Q&A: Nandita Das

Activist first, this Indian star acts to bring people together

Indian activist and actress Nandita Das has starred in over 30 movies in 10 languages, including, most recently, "Ramchand Pakistani", by New York-based Pakistani director Mehreen Jabbar, a 2008 Tribeca premiere.

Das sees cinema as a powerful instrument of social change and her choice of unconventional roles bears out her belief. Often in movies made from tales not commonly told, Das also recently starred opposite Linus Roache in "Before the Rains", director Santosh Sivan's tale of 1930s interracial adultery.

Das first developed a passion for acting and activism working in the street theater Jan Natya Manch. Though she has scaled the heights of international film -- serving as a jurist at Cannes in 2005 and winning awards in Madrid, Cairo and Santa Monica -- her grassroots run deep. After her Masters in Social Work from Delhi University, Das worked with several non-governmental organizations and she continues today to advocate social justice and human rights, helming public service documentaries.

Das caught up with The Hollywood Reporter's Gautaman Bhaskaran on the verge of finishing "In Such Times," her debut as a feature director, about the effect of sectarian violence on human psyche and relationships.

The Hollywood Reporter: Do you feel it's a natural progression to go from acting to directing?
Nandita Das: It was always exciting to watch the rest of the crew work towards shaping a scene. Often I could not resist making suggestions or asking questions. Gradually, the desire to tell stories the way I wanted to grew stronger. Actors are seen as larger than what they really are, but people don’t realize that they are at the mercy of innumerable factors that eventually shape a movie. So I thought making one and having the space and freedom to do so would be more fulfilling.

THR: Does your debut directorial feature, "In Such Times," draw on many of your life experiences?
Das: When I began writing the script I realized that many of my experiences had inadvertently woven themselves in. There were others that I consciously wanted to share with my audiences. "In Such Times," even though it is a work of fiction, encompasses a thousand true stories.

THR: Did you write the story?
Das: As I began to research I felt the need for a collaborator to help me streamline my thoughts and polish my writing skills. I felt that Shuchi Kothari would be the right person. She teaches script writing at Auckland University and shares my concerns about identity, prejudice and violence. It took us three years to write the script.

THR: Something about your star cast?
Das: I felt at the scripting stage that actors such as Nasseruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Raghubir Yadav and Deepti Naval would be perfect. I am happy I also found other talented actors like Sanjay Suri, Shahana Goswami, Nowaz and Tisca Chopra.

THR: What did you learn about directing from working with such great directors as Adoor Gopalakrishnan ("Four Women")?
Das: Though I have been fortunate to work with many renowned directors, such as Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Mani Ratnam, Deepa Mehta and Adoor, there were many other lesser-known helmers who also influenced me. I learned the craft on every set, but the best thing I found out was that there were no rules in filmmaking. So, I chose a path that I found suitable for my movie and sensibilities.

THR: What are the greatest challenges to being a supporter of small, intimate movies that go beyond entertainment to move the audience?
The world over and across time, the sharks and whales of cinema have always dominated. While this is true, there have always been independent movies that made their mark. Only when directors, producers, distributors, exhibitors and viewers feel the need for a cinema that is not entirely governed by commercial considerations will there be more room for independent films. The biggest hurdle an independent moviemaker faces is inadequate budgets. Sometimes even a well-made film cannot be properly promoted or marketed. A creative expression thus gets reduced to mere economics. I am hoping multiplexes will give more space to smaller movies. Most of my movies have never been seen outside a festival circuit or, at best, they have had limited releases.

THR: Where do you propose to show "In Such Times"?
Das: Bombay’s Percept Picture Company is producing and distributing the film. I am sure they will take care of the Indian territory. I think independent movies need to be showcased in festivals. I am hoping my work would find a market abroad.

THR: Will you now focus on directing over acting?
Das: Why is life always about ‘either or’? As long as interesting roles come my way I would continue acting. I have never seen acting or directing as a career, but as an interesting means to communicate. If I have more stories that compel me to helm, I will do so.

THR: Which excites you more, being in front of the camera or behind it?
Das: Both are exciting in different ways. And, they are largely incomparable. Although directing is far more challenging than acting, it can also be stressful. Acting allows me to be part of different stories and travel to various places. This makes life interesting. I wish I would never have to choose one over the other.

VITAL STATS: Nandita Das

Nationality: Indian
Birth: Nov. 7, 1969, New Delhi
Selected filmography: "Fire" (1996); "Earth" (1998); "Bawander" (Sandstorm) (2000); "Nallu Pennungal" (Four Women) (2007).
Notable awards: Best actress, "Bawander" (Sandstorm), 2001 Santa Monica Film Festival; Best actress, "Amar Bhuvan" (My World) 2002 Cairo International Film Festival, Best actress, "Maati Maay" (A Gravekeeper’s Tale), 2007 Madrid International Film Festival.