Art & Entertainment

Kapil Sharma And I Come From Different Worlds: Nandita Das

Ahead of her film, Zwigato’s release, Nandita talks about her journey as an actor-director and, of course, Kapil Sharma.

Kapil Sharma And Nandita Das
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After making her mark as an accomplished actress, Nandita Das wielded the megaphone to become an equally competent director. One of the few actors to have worked with legendary filmmakers, from Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam and Adoor Gopalakrishnan and shared screen space with actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Soumitra Chatterjee, Mammootty, Sanjay Dutt and Aamir Khan, Nandita is known for her offbeat, meaningful films.

Now, her next directorial venture, Zwigato, starring popular comedy star Kapil Sharma in the lead role, is set to hit the screen. Ahead of her film’s release on March 17, Nandita talks to Giridhar Jha about her new film, her journey as an actor-director and, of course, Kapil Sharma. Excerpts from the interview:

Zwigato is creating a lot of buzz and has already received a lot of attention at international film festivals. As its creator, any butterflies in the stomach ahead of its release?

I’ve always been more invested in the journey than the outcome but when you direct a film you have to be invested in it too. Though I define that as the film that emerges through all our effort rather than the response to it. Each one will take something different from it, but so far, I have to say the response has been amazing. I was extremely happy that we started our Zwigato journey at TIFF. It means a lot to me personally, as I debuted at TIFF both as an actor and director, with Fire (1996) and Firaaq (2008), respectively. And then it was our Asian premiere at Busan International Film Festival and finally the Indian premiere at the International Film Festival of Kerala. 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 festival attracts. I make films because I itch to say something, so the more people it reaches, the happier I am. Of course, I am happy. But I am looking forward to the release of the film. Excited with some butterflies!

This film is based on the life of a food delivery boy who loses his job during the Covid pandemic. When did this idea to make a film on this subject strike you?

It started with a chat with a publisher friend Samir Patil about the growing unemployment and the complexity of gig work. 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. We then began writing a short film about a day in the life of a delivery rider. Then Sameer (Nair), CEO of Applause Entertainment, who was to produce it, nudged me to expand it for a feature film. 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 those who are just a cog in the wheel. The film is about many small things that are hidden in plain sight. Very few films are made these days about urban workers that have become an inevitable part of our world. Zwigato is a story about the relentlessness of life, but not without its silver linings.

The biggest surprise is the hero of the film, Kapil Sharma, the famous stand-up comic. It is sort of an image-shattering role for him. Why did you pick him up for this role? And did he readily accept your offer?

I had not seen a single show of his, since I have not had a television for the last six-seven years. But while I was casting, a clip of Kapil and Karan Johar at an awards ceremony popped up. He looked so natural, uninhibited, candid and had an effortless connection with people. It felt real and true. Then I watched a few clips from his shows and I thought he would fit the character perfectly. 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 the film. But he promptly responded. And in our first meeting itself, we both knew that we wanted to work with each other. Then we had many interactions and rehearsals and we knew we were onto doing something refreshingly surprising.

You and Kapil Sharma are on opposite extremes as creative collaborators. Nandita Das is known for making intense movies, Kapil Sharma is known for laugh-a-minute gigs. Isn’t it?

We all have preconceived notions and come with the baggage of labelling based on the little knowledge we have about people. We come from such different worlds, had it not been for Zwigato, we both would have probably died without ever meeting each other! In fact, when I met Kapil, he said, how did you even think of me? Nobody would come to me with such a script and such a character. To my surprise, he had seen Firaaq and Manto. And we soon realised we had so many things that we could talk about even though our life experiences and the kind of work we do are so different. I think this combination will give audiences something special, though in a very slice of life way. There is situational humour but just as there are other emotions. It is life-like where many different human emotions co-exist. I think it is important that people view films with an open mind as only then they will see what is intended.

It was a big change for Kapil in every possible way. In Toronto, it was refreshing to see how some of his audiences came expecting him to do comedy, slowly got sucked into the world of the film and even forgot it was Kapil. They came out feeling moved and impacted by what the film was trying to say.

And how did you find him as an actor, once the film went on the floors? Was he a kind of revelation for you?

Not many know, but he had done serious theatre before he got into television. He in fact took us to Naatshala in Amritsar where his journey started as an actor and introduced us to his mentor. He is extremely rooted and has an emotional approach to things which keeps his vulnerabilities intact. And this really helps an actor. He also completely submitted to the process and was a delight to work with. Having said this, I would not have cast him had I not been convinced of his ability to get into the skin of the character.

As a director, how different is Zwigato from your previous films, Firaaq and Manto?

I like to tell stories that reflect my inner concerns and that I feel are relevant to our times. While Firaaq and Manto can be labelled as being ‘historical’, my reasons for doing them were the same. They spoke of our modern times as much as they did of the times they were set in. In Zwigato, I realised how much of the particular and peculiar about our current moment can be revealed by simply following four days in the life of a food delivery person. This is only my third feature, and I hope to tell many stories, each different from the other, and true to its context. But at the core, the concerns continue to remain the same. And Zwigato is no different.

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You made your directorial debut with Firaaq but it took almost a decade to make your next, Manto? What took you so long?

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. Also, I have done many other things in between the films in the 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.

