Nandita Das is one of those underrated gems in the film industry who has portrayed complex characters throughout her filmography. She began her acting career in theatre before debuting in films in the 90s. Portraying a diverse range of characters in over 40 feature films in ten different languages, Nandita has gifted us with some unforgettable characters in Indian cinema. On her 53rd birthday, here is our best pick of five me characters played by the actress.
Sita in Fire (1996)
Directed by Deepa Mehta, Fire is considered the first mainstream Bollywood film to feature a lesbian relationship. Nandita Das plays the role of Sita, a young woman who has been recently married to a man called Jatin. Soon, Sita finds that Jatin had only married her to put an end to his brother’s nagging to set him up in an arranged marriage – Jatin has no feelings for her and continues to date another girl. Sita finds solace in her sister-in-law Radha (Shabana Azmi) and gradually falls in love with her. But unlike Radha, Sita refuses to accept her fate quietly and tries to break free of the situation.
Shanta in Earth (1998)
Earth is set in Lahore during the pre-Partition age. Nandita plays the role of Shanta, who is the caregiver of a young Parsi girl with polio called Lenny. The local "Ice Candy Man" Dil Nawaz (Aamir Khan) and the Muslim masseur Hasan are her friends. The three friends often meet up in the park to chat but their conversations often turn political. When Partition ensues, the dynamics among the group of friends change in a way they had never imagined.
Sanwari in Bawandar (2000)
Inspired by the real-life incident of Bhanwari Devi, Bawandar narrates the story of Sanwari, a lower-caste woman who was appointed as a grassroots worker in the Women's Development Project run by the state government. When Sanwari stops a child marriage at an upper caste household, five men from the household decide to teach her a lesson and rape her. But the fiercely unapologetic and courageous Sanwari refuses to accept her fate. She decides to fight back against these odds, giving rise to a huge protest movement. Nandita’s portrayal of Bhanwari earned her the Best Actress award at the Santa Monica Film Festival.
Mallika in Shubho Mahurat (2003)
Based on Agatha Christie's detective novel, The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, this Bengali detective mystery film is directed by Rituparno Ghosh. Nandita plays the character of Mallika Sen, a young journalist who gets in the middle of a murder mystery. The actress’ natural portrayal of the unassuming, innocent, and chirpy woman earned her critical acclaim.
Chandi in Maati Maay (2007)
This critically-acclaimed Marathi social drama is themed around the superstitions of a patriarchal society. Nandita plays the role of Chandi, a lower-caste woman whose family is traditionally responsible for the children's graveyard in the village. Her father’s death causes her to inherit the task of burying the village’s children, which affects her mentally and physically. Nandita’s subtle portrayal of a young woman, who was stifled with her work and trying to rise above societal constrictions, earned her the Best Actress title at the Maharashtra State Film Awards in 2007.