Ritu Jha –
Nandita Das is in the San Francisco Bay Area to be honored with the Maverick Spirit Award for her personal and artistic achievements on March 5 at the 29th Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival.
Das who has acted in about 40 films, is the director and screenwriter of the film, Manto, a biopic of the Urdu writer and activist Saadat Hasan Manto. It will be the opening film of the festival on March 5.
In an interview with indica, Das discussed why she picked the subject and the role Indian women directors play in changing the industry.
Das said she read his( Manto) stories in college and has been struck by their complexity. She described ‘Manto’ as a human story that explores the struggle of a very sensitive man and a controversial writer. Many of the issues that Manto grappled with, such as identity, freedom of expression and where one really belongs, exist even now, and everywhere in the world, she said.
Given who Manto was, how do you feel the American media will react to the film? What about American audiences?
People are innately the same. We all struggle to be ourselves and get inspired by those who are more honest, courageous and free-spirited. Manto is inspirational but I have shown him with all his warts and blemishes and have not put him on a pedestal. His contradictions are not so different from ours. It is a human story that explores the struggle of a very sensitive man and a controversial writer. The reaction to the film across continents, from Cannes to Sydney and Toronto to Busan, has only strengthened my belief that when a film is true to its context and honest in its intent, it transcends boundaries and touches the hearts and mind of people anywhere in the world. Many of the issues that Manto grappled with, such as, identities, freedom of expression and where does one really belong, exist even now, and everywhere in the world.
While researching him, what were the defining aspects of Manto – a tortured activist, a writer, or an orthodox Muslim who ultimately decided succor lay in Pakistan?
He was first a deeply sensitive and empathetic human being and then a writer. His compulsion, to tell the truth, was often in direct conflict with his role of being a good son, husband and father. He was too much of a rebel to fit into any one box. Manto was definitely not religious. In fact, he was irreverent towards both God and the mullahs and stood up against all kinds of orthodoxy. He never perceived himself to be an activist. He would say, “I have as much to do with politics, as Gandhi has to do with films!” He is seen as a political writer and not just because he wrote the satirical pieces called, “Letters to Uncle Sam”. He was deeply engaged in issues that concerned people, especially those who lived in the margins of society. The film explores the reasons why Manto left Bombay, a city he loved. It was a decision that haunted him probably till his very end.
As a screenwriter what challenges did you face when trying to draw out the character of Manto in the film? Do you know – or had to learn – Urdu?
Manto wrote exclusively in Urdu and some of his lesser-known works were not available, even in Devanagari. Also, as I was not fluent in the language and needed help to understand the nuances and intricacies of the words I was unfamiliar with. I took the help of many but I knew if I didn’t write it, I would not be able to direct the film. For the first couple of drafts, Mir Ali Hussain, a writer/academician, co-wrote with me, but ended up being more of a consultant as the drafts kept changing and evolving. In the six years I worked on the film, my Urdu has surely improved!
Manto was prolific but to flesh out a character I needed more research. And the 15 odd photographs were not enough to recreate a complete person. I needed to know how he sat, spoke, walked, behaved – with his wife, children, friends, critics. It is often the little trivia that make the character more real. I met many of his contemporaries but most regretted that their paths never crossed even though they came so close, as he died so young.
But his sister-in-law, Zakia Jalal, who also features in the film gave some important insights when she shared many anecdotes with Manto. I feel fortunate that his daughters and his grand-niece, the eminent historian Ayesha Jalal, were all forthcoming and supportive. Ayesha’s book on Manto and Partition, and the one she wrote on Manto’s centenary along with his youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal, are some of my most treasured gifts. Manto, the husband, the father, the friend, the foe – these relationships I could only understand through the important nuggets the family shared with me. I could not have found them in any book.
Why did you pick Manto other than so many great writers? Does it have something primarily to with the issues he addressed or his experiences? Also, why in particular the years 1946 to 1950, the years straddling the partition? Do you see some reason that still needs to be told to the next generation?
My journey with Manto did not start with me looking for a story, let alone for a figure to bring to the screen. I had read Manto’s stories during college, but was introduced to his essays, giving me a glimpse into the man behind the writings, only in 2012, around his centenary celebration. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives and felt a deep connection with him. I felt by telling his story I could respond to much of what is happening around us. We are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Almost 70 years later, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class, race and religion, as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. I felt his story would mirror our fears and prejudices and force us to look at our own selves more honestly.
When I began writing the script, it was a 10-year story – from 1942 to 52. But his life was so eventful that I had to keep narrowing it and it finally ended up being a story spanning only four years. 1946- 50 were the most tumultuous years in the life of Manto and the two countries he inhabited – India and Pakistan. The Partition in 1947 played a very defining role in Manto’s life as it did for many at the time. His days in Bombay and the move to Lahore captured a lot of what I wanted to deal with in the film.
You are known for adopting and experimenting with bold characters, focusing on socially conscious issues. Do you ever feel you could – or should – have tried something more conventional? Something perhaps like Robert Redford, who used his mainstream cinema roles to fund his Sundance Film Festival, which drives cutting-edge independent cinema?
As they say, each one to their own! I cannot think like someone else and so have chosen the form to tell my stories in the way I relate to. Many, in the last 22 years, have asked me as to why I don’t do mainstream cinema, both as an actor and director. I did not grow up watching mainstream films and so, organically, it wasn’t the one I adopted. Maybe by making it more commercial or conventional, it would reach more people, but I would have to be dishonest with myself to do that. For me the means have to be commensurate with the end. If popularity would be the main benchmark then no documentaries would ever be made and that would be such a loss to the world of stories and diverse realities that need be documented.
In the past decades, we have seen Indian women directors’ work on issue-based films, even if there are not as many as they could be. What do you think about some of them making mainstream Hindi films? Like, say, Patty Jenkins did here with Wonder Woman.
Different artists have different voices, like they must, for a vibrant and diverse creative environment to exist. Why should ‘women directors’ be expected to do films only of a certain kind? Why can’t they explore various genres, just as male directors do? Some Indian women directors, like Farah Khan and Zoya Akhtar, have made big-budget mainstream films that have been hugely successful. Also, women are not a homogeneous category and we need to express ourselves in the way we want.
I am often asked why do I do films that have a sociopolitical context, which is primarily expected of male directors. Why do I not do women-centric films? I feel it is equally important to ensure that representation of women reflects the diverse reality. Women think and are also impacted by many different things, so it’s only fair that their art reflects that range.