I believe in a pluralistic society: Nandita Das.
I have been asked so many times that how does it feel to be a woman director. I will never know what it feels to be a male director! When I was directing, I was simply a director and my female perspective was something that I wasn't consciously thinking of. Just as there is a male gaze, there must be a female gaze, but it is an inherent quality and not a deliberate attempt," remarked Nandita Das, the renowned actress, film director and chairperson, Children's Film Society of India. Das was delivering the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) Silver Jubilee Lecture, on the topic "Identity and the notion of the 'Other'".
Nandita Das explored some of the major identities and the prejudices around the "other", in terms of religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation, in the society we live in.
She spoke about her identity as a woman, and a creative person, commenting that she was especially attached to her identity of 'woman', so that she can give common women a 'Voice'.
A believer in the idea of a pluralistic society, Nandita Das spoke about how the concept of 'them' and 'us' has entered all domains - public discourse and inter-personal relationships. "In India, the question of identity becomes even more acute and complex because of the long history and vast diversity of groups that one belongs to. This political exploitation of identities is dangerous not only because it suppresses multiple identities and creates an artificial homogenous 'group identity' but more so because it thrives on demonising the 'other'. Also if we tried learning more about the "other", we would be less prejudiced and it would evoke more empathy. One tends to fear the unknown and therefore demonises it," she added.
Referring to another identity that is not much talked about in India, Das spoke about her experience of working for the movie Fire and the reactions it inspired. Fire (1996) was her debut film and it was the first Indian film that spoke openly about a homosexual relationship and the lack of choices women have. It also dealt with issues of arranged marriages and patriarchy that are deep-rooted in our society.
"The debate over Fire raised many questions - who defines what is Indian culture and who are these self-proclaimed custodians trying to represent the people? What is 'normal' and what is 'abnormal'? Can a work of art that reflects reality be subjected to such unconstitutional censorship? Is freedom of expression not a human right? Which of the identities needs assertion, and which one is less important, and why? My pursuit of finding answers to many such questions has been an interesting journey. The positive outcome of the controversy was that it impacted the collective thinking of Indian society that had pushed issues of homosexuality under the carpet. The public debate gave rise to greater acceptability, less prejudice and more information about what most people didn't know, thereby reducing the fear of the unknown."
Talking about her personal experience about the struggle with the issue of identity and the notion of the "other", Nandita Das said, "What is it that makes us so uncomfortable about the "other"? And how can we so easily believe that something that is different from what we have grown into, has to be not "right"."
Her encounters with marginalised and disadvantaged people prompted her to get into acting in films and strive to be part of stories that need to be told. Firaaq, Nandita's directorial debut film set in the aftermath of 2002 sectarian violence in Gujarat, traces the emotional journeys of ordinary people - some who were victims, some perpetrators and some who chose to watch silently, was in many ways an outcome of violence against the 'other'. She described it as a cathartic experience. She added, "While it is important to be aware of one's own prejudices so that we don't fall into the trap of easy stereotyping, the problem is that it is easier to identify other people's prejudice than one's own. Firaaq, in many ways, shows us a mirror and raises some pertinent questions about our own prejudices."
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