Nandita Das: 'Kapil Sharma had always told me that he would completely submit to my process and he truly did'
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Zwigato director Nandita Das talks about casting Kapil Sharma and more.
In her twenty-six years as an actress, Nandita Das has directed only three films: the hard-hitting political drama Firaaq in 2008, Manto, the Saadat Haasan Manto biopic in 2018 and now Zwigato, her first fictional directorial about the ups and downs in a delivery boy’s life. Nandita just back from the Toronto Film Festival speaks about the film in an exclusive with Firstpost.
Zwigato…where and how did this saga of a delivery boy happen in your head?
During the pandemic, we consumers, for our own convenience, became more and more dependent on the gig workers and less and less aware of their struggle. The film is about many small things that are hidden in plain sight. Very few films are made these days about urban workers. Apart from being about the life of a gig worker, Zwigato is also about our normalized biases of class, caste, and gender. They have all subtly found their way into the film, making the invisible, visible. It began as a discussion about growing unemployment and the complexity of gig work with my publisher friend Samir Patil. We then began writing a short film about a day in the life of a delivery rider.
How was Zwigato received at the Toronto Film Festival?
While the story of Zwigato is set in India, I was happy to see how the universality of the theme resonated with the discerning and diverse audience that the Toronto International Film Festival attracts. I make films because I itch to say something, and so the more people it reaches, the happier I am. Now we will soon be off to Busan. But what I am most looking forward to is to show it to the audiences in the country. And to the gig economy workers, whose story it is.
Having been to so many festivals in the last 26 years, both as an actor and a director, I can say with confidence that the reaction to a film tells me more about the person than the film. The film is what it is – good, bad, ugly. And I am my biggest critic. But when we watch a film, we connect to different aspects of it, based on our own life experiences and exposures. That’s why I rarely read my reviews or comments, except for the ones that come to me directly. I don’t want to be impacted by praise or criticism. The film is the best I could do in the given circumstances and I cannot change that now. So once the film is done, it belongs to the viewer. It is not for me to judge their response, one way or another.
How did you find a producer for this out-of-the-box project about a in-the-box delivery boy?
The enterprising Sameer Nair of Applause Entertainment who agreed to produce it, nudged me to expand it for a feature film. Initially, I felt the subject would not immerse me enough, but as I began to delve deeper into it, I was drawn to the human aspects of this collision of new technology and the life of the workers, who are just a cog in the wheel. I also began exploring what impact all this has on the family, especially the wife. With the rise of the gig economy, the struggle between man and machine that Chaplin depicted in Modern Times has now shifted to one between man and algorithms. So Zwigato is a story about the relentlessness of life, but not without its silver linings. The film explores the life of an ex-factory floor manager who loses his job during the pandemic. He then works as a food delivery rider, grappling with the app on his phone and the world of ratings and incentives. Simultaneously, his wife, a homemaker, begins to explore different work opportunities. But for her, the fear of this new life is coupled with the joy of a newfound independence.
This is your third directorial in fourteen years. Why such long spaces between your directorial assignments?
Acting, writing, directing and producing…all have happened rather organically. I just worked with my instinct, dipping into my life experiences and observations that have over the years, become an impulse. The compulsion to engage and find creative ways to share my concerns is what drives me. But I am not trained in any of them and so I take time to write and rewrite, put a project together and also I have done many other things in between the films in te last 14 years, including becoming a mother! But finally, now, I am a less hesitant director. The gaps will be less now! Though I will continue to do other things, be it social advocacy work or acting. I have multiple interests and concerns, and I feel no pressure to prove myself.
What made you select Kapil Sharma as the lead in Zwigato? It is a very unusual choice. Did Kapil live up to your expectations?
The pandemic’s dramatic impact on actor availability and shooting schedule over the past year had made casting for the film a nightmare. Then one day, Kapil Sharma popped up on my screen while I was surfing on the internet. I hadn’t seen his show, as I don’t have a TV for the last six years, but from the snippets, I did see that his honesty, simplicity, and candour seemed perfect for the character. And so, I reached out to him on an impulse, not fully knowing if he would be right for the part or if he would even be open to doing a film that is not a comedy. He promptly responded and when we met, I was convinced that he would perfectly represent the common man. Though he no longer was one in real life!
Did Kapil turn out to be the right fit?
