Nandita Das and husband bring own marital conflicts on stage

Nandita Das, who co-wrote Between The Lines, will direct and act in it.
Nandita Das, who co-wrote Between The Lines, will direct and act in it. PHOTO: REUTERS

Between The Lines is Nandita Das' stage debut as a director and actress. It also marks her entrepreneur husband Subodh Maskara's acting debut.

She has never doubted his "natural flair for performance", but adds: "The bigger worry was how does a real-life husband work as an on-stage husband. Many of our own arguments and discussions found their way into the script."

They play husband-and-wife lawyers whose relationship is severely tested when they end up on different sides of a complex legal case.

In real life, the couple have been married for over five years. He is founder and chief executive of Chhoti Production Company, which produced the play.

Maskara, 48, says in a joint e-mail interview with Das that he got over his initial apprehension at rehearsals.

He says: "I realised that acting is more challenging than any business I have done. It does not matter who you know or what you have achieved. On stage, the audience expects a compelling performance."

Das, 47, says Between The Lines, which opened this year to good reviews in India, works because "it is not about big things".

The play, which she co-wrote with fellow actress Divya Jagdale, is set in urban India, where affluent, well-educated couples often find themselves caught between modernity and tradition.

It will be staged at the Drama Centre on Aug 27.

Das, who is based in Mumbai, says: "I have worked on women's issues and I'm intrigued by the subtle gender inequalities in the affluent class. I wanted to explore the relationship between couples who perceive themselves as being very 'equal'."

The play took shape three years ago when the couple's only son, Vihaan, was under two years old. She was juggling different things, including advocacy work on social justice and writing a magazine column.

Das has acted in films such as Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996), where she played a closet lesbian, and Bawandar (Sandstorm, 2000), which was inspired by the real-life story of Bhanwari Devi, a social activist who was gang-raped in her village for trying to stop a child marriage.

She worked on Between The Lines as she wanted to channel creatively her own frustrations about balancing work and motherhood.

She says: "The trigger was my own life, but the line between reality and fiction has blurred as other real- life stories found their way into the script.

"I decided to direct the play because I wanted to make it soul-stirring, yet not preachy and witty, yet not frivolous."

Das, who has a master's degree in social work, is deeply concerned about social justice. She has worked for non-governmental organisations which help educate children from under-privileged homes and has taught at the Rishi Valley School, started by Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti.

Her award-winning film directorial debut, Firaaq (2008, Urdu for Separation And Quest), was set in the aftermath of the 2002 riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat which killed 3,000 Muslims. It won three awards, including Best Film, at the Asian Festival Of First Films here last month.

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    Where: Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3, National Library

    When: Aug 27, 7.30pm

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However, she does not always set out to cover "provocative issues". She says: "I am more interested in tracing the emotional journeys of ordinary people. Often, issues that crop up between couples are not big, but small things. Patriarchy in society is so deeply ingrained that we do not realise how conditioned we are to play our respective roles. Between The Lines is about those unsaid things that pile up in a relationship that need to be addressed."

The daughter of Indian painter Jatin Das and writer Varsha Das, she began her acting career with a street theatre group called Jana Natya Manch in New Delhi.

Her upbringing did not expose her to mainstream Hindi films. "That has had an important impact on my life as an actress. If I have not gone after commercial films, it is not because I look down on them. It is because I have never been part of them and I just do not understand that world," she says.

She has been credited with celebrating Indian traditions by putting sarees centre stage. She wears only simple, elegant weaves for both her national and international appearances.

On her love for sarees, she says: "I find them most elegant and dignified. I love wearing them on any occasion I can. I'm accused of wearing the same old sarees, but each one is unique in its weave, maybe even more so than the gowns that compete for attention on the red carpet."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Couple bring own marital conflict on stage'. Subscribe