.

A: "The film is set in Gujarat but not during the riots. It's a month after the riots. In fact, there is no violence in the film. And it's basically about how five set of relationships unfold in a span of 24 hours."

Q: It's surprising that a film about violence has very little violence in it.

A: "Most people who see the film say that there's no violence and yet you feel the tension, the fear and the violence that lurks outside people's homes, people's lives. I was more interested in what goes on in the human psyche and relationships and how violence affects us all.

Q: How do you react to criticism that "Firaaq" is biased toward or against a particular community?

A: "I have tons of emails and SMSes that say to the contrary, where they feel it's a completely human story, where they feel their own prejudices coming out, where they feel it's a mirror to their own psyche.

"Yes, there are some people who have also said that it's a one-sided story and that I am showing only one perspective. When the reality itself is one-sided, then your portrayal of reality will also be...you know, if the Muslims were more the victims, I cannot change that fact.

Q: Was making a film like "Firaaq" particularly difficult because of its subject?

A: "In fact for me it was a catharsis of sort as I could find a way to express myself. So yes, it was difficult and yet I needed to deal with it.

Q: Were you tempted to act in "Firaaq?"

A: "Not initially. I knew it was going to be a very challenging to be in front and behind the camera. At one point, not tempted, but I was finding it difficult to get someone for a particular role and everybody started saying 'you should act in it' and I am glad I didn't. Because it's just so consuming. You need to totally focus on direction, at least in your first film."

Q: What next? Directing or acting?

A: "I am going to act and have already signed on a project. But because direction is so time-consuming, I would like to take enough of a break before stories kind of organically emerge. But not immediately for sure. For now I want to take a break to live life a little."
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