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September 12, 2018

Nandita Das On The Relevance Of Manto And Still Being An “Outsider” In Bollywood

Text by Ranjabati Das

The actor-writer-director, whose sophomore directorial outing is set to hit theatres next Friday, talks about why she had sworn off direction after her first experience, and how the works of Manto got her to change her mind.

Somewhere in the course of our exchange, she mentions how art should unnerveus, and how important it is to delve into those feelings instead of living in the protection of our individual ivory towers. Art, after all, imitates life and is expected to hold a mirror to society. “This does not mean that fictional stories are any less significant because ultimately every story somewhere reflects reality,” she says. At another point, she talks, matter-of-factly, about the indie film market, and her need to tell human stories in an age dazzled by technology — one where VFX and great content are often at two opposing ends of the film spectrum. “The appetite for independent films is definitely growing. Yet, I don’t feel very hopeful because ultimately they have to be distributed among the same audience, same pond and the same big sharks.”Her words, spoken simply, stuck with me. That’s Nandita Das for you. Unapologetically honest and meticulous. She is not afraid to tell it like it is, an anomaly in an industry, where the culture is to suppress or gloss over inconvenient truths. It is almost poetic that she has made Manto. For Mantoiyat — “the desire to be outspoken and free-spirited”, which Das believes all of us to have either in “dormant or awakened” form — is something she has displayed in abundance. 

What can you tell us about Manto?

It’s not a typical biopic that covers Manto’s life from cradle to grave. I have only focused on the most tumultuous four years of his life and that of the two cities he inhabited – Bombay and Lahore. The Partition, which had impacted him a great deal and given birth to some of his most powerful writings, falls right in the middle of it. The film showcases Manto’s journey as well as the best of his fiction. It is an intimate retelling of the history of a nation in great turmoil, seen through the eyes of an intensely engaged writer. For Manto, the line between fact and fiction was blurred; and so, in the film too, his narrative is interspersed seamlessly with stories that he wrote. This form will allow the audience to enter his state of mind, both as a person and a writer.

What part of the film-making process do you enjoy the most and why?

I am an actor, director and writer by accident and not by design. Each gives me a different means to express myself. Writing took a long time. It entailed a lot of research and rewrites, and when you are trying to condense four years into a two-hour-long film, it is quite a task. Acting as compared to direction seems like a cakewalk! Directing is challenging and exhausting, as it entails everything – from conceiving the idea (as I also wrote both the films I have made) to its fruition. The shoot has been the most stressful and I am not sure if I can attach the word ‘enjoy’ to it. There have been some highs and lots of lows.

For me, the most interesting aspect was post-production. It is far more peaceful, there are less people involved, and you can tweak and do things at your own pace. I enjoyed editing and sound work. At this stage, you can focus on just that one thing without being distracted by several other factors that usually require management.

But what I truly relish is simultaneously doing several things. As I have always been restless as a person, with a need to do everything at once, this aspect of film-making is what makes it exciting for me.

What about Manto struck a chord and inspired you to make a film about him?

I was introduced to Manto in college and was immediately struck by his simple yet profound narratives and the way he insightfully captured the people, politics and times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. He was irreverent and had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the establishment, often with sharphumour. For years I thought of making a film based on his short stories, even before I made my directorial debut, Firaaq(2008). In 2012 when I delved deeper into his essays, they helped the idea expand beyond his stories but only five years of research later did I feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story that so needed to be told.

On labels like ‘women director’….

When I am directing, I am just a director and my gender identity plays as much or as little a role as any of my other identities. But considering that women are so under-represented and that the female gaze on subjects is so obviously lacking, we do need more women directors. After all we hold up half the sky! The struggle lies between the need for more women directors and getting caged by the label of ‘women directors’. We don’t call men who direct ‘male directors’. Hopefully, there will be a time where it would not be necessary to use such labels.

On ‘women-centric’ cinema….

There should be more women-centric films but that is not the only way to create empathy and understanding towards how women must be represented in films. Even male-centric films, or any story for that matter, should recognise the complexity and depth in a female character. Cinema may not directly create revolutions, but it slips into our subconscious in a very subliminal way. How we view women in movies will somehow find its way into how we see them in our daily lives. This makes representation important.

On ‘offbeat cinema’….

Mainstream movies, even their titles, target the majority. If you want to reach out to many, you cannot be very specific or nuanced, you have got to generalise. The space for ‘alternate’, ‘independent’ or ‘offbeat’ is comparatively much smaller. It is hard for independent films to match the financial bandwidth of mainstream films, and while ideally that should not matter, we know that economics affects art.

Why such a big break in between Firaaq and this film? You have mentioned that you’ve “lived” with Manto for seven years….

The release of Firaaqwas disappointing and I never wanted to make another film. It was made at a time when there was no social media, so one was solely at the mercy of the producers. In the last 10 years, I’ve been busy with a Yale fellowship, my many speaking engagements, writing a monthly column for The Weekand my son. Like all women, I multi-task! Learning to be a mother and growing up with my child has taken up a quite a bit of my time, energy and mind space. As a woman, it is tough in our society to juggle family life and a career. But that is the life of most working mothers. I also wrote, directed and performed a play and was the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society India, which I probably took more seriously than I needed to.

Do you find the Indian film industry to be sexist/ageist?

