Nandita Das: I wanted to be a dancer for the longest time
1. How were you as a child? Did your parents' professions influence your childhood in any way?
My father is a painter and my mother is a writer so the kind of atmosphere at home was one full of arts and books. I met a lot of artists, painters, musicians and dancers but most importantly I got a lot of freedom to question, a lot of space to be myself, and not have those usual pressures to study all the time or to become anything. It was more about enjoying what you're doing and doing something sincerely. I am truly grateful for that upbringing because I think that kind of a foundation is very important which comes handy later in life when you're making your own choices.
2. Tell us about your days at Delhi University. Were you a part of any of the societies at Miranda House?
My greatest memory of my education is actually more in school. I studied at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, a wonderful, alternative school in Delhi which gave a lot of emphasis on extra-curricular activities. After that I went to Miranda House and pursued Geography Honours. But somewhere along the line I lost interest in Geography. I used to attend classes and then run off from the college to go for my Odissi dance class. I also used to do street theatre with a group called 'Jan Natya Manch' so I used to be busy with rehearsals in the evenings.
I was asked to be the Central Councillor. And I remember that my friend and I used to make hand written posters and we would go around picking up fliers that people would sometimes throw away. But I did win the elections and interact with a lot of other student leaders from different colleges and saw the interesting and the ugly side of student politics. Of course, we participated in the college festival – Tempest and I remember I choreographed a dance. I used to love the hostel lawns. In winters, we used to do our Geography project in the lawns. I used to have a lot of friends in other colleges like Hindu, Stephen's and Kirori Mal and we would hang out at the D-school canteen and have nimbu paani and pakoras.
3. What made you take up social work as a discipline? Has it influenced your work and career in any way?
My days with social work were influenced by the street theatre which we used to do in bastis. We would pick up social issues and do plays around them. Then I went to Rishi Valley, a wonderful boarding school in the South where I taught for 4 months. Everything that I have done has influenced my choices in going forward, and I think that is bound to happen. Even my choices of films are influenced by my social work days because a certain social consciousness automatically comes in and you don't want to do a film just for the sake of doing a film.
4. What prompted you to pursue acting as a profession? Were there any actors that influenced you? Please tell us more about your time with the 'Jana Natya Manch'.
'Jana Natya Manch' was about activism meeting theatre, about how you take up social issues and convey them through theatre. So I did street theatre and then I did social work but I've always enjoyed performing arts. In fact, I wanted to be a dancer for the longest time. But I don't think anything is a waste. You do something you may not do later in your life but it will have an impact on everything you do in some small way.
There were a lot of films that I watched over the years with great actors. But if I watch films, I watch it more like a lay person. A good film draws me in like it would draw anybody in. I don't say 'Oh, I'm an actor, so can I learn this, should I be doing this?' Everybody does perceive me as an actor primarily but that's probably one-fourth of what I do otherwise. It is a part of my life, it is a part of my interest but it is really not a career. Every time I have to fill my occupation in any form I wonder what to write.
5. Tell us about your transition from theatre to films. Was the shift challenging?
It wasn't a conscious shift because I never wanted to be an actress. I did a short film called "Ek Thi Gunja'" and there was a write up about it which Deepa Mehta read. Somebody introduced me to her. That's when I did 'Fire' and one thing led to the other. Now I've done about 30 odd films in 10 different languages.
Mainstream cinema was not something that I grew up watching because my parents also didn't watch it. Therefore I did not have an appetite for it. I would instinctively get drawn towards scripts that resonated with me. That's why my choices of films have been of a certain kind. This may further stereotype me as someone who does only serious, art movies but it was quite natural for me to select such movies.