Award winning actress Nandita Das makes a dynamic comeback after her maternity break with her home production BETWEEN THE LINES. Co-written with Divya Jagdale, Nandita Das has also directed this play and acts in it with her entrepreneur-husband Subodh Maskara. The play addresses gender inequality in modern society.
Deepa Ranade (DR): What prompted you and Mr Maskara to launch your own theatre production company?
Nandita Das (ND):We both enjoy experimentation and we do not fear failure. Apart from that, I have always enjoyed acting on stage and the live audience reaction. But contrary to popular belief that I have done a lot of theatre, I have only been part of two professional plays so far - THE SPIRIT OF ANNE FRANK with Zohra Sehgal and Shabana Azmi and HEADS YA TAILS with Sushant Singh. I did street plays for four years with Safdar Hashmi, but the reasons were less for acting and more for the issues his plays raised. Those plays in some way were triggers for me to pursue my Masters in Social Work.
DR: How did Divya Jagdale and you get together to co-write BETWEEN THE LINES?
ND: We are both actors and we got into writing by default! I wrote my directorial debut film, Firaaq and Divya has written two plays previously- BANSURI and END OF SEASON. Our writing is true to life, as it comes from real, lived and felt experiences. The story idea for BETWEEN THE LINES came from a 60s film, which was theatrically adapted by Prof Purushottam Agarwal, an academician and a writer. We got the rights of the play from him and then got working on it.
DR: How did the writing process evolve between the two of you?
ND: Both of us are working women who draw a lot from our own lives. Don't urban Indian women go through the conflict between tradition and modernity? The writing process was really interesting as we both live in two different parts of Mumbai, and a lot of ideas exchange happened over the phone and on the Internet. I don't know where to limit the writer in me as I am still catching newer nuances and layers and I keep improvising. As we rehearse, we realize the difference between the written and the spoken word and I keep making changes.
DR: What a comeback! Writer-director-producer and actor - aren't you are shouldering a lot of responsibilities?
ND: When I started writing the play, I never realized that it would amount to a lot of work. While I already had the multiple responsibilities of motherhood and being the Chairperson of CFSI, writing a script from home seemed like an easy thing to do comparatively. Eventually this play has turned out to be a handful, with me having to handle many different things. Especially to be in the play and then also be its third eye, looking at it from the outside as director-producer, is not easy.
DR: How different has this experience been for you compared to your work in films?
ND: Lighting, sets, props - theatre has its own language. Not knowing the stagecraft is useful at times because I don't go by any grammar. The form is determined by the content for me. The two mediums are very different, but the creative journey always has its own excitement and challenges.
DR: What is special about BETWEEN THE LINES?
ND: This is a compelling story, and I think many will relate to it. I have a knack of taking up difficult stories! Firaaq was not an easy debut film either. The play deals with human relations and gender issues. Gender inequality, we think exists only in poor and backward classes. But the fact is that scratch the surface and there are many subtle inequalities even in what we call progressive societies. In fact, all my girlfriends who have watched the rehearsals say that it seems like it's their own story! We working women are like Goddess Durga with ten hands, multi-tasking at all times!
DR: Why did you opt to write the play in English? Doesn't that limit your reach in India somewhat?
ND: BETWEEN THE LINES is about urban, educated professionals who speak in English. Our play is for this audience, so it had to be in English. It has to sound real to be communicated; the language is just a tool. I wrote my directorial debut film, Firaaq in four languages as the script demanded it. So the language is true to its context.
DR: How did Mr Maskara come into acting? Wasn't he jittery about facing an accomplished actor who's done over 30 films in 10 different languages?
ND: Subodh had always expressed a desire to act and so I thought it would be best if he can work in our home production, with me! If I were to do business, I am sure he will indulge me too! Subodh has done some workshops with Waman Kendre and Mahesh Dattani. But it takes a lot of courage to be on stage where unlike films, there are no retakes. I remember when I was new to films when I worked with Shabana Azmi first, I realized as an actor - you are alone - you are on an equal footing with your co-star.
BETWEEN THE LINES
DR: Maskara looks dapper in the posters no doubt, yet isn't it risky to hinge your first production only on two actors, one of whom is a debutant?
ND: Of course, it is risky to write, direct, produce and act in a play. But then life is all about taking chances and finding new spaces within your ownself. If you play it safe and keep doing the same old things, how will you discover yourself?
DR: What's that orange installation that you have used in the play?
ND: That's an installation from Subodh's brother's art gallery- Gallery Maskara. I think it goes well with the theme - Between the Lines.
DR: Who has been your creative influence?
ND: I am inspired by life experiences - love, anger, frustration, confusion - my work comes out of it. Also I am inspired by the people I have met and worked with. So my creative influence is life itself.
DR: You turned down Deepa Mehta's film adaptation of Midnight's Children. Any other films that you are doing?
ND: I couldn't have done justice to Midnight's Children; my son was only 6 months old and I didn't have the heart to leave him and shoot. But I have two interesting films for release. Oonga is a story of a tribal boy, where I play his teacher and I have a pivotal role in a Tamil film about fishermen being caught on the wrong side of the boundary. But I started with taking only a week's shoot each.
DR: How does your two-year-old son Vihaan take to your frenzied activity?
ND: He's often at the rehearsals with us. It is good for children to see their mothers working. I grew up watching my mother working dedicatedly. I loved and respected her for that. Vihaan does not feel neglected.
DR: Did you solicit advice from your theatre peers?
ND: I wrote an email to Naseeruddin Shah when I started off and he wrote back saying, "If your efforts are in the right direction a team will organically form around you. " And it did - I have a Chilean musician aboard and many magical hands at making the play work. Really, you have to be a bit crazy - without craziness I wouldn't have written the play!
DR: How do you manage to maintain your sparkling looks?
ND (Laughs): By trying to live in the moment... I seldom go to the salon and I never go to the gym. I do yoga when I can. Only recently my friend admonished me for having such dry hands - I don't even get time to moisturize them!
*Deepa Ranade is a film and theatre reviewer. She has been an entertainment journalist for over fifteen years