There are many things that one would like to change in the Indian film industrybut I have always been an outsider here. I don’t know it as intimately as I should if I were to change how things work. But broadly speaking, it is quite hierarchical. Maybe things are becoming more democratic with this new generation. I have seen [male]actors to be at the top of this pyramid and it used to disturb me quite a bit.. It is sexist — but not more than any other sphere in our society. Women are however questioning it. Men are becoming sensitive to it. But the kind of sexism prevalent in the industry is quite subtle, making it more difficult to negotiate through it. There is ageism. More so for women. Thirty is considered our peak after which comes a downhill. Which is ironic, because only after your thirties do you become more insightful and refined,and it’s sad that this is not reflected in our films. In Hollywood, we have seen Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster or Susan Sarandon play significant and layered characters but unfortunately we don’t see enough of that in India.

Whose and what kind of cinema do you admire the most?

In an era that is so dazzled by technology and special effects, how do we tell human stories that matter? My favourites have always been the directors who have told such stories – Ray, Kurosawa and Truffaut are the first few that come to mind. They are all gone, so perhaps among the current lot, I would say Wong Kar-wai or Asghar Farhadi. Some women, like Jane Campion and Agnes Varda, have made their mark. I need to encourage more women to tell their stories.

Biggest challenge overcome and how….

In Manto, the toughest challenge was to find the right locations for Bombay and[old] Lahore amidst the modern-day clutter and on a budget that doesn’t allow the luxury of too many sets and visual effects. And to top it, we couldn’t shoot in Lahore, as initially planned, because of the political relationship between the two countries. So, we had to find Lahore in India. We shot in a village in Gujarat and the first day of the shoot was with 250 villagers who were facing the camera for the first time. They would often innocently look into the camera! Forty-five-degrees-Centigrade heat and a six-year-old child latching on to his director-mother didn’t make things any easier. But the journey of finding such locations was most rewarding, and the locations made the film look and feel that much more authentic.

For an actor, acting in a biopic is supposed to be a rite of passage, a real test…do you agree?

I don’t know if it is a ‘rite of passage’ but it is surely a test. Having quite a Mantoesque father [artist Jatin Das] helped me understand the fear and courage, sensitivity and bluntness, masks and transparency and the other complexities of Manto and I needed a brilliant actor to recreate that. This is where Nawaz came in.

I had him in mind right from the beginning, before he was a star like he is today. I told him about the film in 2013. I was part of the short films jury at Cannes. He was attending the festival for Monsoon Shootout. They say if you get the casting right, 70 per cent of your job is done there itself, and with Nawaz, that’s exactly what happened. I brought my research from books and many gems from Manto’s family, Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent, and together I think we have managed to bring out the many nuances of a character such as Manto. Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto – a deep sensitivity and intensity and also his anger and wit. These innate qualities in Nawaz also helped him transition into Manto on screen quite effortlessly.

How difficult is it to get the freedom and funding to make and release the film you want in India? Do you feel that India has regressed?

We are living in scary times when freedom of expression is being threatened. There are countless examples of censorship accentuated by self-appointed custodians of culture. Even people are self-censoring themselves to avoid trouble. This is what Manto fought against. He was tried for obscenity six times – three times by the British government and three times by the Pakistani government, just because he wrote the unvarnished truth about common people and people who live on the fringes of society, like the sex workers.

Take a film like Padmaavat(2018). I have not seen it but I am aware of the violent backlash it faced. When a movie that glorifies Rajputs gets attacked by self-warranted protectors of Rajputs itself, anything is possible.

Manto, a writer in the ’40s, became a celebrated literary figure 70 years down the line. His story is more relevant today than ever before. I hope this film will be seen as a human struggle against the various shackles he attempted to break in the society.

You have been in touch with the Manto family…how did they help fill in the blanks about Manto? What did your own research entail?

Manto died young, at 42, and very few who had actually met him are alive and very few accounts from memory are available.I remember having long conversations with two people who had had first-hand interaction with Manto. One was his sister-in-law, who is also featured in the film, Zakia Jalal, and the other was Intizar Hussain, a writer who approached Manto for guidance. I have also gotten very close to his family. Despite Manto’s spiralling, excessive indulgence in alcoholism and sudden irresponsibility towards himself and his family, his daughters have very affectionate memories of their father. His sister-in-law now regrets that they never valued him enough when he was alive. All such inputs helped me to see the character, his strengths and follies.

I also studied quite a bit about his wife, Safia, because her role in Manto’s life was beyond significant. I wanted her character to be portrayed with all the dilemmas and complexities of her own identity and the roles she played in her life. Which is why I invested quite some time in understanding the women in this narrative as well.

Any thoughts on your next project as a director/writer/actor? What have you done that you will never do again?

I have already found three scripts that I am quite interested in, to direct, that is. But I don’t think my journey with Manto can end until it comes outtothe world and has travelled around to some extent. But I do look forward to getting back to acting before I move on to my next directorial project. Hopefully, this time, the gap will be shorter! I want my next film to be more contemporary. I don’t think I want to do another period film in a long time.

What do you mean by ‘Mantoiyat’?

It is a term I coined to describe the Manto-ness of a person. It signifies the desire to be unapologetically truthful and honest with oneself and everyone around. Imagine if, for once, we all spoke our minds? It denotes the courage of conviction, the resilience against resistanceand the boldness in accepting or rather flaunting one’s individuality, warts and all. It is the rebelliousness against society’s perpetual attempts to confine our thoughts, reflections, voices and expressions. Mantoiyat stands for such free-spiritedness.

More than 60 years after Manto’s death, we are still grappling with issues of freedom, traumas of displacement and struggles of identity. Our identities are inextricably linked to caste, class, race and religion, as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. For me, making Mantowas not just about telling people about him but to invoke the Mantoiyat – the desire to be outspoken and free-spirited that I believe all of us have, whether dormant or awakened. I think people will see themselves more honestly after watching this film. It will make them uncomfortable enough to want to make a change.

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