Abhishek Srivastava - 77 weeks ago
Fire - apart from being a defining film of Nandita Das’ career, also provided the actress a platform to talk about things she really cared for. She believes that her debut film broke many myths and was a departure from conventional norms. She recalls the time how she landed the role and what it did to her career.
Fire was surely a defining film for me. When Fire released many people asked me that why did I opt for such a bold film in the beginning of my career but to be absolutely honest, I had no clue if I would be doing my second film after Fire. It was Gulshan Grover of all people, in the sense that I did not know him then, who was instrumental in introducing me to Deepa Mehta. I was in Delhi then, the city from where I have done most of my work. Before Fire, I had done a small film called Ek Thi Goonja which I am pretty sure that most would have not seen. It was shown on Doordarshan then and I had played the role of an ethnographic tribal woman. It was also the phase when The Times of India used to bring out its own weekly colored magazine along with the main newspaper which was tinted more towards entertainment and in one of the issues some stills of the film were published. After Durga Jasraj, daughter of Pandit Jasraj, saw those images, she called me and offered to play the lead in a TV series. Later when she revealed that the TV series will have 52 episodes, I immediately backed out and told her that it would be impossible to act in 52 episodes and films will suit her more. At that time, I was associated with a Delhi based NGO which was involved in the field of women issues and I was happy with the work I was doing there. It was then she informed me about Gulshan Grover and added that he was helping a director to cast actors for her film. Durga suggested me to go and meet Gulshan. (Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi in a still from Fire)
When I met Gulshan at his lavish bungalow, he told me that the film is about two women and is bold in nature. This is all he knew and this is all he told me. I had no clue that the film was about two women in love with each other. Gulshan also suggested me to carry few photographs for the meeting with Deepa. I had nothing then and I still don’t have a portfolio. It’s been 23 years for me in the industry and till today neither I have a PR agent nor a manager. I still remember it was raining that day and reached the hotel carrying my umbrella and some five-six photos from my personal album. When I knocked the door of Deepa’s hotel room, the minute she opened the room, without even looking at me, only said to go down. While going downstairs, I looked at her dupatta and told her that I have a similar dupatta. It was then she offered me to go back to her hotel room. I was actually sort of taken aback and thought of her as a strange woman who within minutes tells me to go down and then to go up. Inside the room, she narrated the whole story of the film and then handed me the script of the film instructing me to read at home.
I had known about homosexuality and it was not something which made me uncomfortable or something because of which I felt threatened. I grew up in an atmosphere which was extremely inclusive and secular by nature. The society has become so insensitive these days that people now don’t hesitate in killing each other, but when it comes to matters of love, it becomes an issue for them. This understanding grew not just by doing the film but more after the film after I started engaging those questions. Till today people ask me if I am proud or ashamed of doing that film. If the archaic law has been decriminalized today, then I think Fire too has contributed to it.
After the narration she remarked that I was her Sita and the comment flabbergasted me. Before I left her room, she informed that once I have read the script, I would have to go through an audition. I was the first one to be cast for the film and Shabana Azmi and Kulbhushan Kharbanda Ji were still to come on board. I read the script and found it very engaging and interesting because even in my liberal family, where my father is a painter and my mother, a writer, we never talked about the issue of homosexuality. I gave my feedback to Deepa, to which her reply was ‘you are on’. I then asked her about the audition to which she replied that it was not required. She again mentioned that I was her Sita. This time I asked her that what she actually meant and she explained that I was impulsive, fearless and not hesitant in asking questions. I told her that isn’t acting different than just being yourself. I informed her that I have grown watching Shabana Azmi’s films and asked her again if she was sure of not taking an audition as I would be acting opposite her. She only said that everything would be fine.
(Nandita Das, Deepa Mehta and Shabana during the shooting of Fire)
When I did the film, there was no fear of failure because when you don’t have a set destination, it frees you. I am neither a trained actress nor a filmmaker. I didn’t even work from within the industry and one thing led to another. What Fire did to me was that it provided me a platform to talk about things I really cared for. Suddenly I was being called to various events and I was being interviewed. Half the time people who interview me talk to me about things other than films and I am totally fine with it because these are the things I also care about. For me it’s more of social advocacy and films are more like means to an end.
(As told to Abhishek Srivastava)
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