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'It is human psyche to want what you don't have'

Last updated on: June 29, 2010 15:43 IST

Image: Nandita Das
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

In the first part of the interview with Prasanna Zore, actor, filmmaker Nandita Das, spoke about the rural-urban divide amongst India's youth, their aspirations and their dreams, as well as their struggles and challenges in the 21st century.

In this concluding part, Nandita speaks about the portrayal of women as objects of desire, live-in relationships and the increasing awareness of sexuality among Indian youth. Of course, all without being judgmental.

Women are portrayed as sex objects in most advertisements, movies etc. Why is this happening? Do you think India's youth want to see more skin in ads, television, movies, the Internet etc?

It seems like that. What I am saying is not in isolation. We are all part of the same society. Again it is not a black and white thing.

It is not about just showing or seeing skin. There was a time when wearing tight jeans was considered a terrible thing for a woman to do. How can a woman wear a man's clothes?

Time is the real test as society progresses and changes its outlook towards things with time. Like wearing saris in our culture where your bellybutton shows, your midriff shows is not considered vulgar. This is something we have all grown up with. We don't see women wearing saris as vulgar. In fact saris are one of the most dignified and beautiful attires in the world.

But somebody from the West might say oh God you are showing your midriff! For us wearing skirts may be vulgar. For them (the West) showing legs is not.

That apart I think what is happening in ads is not just about the skin. It is about the regressive image in which women are portrayed. You may be fully clothed, wearing saris but just the fact that you are constantly washing clothes somewhere reinforces the stereotypical role of the women in Indian society. You are a working woman, but you have to come back huffing-puffing to cook meals and wash clothes. And the man is sitting on the sofa, reading the paper or watching a cricket match.

This may seem harmless but it keeps reinforcing the roles set for men and women. For instance, the craze for fairness cream is absurd. When I go to a shop they often try to sell me fairness cream saying "madam, isse tan nikhar jayega (madam, you will become fairer using this cream)," and I have to tell them that I am born with this tan and I will not do anything about it because I like who I am and how I look.

When I go to a lot of colleges the youth ask me how can you feel so confident despite your dark skin. So many women suffer because they feel they are not good enough to be confident if they have dark skin. All the beauty magazines are there to make you feel ugly.

I think all such trends are detrimental and it is up to all of us to not demand such things.

What explains this obsession with fair skin?

I think it is human psyche to always want what you don't have. It's got to do a little bit with our colonial past as well. The whites ruled us for 200 years, and everything from the Aryan culture to the upper class people were portrayed as being fairer than lower class. It is a very deep, deep conditioning. I have seen people defining beauty with being fair.

Women too will have to work to change such attitudes and liberate themselves. I can't go and tell the models why are you doing this and that. It is a personal choice we all have to make.

The West is coming to the East in search of spiritualism but we seem to be moving towards the West.

'Sexuality is different from being voyeuristic or being attracted to vulgarity'

Image: Nandita Das
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

The trend of pre-marital sex, one-night stand is becoming popular with India's youth (Nandita interrupts and corrects to say: urban Indian youth). What explains this change in sexual mores of the youth?

I think you are mixing too many things.

There is more yoga in Los Angeles than there is in Mumbai. That again, as I said earlier, is human psyche. You want what you don't have. The West has already gone through the cycle of too much of materialism, consumerism, liberalisation. But despite having plenty of everything they are attracted to something else because they feel they are empty within.

Whereas we still haven't reached there and think it okay to feel that all those things are going to make me happy. That is what all ads are saying, movies are saying, newspapers are saying. But I wish we learn through their (the West) mistakes and not go through the same cycle that they have been through.

I don't want to give a generalised statement about one-night stands and live-in relationships. Everybody wants quick gratification whatever that feeling may be but I don't want to be judgmental.

Live-in relationship is something more than just promiscuity. Just because live-in couples are not married does not mean that they are not committed enough to each other. Somebody can be married and yet not be in a deep, committed relationship.

As long as there is honesty in any kind of relationship it will always be healthier. If there is genuine honesty and commitment then I don't judge live-in relationship.

Should prostitution be legalised in India?

Prostitution again is a very tricky thing. It is one of those open secrets that is technically not legal but everybody knows about it.

When you legalise something like that which some of the countries have done, they have seen -- whatever little I know; I don't know much about it -- that the health of sex workers has been taken care of, HIV numbers have decreased.

Every city has a red light area which everybody knows about, but are in denial. I think legalising it (prostitution) would be like bringing it above board.

Are Indian youth comfortable with their sexuality?

Well, again there is no one youth. I am sure there are some who are comfortable and some who are not. But sexuality is different from being voyeuristic or being attracted to vulgarity. Sexuality is something that one should openly discuss.

Like with my film Fire. 14 years ago we were far more scared to use words like homosexuality and lesbians. 14 years later there is much more ease with which people talk about it. The repealing of Article 377 (that deals with criminalising homosexuality) by the Delhi High Court is a step towards a more progressive society.

I think when you don't know about something you fear the unknown. When you have lack of information you make up your own prejudices and become judgmental. But the more people talk openly, discuss and debate such things in the public domain the more clarity you get. You realise that sexuality is also such a personal decision.

What has brought about these comfort levels in the Indian society in the last 14 years?

There is a natural growth of any society and one of the few good things about globalisation in India is that we are getting exposed to a lot of good ideas.

What would you advice India's youth to go for? Jobs or entrepreneurship?

But there should be all kinds. Why should there be just this or that? You need some people to work in companies, you need some people to become entrepreneurs, and you need some creative people.

There are so many career options and professions that exist but we tell the youth that there are just five professions that are the most important. We tell the urban youth that the five things are MBA, CA, Engineering, modelling etc. We limit their imagination, we limit their scope of options that they could explore.

What's your advice to India's youth?

I may not be a sage to give advice (laughs) but I think I can ask them to follow their dreams. But make sure that you dream wisely. It's juts not enough to follow your heart if your heart is in the wrong direction.

Also do social work because by doing it you are not helping others but yourself. When you take certain responsibilities or engage with a larger reality you are polishing your own self, honing your own skills. You are making your own life meaningful and purposeful. And the minute you find that meaning, you are a happier person.

All of us at some level are in pursuit of happiness. We employ different means and methods to achieve it. But you can achieve happiness only if you do things with conviction.