For Nandita Das, there isn’t a clear distinction between the two things she loves most: social activism and films.
Long before the internationally acclaimed Indian actress portrayed the courageous Sita in the Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996), she was putting her master's degree in social work to use in India and raising awareness about the country's social problems through street theatre.
Last year, the philanthropist, who also recently concluded a four-month Yale fellowship in women's studies, made her directorial debut on stage with Between the Lines, a play about gender inequality that will be staged at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, Mall of the Emirates, this weekend. The production is about a husband and wife, both lawyers, who go head-to-head in a criminal case for the first time.
“It’s strange,” says Das. “The film world considers me an activist and the activist world consider me an actor and director.”
She talked to The National about acting opposite her real-life husband, Subodh Maskara, for the first time, and the causes she continues to champion.
You’ve returned to theatre after eight years. What brought you back?
People think I started out with theatre, but I did my master's in social work and was actually working with NGOs. I did some street theatre that supported the kind of issues I feel strongly about. I enjoyed the medium but had no desire to be an actor. I think Between the Lines happened at a time when I was juggling motherhood, writing a column for a magazine and was the chairperson of the Children's Film Society. It ended up as quite a cathartic experience. I thought, why do women have to juggle so much? They have to play their traditional and modern roles, and then society has all these expectations. We don't often discuss these inequalities in the educated affluent classes, always reserving that for the poor sections of society. Bigger issues, whether domestic violence or sexual abuse, exist in every social class. So that became my starting point.
How much is drawn from your own life?
Some conversations and arguments between Subodh and me made it into the play. We often say 50 per cent [of the play] is taken from our lives – you figure out what 50 per cent that is. It is an amalgamation of most people’s experiences – that’s why it has resonated across generations.
How was it working with your husband for the first time?
Great – but it was also a challenge. The play is about a couple who are fighting each other professionally and how that starts affecting their relationship – those lines get blurred. Because of that, their relationship becomes more honest as they start addressing issues they haven’t dealt with before. This happened with us personally, as well.
You've supported the Dark Is Beautiful campaign to fight against the traditional view in India that those with lighter skin are more desirable. How can inclusion be fostered?
We all have biases, but we have to be more aware of those that can be harmful, and need to do something about it. To create a sympathetic society, we have to limit making generalisations. The development and growth of a country depends on it.
What beliefs need immediate attention in India?
There are many, be it about women when they are blamed when an act of sexual violence is committed against them, or giving birth to a girl, when daughters are still considered a burden. Thankfully, social media has helped democratise the whole space – at least you get to hear people voicing sane opinions.
You’ve recently been on the receiving end of criticism on social media for your views on terrorism. How do you respond to that?
I object to the generalisation that follows such acts of terrorism. How can you blame an entire society for the act of a few extremists? When I tweet on the topic, I’m often subjected to horrible, vitriolic messages. So I can only imagine what a person belonging to that religion goes through.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m writing a film about the life of the Pakistani short-story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who I think is very relevant today. He wrote extensively on women’s issues, freedom of expression and identity. He was a courageous and outspoken man, and he led quite an interesting life.
Between the Lines will be staged at Ductac on Friday and Saturday from 8pm. Tickets are priced from Dh100 and are available on www.ductac.org