In 1998, a dusky Indian film actress arrived on the Indian film scene and ‘wowed’ audiences with her string of award winning performances. So much so, that it had everyone gasping at the way she bulldozed her way through Odia, Hindi, English, Tamil cinema with the ease of a thespian. She did not speak much, her work said it all. There was no looking back for the tremendous powerhouse of talent that mesmerized those who watched her movies, by her attractive looks and sensational acting. That lissome lass was none other than Nandita Das, who arrived with a bang and the echoes are still heard.
Born to the famous Odia painter Jatin Das and his Gujarati Jain wife Varsha, a writer, Nandita was born in Mumbai on 7th November, 1969. Brought up later in Delhi she went to Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Lodhi Estate. She achieved her Bachelor’s in Geography from Miranda House (University of Delhi) and Master’s in Social Work from the Delhi School of Social Work.
Education and early career
Nandita began her career in acting with Jana Natya Manch, a theatre group and was with them close to six years. She also happened to be a teacher at the Rishi Valley School started by J. Krisnamurti. On completion of her Master’s in Social Work she joined an NGO Ankur and later Alarippu, a children’s organisation stressing on the issue of making education more fun. The organisation worked for children from underprivileged homes.
Later in 2003, she happened to work for a Delhi based NGO called The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). The NGO educated people on rain water harvesting and was creating an environment for water conservation with this movement. Nandita with her first husband Saumya Sen, used to direct 90-second public service advertisements that educated on rainwater harvesting.
Her acting career
Nandita Das acted in over 30 feature films in ten different languages with many eminent directors like Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Deepa Mehta, Mani Ratnam among others. She is known for her performances in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Jagmohan Mundhra’s Bawandar (2000), Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), Azhagi, Before The Rains (2007) and Mrinal Sen’s Amaar Bhuvan. In fact she has acted in films in ten different languages.
With such reputed names of national and international fame, it was small wonder that she was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France for her work. In her trail of fame she was part of the jury at Cannes in 2005 and became the first Indian to be inducted into the International Women’s Forum’s Hall of Fame for her contribution to the arts.
A hand at direction as well
She went on to venture into direction with Firaaq (2008) which fetched her a large number of national and international awards. Firaaq happens to be a work of fiction, based on a thousand true stories set a month after the Gujarat riots in 2002. Based on real account narrations it is woven into a twenty four hour plot where characters from different strata of society – some victims, some perpetrators, some silent witnesses, portray their feelings of dealing with the effects of violence that they came in contact with.
The star cast was also studded with the likes of Naseeruddin Shah, Raghuvir Yadav, Deepti Naval, Sanjay Suri, Tisca Chopra, Shahana Goswami, Paresh Rawal, Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
The response to her maiden venture was indeed phenomenal. Travelling from Toronto in 2008, it went to over 50 International film Festivals, and besides the accolades and appreciation won her as many as 10 different awards both internationally as well as in the country.
Laurels from international quarters seemed to come her way quite easily. In 2011, she was the first Indian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Women’s Forum, Washington D.C. On 10.3.2009 France honored her again with the release of a self adhesive stamp as part of the project “Women of the World” for Nandita Das.
The other forays of Nandita Das
Nandita has also narrated for children’s audiobook series Under the Banyan and Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography by Charaka Audiobooks The Story of My Experiments with Truth. She has also lent her voice for the character of the Bengal Tiger in the children’s television series Wonder Pets.
The fiery side of Nandita
Das is known for her outspokenness and plain speaking. Having done her masters in Social Work, she has spoken in public forums to campaign for child survival, against AIDS, on social justice and violence against women. She was chosen as the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society of India in 2009.
True to her nature, she has shocked some by being one of the petitioners seeking mercy for the terrorist Ajmal Kasab of the Mumbai 26/11 attack. She contributed Rs. 1 lakh for setting up the online magazine Tehelka founded by Tarun Tejpal. Her views on dark skin color bias in India were expressed quite vocally and she made light of the fact that many of the educated people were also obsessed by the fair color of the skin. In fact a campaign Dark is Beautiful got her active support to draw attention to the unjust effects of skin color bias in India and in celebration of beauty and diversity of all skin tones.
The personal side of the actress
Married to Saumya Sen in 2002, she separated legally from him in 2009. Later she married an industrialist Subodh Maskara in 2010 and moved to Mumbai. They have a small boy named Vihaan.
To list the films she has done and the awards that came her way would be quite exhaustive. Nandita Das has always remained an honest transparent person who would not mind calling a spade a spade if the occasion demanded it and never mind the niceties that would have to be cast aside. For actresses like her with a natural flair for doing justice to her roles so very easily and an intellectual standing that brought her recognition and fame at shores overseas at an early age, there is nothing that could limit her reach in whatever she put her mind to.
Achievers like Nandita Das do not have to declare their worth nor make claims of what they are. The force of her talent and the power of forging ahead with what she has in mind have already given her recognition which few achieve so early in their careers and going by the professional zeal and commitment to her work, there is much more that we shall be seeing her achieve and doing India and womankind proud.