Actor-director Nandita Das has already received much acclaim for her biopic on the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto and the film is no less than a metaphor of our times. This was the only Indian film which was chosen at the Cannes festival earlier this year. Merging Manto’s life and stories in the film, Nandita Das has beautifully portrayed the life of a struggling artist who stands for what he believes. She has also discussed censorship, freedom of expression, and the madness in the wake of India's partition without glorifying him as a hero.
Here is an excerpt from a conversation with Nandita Das at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK).
What was the kind of evolution from your directorial debut ‘Firaaq’ to Manto?
'Firaaq' happened in pre-social media time and things have changed a lot now. Everything in my life has happened by default and not by design. Acting was never a vision or a dream. I later realised that I was being called to address various issues I was passionate about. I understood I can be part of many stories and 'Firaaq' (2009) happened. It was in 2012 during Manto's centenary celebration that I actually started understanding him deeply. Manto in the 1940s spoke about the same issues we all are now grappling with. When I started reading his work which discussed the issues of identity, freedom of expression and overcoming the identities of religion, I realised that these are relevant even today. His own stories were as interesting as his stories. So I weaved some of his stories into the film. And another interesting fact was that the only film made on a writer was written by Manto – 'Mirza Ghalib'. We don’t celebrate our artists, writers, and musicians through films. We have more films on underworld dons than there are about artists.
How challenging was it to make 'Manto'?
If I had chosen a script, this wouldn’t have been one. But this took over my mind and heart so much that I just started working on it without realising the challenges that were going to come. The first challenge was to write it. My first draft was a 10-year story from 1942-52. Most people didn’t know who Manto was. So I had to explain it. The second challenge was to raise funds. Location recce was the third challenge. But somehow the passion made me do the film. But the biggest challenge was marketing and distribution. The film is on Netflix now and people are sharing their thoughts about it. I wanted the movie to trigger a conversation.
How did you deal with issues like religious bigotry, hatred, obscenity, censorship in the movie 'Manto'?
Manto wasn’t made only to introduce him as a writer but to be able to respond to what is going on today. When you talk about something in the history, it allows you to process it more emotionally. Censorship has taken different forms and it has always been there. Art gets into one’s subconscious and that is why orthodox and conservatives are threatened by it. Art impacts the way we think. That is why it was important to take refuge in history and make the audience see the parallel naturally.
What is 'Mantoyat' according to you?
'Mantoyat' or Mantoness' is the will to be more honest and courageous. If we have conviction, courage will follow. That’s what Manto always had.
What is your take on Women in Cinema Collective (WCC)?
It is amazing to see people raising their voice. It is a very courageous stand that some women have taken. It is not a man versus woman fight. We are fighting patriarchy and not the men. If men become part of it, it would change things for the better. But the feminist movement is also at fault at some level. Lot has happened with women and they have started asking questions, but the men haven’t. If we both can question and share ideas things will fall into place.
How do you manage to take political and aesthetic elements together in your films?
There are many people doing amazing work with deep conviction even while facing far more difficult challenges than I have ever faced. I think art is not an end in itself. Art that has a social conscience excites me. It has to make us think.
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