He has a natural charm and he got into the skin of the character quite effortlessly. He is easy and friendly with his co-actors, disarming everyone around him. He had always told me that he would completely submit to my process and he truly did. But he has a very sharp mind and always questioned if something didn’t make sense to him or if he had an interesting suggestion. He is effortless and real in the film and I am so glad I went with my instinct.
How do you view the business of movie making at this crucial stage of its existence when the OTT platform has completely changed the way we look at cinema?
It is true that OTT platforms have changed how we watch films. Like most new technologies, there are some advantages and some disadvantages to it. It has made it possible for many filmmakers, actors and technicians to find work and the films now have a far wider reach. But as a filmmaker, I also want people to have an immersive, personal and collective experience of watching a film in a dark hall. Having said that, increasingly the economics of releasing films in theatres is becoming less and less feasible. For me, a combination of a theatrical release and OTT would of course be ideal. Though increasingly, audiences today are medium agnostic and are more driven by the story. I feel Zwigato, though set in India, is a global story, and we hope the film reaches out to as wide an audience as possible and that is what OTT platforms ensure.
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It’s been twenty-six years since you started your career as a movie actress. How do you view your journey so far? Which among your dazzling performances, do you consider milestones?
I consider Fire to be my first film as an actor. Before that I did very little film work which didn’t even get released. In the last twentysix years, I have done more than forty feature films in ten different languages. As an actor I got to be part of so many different stories, shot in quaint places in the country that I would have never seen otherwise and met varied people who have enriched my life. I gradually learnt the power of cinema, of story-telling. I have been fortunate to have worked with directors like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Rituporno Ghosh, Mani Ratnam and many others. It is tough to be able single out names, as some are important to me because of the experience of working in them and some because of what the film had to say. Each of them gave me something precious that I took away with me. Much of my better work is in what we call regional films, which are just as Indian as are the Hindi films. At least today we get to see them more thanks to OTT platforms, but the ones I acted in was before there was social media and digital media. So apart from the names that you might know like Fire, Earth, Bawandar, Before the Rains, there were others like, Naalu Pennugal, Deveeri, Kannathil Mutha Mittal, Podokkhep and Amaar Bhuvan, that are important to my journey as an actor. But in these twentysix years, I have also directed three feature films, three shorts, served as the Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, wrote a monthly column for eight years, did a fellowship at Yale, raised a child who is 12 now…so acting has always been one of the many things I did and want to do. But if a great story, director and role, comes to me, I will surely make the time for it.
Tell me about some of your dazzling performances in 1947 Earth, Fire and Bawandar?
How can I say I gave a dazzling performance in a film! It is for the audience to get dazzled or not. Also, not all performances can be termed dazzling and often the adjective has to do with the character one is playing. Immodestly speaking, in Fire I would say it was a more of an instinctive performance or in Bawandar, a powerful one. If I had to choose a character that was dazzling, I would say it was Shanta in 1947 Earth. Her character was both, innocent and sensual. And that combination unfolding through the powerful story to me had some dazzle!
For you, politics has never been far removed from cinema? How do you see the relation between the two in these troubled times?
I think every action is political. Not to do or say anything also reflects your politics. In India we think being political is to side or oppose a political party. To be political simply means, to engage with the issues around us, to have a point of view. I strongly believe that stories have the power to help us explore life’s complexities with their many nuances, in ways social, economic or even news reports cannot. They humanise issues, making them personal and relatable. They help us question our prejudices and biases, they make us feel and think in ways that impact our responses. However, I try to stay away from “educating” or imparting “messages” through my films. I feel, they can at best, hold a mirror to the viewer. I am not interested in pointing fingers at anybody but I am keen on evoking empathy and telling stories about people that are vanishing from our collective consciousness. All three directorial films of mine attempt that. Also my upbringing, my background in social work, all that I learnt through my travel and work experiences would impact the choices I make thereafter.
Tell us about your future plans
Now that I have embraced direction less hesitatingly, I am going to be jumping into another film soon after Zwigato is released. And I am in talks for a few acting and direction projects. There is no dearth of work, but not all of it is good. After all it is one life, so I want to make sure I use my time well on this planet! But over the years, and more so after the pandemic, I have also learnt not to plan too much and be open to surprises and change. We are too insignificant in the larger scheme of things, so best to simply play our part as well as we can to make the world a saner, greener and better place for all.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.
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