In California, actor-filmmaker Nandita Das espouses the importance of strongly believing in issues

Ritu Jha–

Actor, filmmaker, and social justice advocate Nandita Das was in California recently and spoke about feminism and inequality, and was hopeful the new generation would end gender discrimination. She was invited to the 2024 Maitri Gala held March 2 in Palo Alto, CA.

Das, the event’s keynote speaker, has written, directed, produced, and acted in the seven-minute short film ‘Listen to Her’. Played at the gala, the short focuses on two forms of abuse women grappled with during the pandemic lockdown — the overburden of work and a surge in domestic violence.

‘Listen to Her’ shows us how our freedoms and our imprisonments are intertwined in what is a connected and collective human condition. But it also tells a very specific story about the pandemic and its impact on two different women.

“The story is of these two women, of course, all the others are just voices. There was no husband, and there was nobody even when I was shooting, there was nobody on the other side of the phone. I had to imagine everything and shoot it with my two phones,” Das said.

“There’s been a lot of conversation around physical, psychological, and emotional violence, but we never know where to draw that line. Those who work on the issue would tell you that it’s a cross-class of people impacted by psychological violence and it manifests in so many different ways. Sometimes you can’t even pinpoint it, or give it words. And those are sometimes even more difficult to combat because you can’t call it out,” she added.

“Whether we talk about domestic violence, sexual abuse, lack of opportunities and choices, or all forms of inequalities, they exist all around us because we primarily are in a patriarchal society, some places more than the others, some homes more than the others.”

“That’s why women’s empowerment can never really be used in the past tense. We are always in the process of working towards it. I’ve been working on gender for so many years, and I remember when my child was really small, I realized how I was going through the emotions of guilt as a working mother. All the things that I used to tell my friends not to do before I had a child, I was doing them all, and I realized it’s not something that you intellectually can handle. It’s something that you’re so deeply conditioned to see.”

Das said that patriarchy or feminism doesn’t only work on men or only on women. “Just because I’m a woman, it doesn’t automatically mean I’m a feminist,” she said. “You can be a feminist as a man and a young man. There are so many forms of inequalities that exist that the deeper you dig into it, the more layers of it you find.”

Whether rage has made a valuable contribution and fueled feminism was the next topic of discussion. “I grew up glorifying anger, thinking that to be angry against injustice is justified. I’ve been part of many protests. A lot of people feel rage is essential for change. You talk of quiet, compassionate change, and it’s been a journey to understand that you don’t necessarily need to have that rage. It doesn’t mean you are devoid of strength, and conviction. What you really need, I think, is deep conviction. When you are convinced about something, you develop the courage to fight it.”

“Rage polarizes,” she said, “making you defensive against the person you’re fighting. The only way you can disarm them is by being vulnerable yourself. Each of us has a different experience of life. We have had different childhoods.”

Das appeared hopeful that the younger generation would change things. “I see their conversations, their comments, and sometimes my son cannot understand how can a girl and a boy be treated differently. I believe that there should be more women filmmakers and I have embraced the tag of a woman director. Initially, I disliked it and I hated the label. But later I embraced that label because I thought that if I am saying that I want more women filmmakers, then I have to first say that I am a woman filmmaker.”

Das said boys and girls are treated differently even now, and are given different nutrition. “Girls are not going to school as much. There is domestic violence, dowry deaths, and female feticide. And all of that just seems shocking to the younger generation. And I think that’s where I have hope that things are changing, the public perception is changing.”

She added that we all need to be each other’s allies. “When I did Fire (a 1996 movie starring Das and Shabana Azmi about two women caught in loveless marriages) and I continued talking about LGBTQ issues. At that time this vocabulary didn’t even exist in India. And people would ask me whether I am lesbian, and why am I supporting it? And I couldn’t understand that. Do you have to be part of the community to feel strongly about the injustice, the inequality that exists in perceptions, behavior, and acceptance?”

She said she has tried to do things she believes in, and it’s always a struggle because people assume that there are things that you do for money, and then there are things that you do for your heart, “but you feel that it’s one life, and I have to live with myself more than anybody else has to.”

Das said, “I need to do things that I truly believe in. The things that you truly believe in have far few takers, it is a struggle. There are people constantly telling you how not to be yourself, how it’s a more pragmatic way of living, how it’s a better strategy. If this film didn’t get seen anywhere, it’s fine. This film is documented for life. Time is the only judge of art. If today it’s not being seen, it doesn’t matter. That story, if you thought was important to be part of or to be told, then you should do it.”

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