Nandita Das, director, actor and activist talks to The Statesmanabout her career, current engagements, tackling the existent “colourism” in the film industry and her last directorial, Manto, whose story continues to be relevant even today. Excerpts from an interview:

Q) From a sparkling acting debut in 1996 with Fireto now when you have made films like Firaaq and Mantoyourself,how do you analyse your career?

I feel fortunate that I had an upbringing that has given me the freedom and confidence to make my own choices. I have done work that resonated with my own interests and values. If I wanted to take up acting as a full-time career or do mainstream cinema, there was nothing stopping me to shift to Bombay, soon after Fire. But it was a choice I made, and the peace and sanity I have gained in the bargain was well worth it. Not all films turn out the way I imagine them to be as there are many factors at play. But I feel good that I made those choices at least for the right reasons. When you don’t want something, you don’t regret not having it!

Q) You were a part of the campaign, “Dark and Beautiful”.What kind of discrimination did you personally face due to your complexion when you entered the industry?

There are many campaigns that I support. Very recently I have supported campaigns for organ donations, signed petitions against genetically-modified crops and to save the RTI from being wrongly amended.

This one, telling you to be comfortable in your skin, is only one of them. I have always been very outspoken about this issue, but until recently it was more informal. The issue of dark skin would always pop up in the many things I did but didn’t take centre stage. I am so glad that such a campaign has been launched and I am able to add my voice to it. As the issue impacts so many people, young girls in particular, by default I have become a champion of it!

I believe it is important to speak up and add one’s voice to campaigns that are for the larger good. After all, we are nothing but a drop in the ocean but we do need every drop to fill it! So I will continue advocating what I believe in, both formally and informally, but there is no design or plan for it.

Q) People have spoken out openly against colourism. However, with most actresses ending up looking overtly fair on screen, we don’t see much of these words translate into practice. Do you think this bias is still equally stringent?

I have had directors/camerapersons telling me that it would be good if I made my skin lighter as I was playing an educated upper class woman! If I get told all this, despite most people knowing my stand, I wonder what the other dark women are subjected to.

Without exception, I have stood my ground, as I really do feel comfortable in my skin…literally! I would be told by the make-up man that I need not worry as he was an expert in making people look fair. The glorification of fair skin has been there in our films for a very long time. This reflects the bias of society. In subtle as well as blatant ways, our language has things like uska rang saaf hai (his/her colour is clean) for fair people as if dark skin is dirty. It is tough to combat a mindset that finds many manifestations in our songs, stories, myths and fables. In Bollywood, most times if you are dark then you are right for the role of a village woman, slum dweller et al but an urban affluent character always must be a fair-skinned person.

Today, independent films thankfully deal with stories that are more real and edgy, and often about those who are marginalised. And as the characters are more realistic, there is really no need to put on too much make up and we can actually be ourselves. Mainstream cinema, by its very definition, wants to appeal to the maximum number of people and if society itself is deeply biased towards fair skin, then obviously all its reflections will have the same bias. While the bias exists in society, films, TV soaps, ads can play an important role in not further stereotyping what is “beautiful”

Instead of breaking down these harmful notions that are destroying many a young woman…and man, they are further associating fairness with success, love, marriage and overall acceptability in the world. While things have gotten worse with many more fairness products and the demand for fairer skin may have gone up, but then it wasn’t too different before.

The aesthetic sensibility is only a manifestation of the lack of respect for women as individuals. As long as women are objectified, they will be forced to buy into this story, that only if they were more “white/ thin/ beautiful” they would have a better chance in life, or that they would be good enough for this world. I believe such campaigns, debates, education and true empowerment of women will change things slowly. Each one has a responsibility, individually and collectively as a group because what we put out as a film industry impacts millions. It is for each person to decide what they should or should not do. No one can pass judgments but one hopes that each of us will have a social conscience that will guide us to act more responsibly.

Q) Have you felt that today the line between parallel and commercial mainstream cinema is gradually getting blurred?

Mainstream Hindi cinema has mostly played safe in an attempt to please a large number of people, although in every era we have seen some bold films that have gone beyond their comfort zone and told different stories irrespective of their box office performances. I am glad that quite a few young filmmakers are now stretching the boundaries and experimenting with both form and content.

Indian films are not just Bollywood films and there is a whole range of films, in fact more in regional languages, which also constitute the gamut of Indian cinema. Sadly, the space for such films has always been small and seems to be further shrinking. Many of them get limited to the festival circuit and sometimes DVD sales. But as an optimist, I hope that in pushing the boundaries, the audience’s taste will also expand.

Q) What do you have to say about the label “woman director”?

After Firaaq, I was repeatedly called for panels on women directors and asked what it was like to be one. My answer was simple. I’m a director who happens to be a woman, and there is no way that I would know what it feels like to be a male director!

Having said that, I’m sure my gender, just as my upbringing, life experiences, class, education and interests would influence the sensibilities, form and content of my films. Some felt that despite the fact that Firaaq was not a woman-oriented subject, it was evident that a woman had made it. They felt that the women characters were layered and grey, and even though the film was about violence, there was no blood or gore. Some are surprised that both Firaaq and Manto are not typically woman-oriented subjects, as if a woman, or for that matter, a feminist, must only make films on the issues of women. Women think about many different things and are also impacted by them. In any case, Mantois a celebration of a feminist man, though he too would have hated labels.

Q) In today’s times, art is often looked down upon as something that is unnecessary and excessive when compared with the destitution, ills and social injustices ever-present around the world. What are your comments on this?

To make such a comparison would be to miss the point of art. As a cultural tool, art helps humanise and actualise emotions, grievances, and fears of those who may not have another place to voice their concerns. As an illustrative and journalistic tool, art shocks and inspires us to action. What art depicts can elicit a visceral, almost cellular reaction. Through art, we can challenge many of our society’s deepest assumptions, built upon the power of artistic creation and expression to spark new ideas, catalyse critical thinking, elicit new actions, inspire individuals and create visions.

Good art can educate and create empathy, and empathy leads to change. Global leaders in business and politics are increasingly aware of this and are investing in art as a way of engaging with communities, improving lives and boosting economic growth. Where the arts thrive, they directly empower the most vulnerable members of society. Stories of injustice, protest and resilience are waiting to be told all over the world.

Q) What,according to you,is the relevance of writers like Saadat Hasan Manto in today’s times?

In today’s times, we can see it all around — censorship, people who are self-censoring to avoid trouble or moral policing where some group decides that something is hurting their sentiments. And that is what Manto fought against. He was tried for obscenity six times — three times by the British government and three times by the Pakistani government, just because he wrote about sex workers.

Despite all this, Manto never perceived himself to be an activist. He in fact says that “as much as Gandhi has to do with films, I had to do with politics”. He didn’t feel that he was political and yet he was actually extremely political in all his writings. According to him what political meant was to understand why things happen the way they happen. His writing tried to understand and empathise with people who are on the margins of society. It was about those people who nobody wants to write about.

In fact, he also says that if you can’t bear my stories it is only because we live in unbearable times. The stories only reflected what happened in society. This is where I think his relevance stands, and not just in our subcontinent but also around the world. Artists, writers, freethinkers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced. Any society grows and develops when you have people speaking up and thinking differently. If you silence them, what hope do we have?

Q) Actor,director or activist — which one is your favourite role to perform?

I feel no need to choose. They are all intertwined, and are different means to the same end.