Reading between the Lines

Nandita Das on acting, co-writing, directing, producing and acting along with her husband
Theatre
Photo by Ritesh Uttamchandani

“You have made life difficult for us men, Nandita!” complains one of her friends after the staging of her play Between the Lines in Mumbai. His wife in the background applauds in agreement. Nandita Das’ directorial theatre debut, set in urban India, addresses the misconstrued status of the modern Indian woman in a ‘man’s world’. In the play, Nandita and her husband, Subodh Maskara, play a middle-aged couple, Maya and Shekhar, who find themselves at opposite ends of a criminal trial as lawyers. The complexities in the trial bring to light the realities of their own relationship, strained between modernity and tradition.

Your earlier film work always had a serious tone to it, different from the humour in Between the Lines. Was that your husband’s contribution?
Yes, I especially wanted Shekhar in the play to have that edge that Subodh has. The casting in the play had already been done, so it did impact some of the choices that I made—who Shekhar was and what he was like. Of course I didn’t want to do something that was frivolous or light for the sake of being light. Here you are dealing with something that is deeper but without feeling heavy. Someone actually pointed out that Shekhar was the one who had all the smart lines.

Everything happened in-house—directing, producing, acting and co-writing. Was it too much on your plate?
Till you don’t take risks and dive into something, you don’t get anything back. But yes, having to direct, write and act all at the same time, I just didn’t get time to focus on my acting. All the time, there were more important things to do. It is only on the day of the play that you really sit down and focus, but even there something goes wrong and you get distracted. The actor in me did take a backseat but with time even that is getting better. If we do work on a play again, I would ideally not want to direct as well as act.

Considering gender inequality is the theme of your play, did it affect your personal lives?
Yes, I think it did in a way. At times you are laughing at yourself because it is a mirror to your own lives, your own prejudices, your own actions, your own conditioning. There was a lot of both of us in the characters, whether consciously or subconsciously, and I didn’t shy away from it. We were wear­ing multiple hats—so are we relating to each other as husband and wife, or as actor and director, or as actor and actor, because there were many different dy­namics. Sometimes it does overlap and create confusion. But there was never an issue.

Apart from being a mother and president of the Children’s Institute for Films, what projects did you take up after your directorial film debut, Firaaq?
I did two films. They were both pivot­al roles but required only one week of complete attention, so I was just testing the waters. A Tamil film named Neer Paravai, which was about fishermen who unknowingly cross borders while at work and get shot in the process, and another film in Hindi named Oonga. It’s a tribal story about a little boy named Oonga and I play the role of his teacher. It is set in Orrisa, so I had to speak Hindi and Oriya, and Oriya being my father’s tongue, it was easy.

Has any particular theatre director’s work inspired you?
There are a lot of subconscious things that you learn and imbibe. I have not seen a lot of plays, but in terms of Indian writers, I have definitely been a great admirer of Vijay Tendulkar. He has written some outstanding plays, social commentary with so much wit.

What was the theatre experience like in comparison with cinema?
A film has many more factors than a play and a director puts them together. But in theatre, on the day of the show, it’s the actors telling the story. Every time it’s a new show, the response from the audience is different. For me theatre is new. Because you don’t know the grammar so much, you don’t stick to its boundaries. And that’s the best thing, you can define it the way you want. A lot of what I put into the play has influence from my films. Theatre keeps changing with our own energies, with the feedback we get, but I am not scared of that aspect. It’s exciting and chal­lenging.

How did Chotti Productions start?
I was pregnant and we thought we were going to have a daughter, so we used to call her Chotti and we thought it would be nice to name our production house after her. We later came to know it’s a chotu and not a chotti, but by then the registration was done. I have two children now, Chottu and Chotti.

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Nandita’s husband Subodh Maskara on being directed by his wife

While on one hand, the idea was ro­mantic, I knew somewhere in the mid­dle very clearly that people will come to see this play because of Nandita. I had a responsibility because she brings in 20 years of her credibility, and I defi­nitely didn’t want to let her down. I nev­er shared this with her because there is no point in pressuring her by saying that I am so pressured by her credibility. And then knowing Maya [the character played by Nandita Das in the play], she will say, ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. (laughs)