“Dearth of Will, Not Stories”
Having proved her acting skills with art films such as 1947 Earth and Fire, actor-turned-director Nandita Das is hopeful about new media and distribution channels allowing fresh ideas to float. Having been a member of the jury at the Cannes Film festival twice in the past, she recounts some of the post screening deliberations.
Tell us about your experience as the jury member at Cannes Film Festival. How is it different from other film festivals?
I have been very fortunate to be on the Cannes jury twice. Once in 2005 and then in 2013, which was a surprise because they seldom call people again within a short gap. The most interesting parts are the deliberations that happen after the screenings. We really discuss each film in detail. It is interesting to see how different minds think about the films. How we will have different and compelling reasons for our ideas about that film. It does not really educate you about films but about life, about people’s prejudices and about our own lack of objectivity in some sense.
Every festival is unique but Cannes has the largest buzz around it. On one hand, it celebrates authors, directors, the actors and content of the film and at the same time, it is lot about the red carpet and big parties. Last time I was there to pitch my film to a producer. I am directing a film on an Indian writer of the 1940s called Manto. Being there as a director was a completely different experience.
In the last decade, the Indian film industry has grown vastly in terms of technology and reach, how do you perceive the industry today?
I am not the right person to ask about the Indian film industry because I have always been on the fringes of it. I have done many films, which are not in Hindi and are more representative, in some sort, of Indian films. It is not just Bollywood or the mainstream Telugu and Tamil industry. One of the good things about globalisation is that we are able to see each other’s work and technology travels much more easily. There are people in the cast and crew that come from outside India. A lot of talent is going back and forth. There are Indian actors like Irrfan who have really crossed over or Priyanka Chopra now. In the end, what makes any cinema unique is how you tell your own stories in a universal sort of way. Maybe the language of cinema can expand and develop. But when I see a Romanian, Iranian or a Turkish film, I want to see their stories. It doesn’t have to be a traditional, ancient or period film. It could be very contemporary. Most countries have different things that simultaneously exist. Especially in a country like India, you have the best and the worst sort of co-existing. Every film that comes out of India is like only one piece of a puzzle. We need wide range of films to be able to give the true picture of India, which is not the monolith. We need to have different voices to come through our cinema.
What kind of audiences does the Indian cinema attract internationally? What are the challenges it faces in reaching out to the global audience?
Indian diaspora has become one of the most deciding markets for a film. It is now a big factor in the kind of the films that are funded. Many festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto are now taking special screenings of mainstream films. They are realising that they can’t ignore, not just Indian but South Asian diaspora as it is so huge. The money factor is playing its part. The mainstream cinema is becoming attractive to work. Mainstream Indian films pull many people even in Africa and in the Middle East. It’s like a Broadway show, there are songs and dances; everybody looks pretty, great location, and glossy sets. There is also space in festivals for the more independent cinema. The narrow definition of Indian cinema, which either meant poverty or Bollywood, is also now changing. People are much more open to hearing different kind of stories and not just the stereotypical version of India.
How do you react to the refrain of the industry that there is a dearth of good ideas and scripts? Does it reflect on whether the producers think it’s a bankable idea or the reception of the audiences?
Bankable idea and the reception of the audiences are interlinked. Producers think that this is what people want, so we show it. People say that this is what they show us, so we have no choice. The independent cinema is not just seen enough. There is no level playing field. If a film does not have the usual troupe of commercial cinema, the producers won’t put money in the market and distributors will not have the faith that it will get enough traction. So then, they will get a stamp of being a festival film, because they just don’t get the opportunity to reach out to people. It’s a vicious circle. Independent cinema is still marginalised. Occasionally, you see a film that does well from that space. But for as many success stories, there are many more films that have probably not seen the light of the day.
And how could there be dearth of good scripts in a country with 1.25 billion people? We have great literature in every language. Many good scripts die before being even made into a film. The same thing, the producers don’t want to back it as they feel it won’t work. Many scrips are not written because nobody has the faith. It is so sad that many young filmmakers are first worrying about how to make their film work at the box office. The passion and the commitment then dwindles. Hopefully the digital medium is going to open that up. The cost of making film is decreasing and there are new avenues coming up. Distribution is now happening online. This will democratise filmmaking.
Are the film festivals now opening up to short films?
Absolutely. Short films are now coming up much more. People are making short films on their phones. If there are good stories and performers, with interesting shots then there is an audience for it. The more traction these producers and distributors see in alternate content, the more faith they will have in other stories. I am optimistic about future.
You have come from being an actor to a director with Firaaq. How has been this role change and what have you learnt about the craft?
I have learnt enormously. As an actor, you are just privy to the shooting schedule. You do your role and you come out of it. A director’s journey is right from the inception of the idea to its complete fruition. You are the driver for it. It can be quite a lonely process. Different people get in and out at different points. You have the entire vision. Of course, sometimes you can get an incredible crew. There were some people in Firaaq I was grateful for and there were some with whom it didn’t work out. That is part of the learning as well. I have not been trained in a film school. I have never assisted anybody. I am not a huge film watcher either. So being somebody who is ignorant and new to the medium, I was at sea with Firaaq. It’s a complex film, there are five different stories on five locations sets with five sets of actors. I learnt about the human psyche because we were dealing with hundred people and with their egos and understanding of things. You learn to focus and realise the bigger picture and the detailing. It was an exponential jump in my life. It took me eight years before embarking on my next project. I don’t know how people are so prolific. It really takes the life out of you but in a good way as well.
Firaaq was on the social topic of the Gujarat riots in 2002. Manto is more of a literary topic. How do you choose a subject?
To have a social conscience is a different thing than trying to be message-y. Firaaq wasn’t sort of a message-y film. It has five stories on how different people respond to an act of violence that is over. People are still grappling with different emotions of guilt, anger, retaliation and loss of faith in the so-called normalcy. That for me is the human story. Manto is this great short story writer of the 1940s. What drew me to it was his drive. He had put everything at stake to be able to fight for the freedom of expression. It sounds like a big political thing. At the same time, when for years your work is threatened, it is a personal human thing. He was tried for obscenity six times when he wrote stories about sex workers. Something that even today people would hesitate to write about. He was a devoted husband and father. What were those dilemmas of wanting to be a good person with family and putting their life in difficulty? They had to go through poverty and alcoholism because of the kind of depression he went under due to the partition of India in 1947. What were his struggles of identity. Somebody who defied religious and national identity but was pushed into it because in partition he had to choose. These questions are relevant today also.
We have not seen an Indian film in the main competition of Cannes in a long time. What do you think is the reason?
Festivals are not the only way of knowing if you are doing well. Some very good films don’t make it to the competitions. Sometimes the filmmakers don’t get to know in time. We don’t really have a body that pushes good cinema to these festivals. We also don’t make enough good films. When I was at Cannes in 2007, Romania made five films that year and they won Palme d’Or. We made over 1,000 films. Quantity is not a reflection of quality. We need to tell stronger stories, and in more interesting way. Finally a good film is that perfect combination of form and content. Something like NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India) or an independent body needs to support good films to reach that platform.