There’s hypocrisy in our showbiz: Nandana Sen
Bollywood actor Nandana Sen was recently in the city to take part in a summit for child survival and development. She got chatting to TOI about her contribution to this cause, her bold roles on-screen and her family.
How did you become a child right activist?
My work in child protection has always been integral to my life. I worked with street kids in Kolkata when I was still (legally) a child; at Harvard, I started working with women and children who were survivors of domestic abuse; and in Bombay, I got actively involved with UNICEF’s adolescent empowerment programs. For years I’ve been working closely with RAHI (the first Indian organization to break the silence about Child Sexual Abuse) and the global cleft-care NGO Operation Smile. I am also involved with RENEW of Bhutan and with NCPCR (in the fight to stop Child Trafficking, and as Jury in Public Hearings about the RTE Act, etc.). The truth is, I can’t remember a time when I was not actively working for child rights.
“Contribution” sounds too grand; the issue is accountability. Ensuring child survival and development are not charitable acts but every citizen’s responsibility. Through RAHI, Operation Smile, and NCPCR, I focus on protecting a child’s immediate as well as long-term wellbeing, by working with survivors of child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and child trafficking. My work is hands-on, and takes me to children’s homes run by NGOs or the state (e.g. Sneha or Kishalay), to the trafficking hinterland in Bengal, and to Public Hearings, as Jury. It is heartbreaking but critical to directly connect with the reality of these children.
What role do you think the film industry can play here?
Both as an actor and as audience, I am particularly drawn to films because I believe they can change the way we look at the world. From the start of my career, I’ve combined my commitment to child rights with my acting work whenever possible. I have absolute faith in the transformative power of cinema, but I must say that currently, very few filmmakers in India are fully utilizing its great potential to protect children’s rights.
You have played bold roles on-screen and been criticized for it.
Choosing to be an artist means you’re opening yourself up to applause as well as censure and my “bold” choices have drawn plenty of both – I have no quarrels with that. That said, there is certainly a hypocrisy in our show-biz, which ingloriously commodifies female bodies in a way I’ll never agree to, as it would dehumanize me. But my body is as much a part of my humanity as my brain, my morals, and my heart, and I am not apologetic about expressing it with the dignity it deserves. Personally, I love scripts that are emotional yet totally unique, and characters that are absolutely real and not stereotypes – not perfect nor “safe”, but intense, human and believable, yet unpredictable. Because that’s how most of us are. Human nature is not tame, and cinema is inherently a “bold” medium – the combination can be too close to home for many, no doubt.
Your dad is a Nobel Laureate and your mom a Padma Shri. Do you ever find this daunting? Is there pressure on you to excel?
(Laughs) The standards I hold myself to – personally, ethically, professionally – are already ludicrously high. That said, I must say I’m naturally not prone to “performance pressure.” At Harvard I won multiple prizes for topping my class every year, got elected early into Phi Beta Kappa etc., but that was a much bigger deal to my parents than me. Although I’m very focused when I work, and obsess about making every performance alive and note-perfect, I’m not competitive by nature. Never have been. I am not the personality type to feel either daunted or complacent.
You seem to be someone who lives life on her own terms.
Yes, I do live life on my “own terms,” which are rather simple: to make the people I love happy, keep challenging myself professionally, and help give the children of the world a safe, healthy, happy life. If I continue to achieve these goals all my life, I’d feel very fulfilled.