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How do you look back at Manto? Are you happy with the response it got from the critics and the audiences?

Manto was a very special film for me. I spent more than six years with it and it continues to be rewarding as everywhere that I go, I meet people who are deeply impacted by it and carry it with them. For me, Manto was not just a film about a writer or the person, but it was as much a celebration of 'Mantoiyat', and by that, I mean the will to be more honest, courageous and free-spirited. And I do feel that is what the audience took from it.

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People are now using Manto in classrooms when they teach Partition or literature. It is not about numbers but the way people engage with the film. Anyway, once it is on the OTT, it is difficult to know the numbers. All you know is that the platform allows it to have a much longer shelf life. I always believe that time is the only true test of any work of art. So only time will say whether Manto fits that bill or not.

More than 25 years have passed since you did Deepa Mehta’s Fire, which kicked up a storm over the same-sex relationship. But now, more and more films on LGBTQ are being made without any fuss today? Looking back at the Fire controversy, how do you think Bollywood and the Indian audiences have evolved in this respect?

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We all knew that Fire would be controversial and would raise many eyebrows. The initial reactions ranged from applauding it as a bold film to calling it dangerous as some feared that the film would make all the women lesbians. And of course, everything in between. The censor board passed a landmark decision, one without a single cut. I am not sure this would happen today, as we have also regressed in some ways. While there have been some films on LGBTQIA+, some have trivilised the issue, some mocked it and some have brought out powerful and nuanced stories, but there are not as many as there should have been. Sadly, since Fire, there have been so few films that have represented characters from the community in a sensitive manner, reflecting the reality. One can literally count them on one’s fingers. But the awareness has grown considerably and I hope that will be more reflected in films.

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You were once part of a campaign against the discrimination and prejudices meted out to the artistes on the basis of their skin colour. Has Hindi cinema given up such prejudices now, especially while casting someone for a big-budget commercial film?

Mainstream cinema, by its very definition, wants to appeal to the maximum number of people and if the society itself is deeply biased towards fair skin, then obviously all its reflections will have the same bias. But films, web series, ads, hoardings, magazines, etc can play an important role challenging the stereotypes of what defines beauty and bring in the diversity that exists in the society.

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In Bollywood, most times if you are dark then you are right for the role of a village woman, slum dweller, etc but an urban affluent character is most often a fair-faced person, especially if it is a woman.

Each one has a responsibility, individually and collectively to play their part in bringing a more just world. No one can pass judgment, and tell the other what to do or not. But one hopes that each of us will have a social conscience that will guide us to act more responsibly and sensitively. Those in the public domain have a large circle of influence and we can’t undermine the impact it has on people.

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You did movies with stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Sanjay Dutt, et al in the past but you chose to give it all up to make films on subjects close to your heart? What prompted you to do that?

They are all such amazing and eminent actors and I feel fortunate to have worked with a whole range of them. Other than the more popular Hindi film actors, there are also stalwarts in the regional films, like Saumitra Chatterjee and Mammootty that I have had the opportunity to work with. But I don’t choose films on the basis of my co-actors or the language the film is in. For me, it is the script and the director and then the role that instinctively draws me to the project or not.

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You have worked the best auteurs of Indian cinema in different languages, from Shyam Benegal and Mani Ratnam to Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Deepa Mehta and so on. Did their work influence you to become a filmmaker?

It is true that I have worked with many acclaimed directors like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Mani Ratnam, Deepa Mehta and Adoor, whom I have grown up admiring. On every set, I have learnt something or the other but most of it is subconscious. But the biggest lesson that I have learnt from everyone is that there are no rules in filmmaking. I think the only way one can do anything original is to internalise various influences in art and life and truly make it your own. Also, an actor is only privy to the shoot whereas as a director, much of your work is before and after that. What has helped me the most to tell stories I want to tell are having varied life experiences, meeting a wide range of people and understanding their varied predicaments.

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Is Bollywood offering bigger space to the artistes from parallel cinema these days? Is the advent of OTT responsible for that?

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. Its reach is beyond language, region and space.

However, Independent films are challenging to make everywhere in the world but the real roadblock remains finding good partners to market and distribute such films. Economics often interferes with art, which often poses challenges for Independent cinema. And therefore, now, there is really no parallel cinema.

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Do the so-called small films get the number of screens at the multiplexes that they deserve today?

It is tough to define who deserves what? Every good film deserves the widest audience. But what may be good for me may not be for someone else. So, we should not be blind to the commercial aspects of it as that too is important for producers investing in films. Only when all parties involved.... filmmakers, producers, distributors, theatre owners and audiences want independent films will things change. It is a pity how a powerful form of creative expression often gets reduced to mere economics. I hope that multiplexes will someday give more space to independent films. Thankfully, OTT is now democratising the process and giving more space to less known directors, actors and what we call regional films.

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What next after Zwigato, both as an actor and director?

Now that I have embraced direction less hesitatingly, I am going to be jumping into another film soon after Zwigato is released. I have slowly begun working on a new project. But it is in its very early research stage. I will dive into it only after baby Zwigato is delivered to the audiences. I am certainly not opposed to acting but probably have become even more choosy. There is no dearth of work, but not all of it is good. I am very open to acting if something fascinating falls into my lap. But I am not actively seeking it. 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.

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