Exclusive! Nandita Das on Manto, love and freedom of expression
The life story of Saadat Hasan Manto, the playwright and author known for his incendiary writing in British India, forms the basis of the new directorial venture by Nandita Das, titled Manto. In discussions leading up to its release, Nandita has dedicated the film to youngsters, and in particular, the ‘Facebook generation’. Weaving together a narrative around five of Manto’s stories, the film stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead role, with Rasika Dugal as his wife Safiyah, as well as Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta, Paresh Rawal and Rishi Kapoor, while Rajshri Deshpande plays the writer Ismat Chughtai. One of the stories strung into the film is Toba Tek Singh, in which Bishan Singh (played by Vinod Nagpal) an inmate at a mental asylum, offers a viewpoint of the Partition.
Watch Nandita Das speak with Indulge at Jaipur Lit Fest 2018
For Nandita, who debuted as a director with Firaaq (2008), the story of Manto resonates with present-day struggles and concerns over matters of personal freedom and expression — something the youth ought to relate to. That said, it is saddening to realise that the ‘unbearable times’ Manto lived in are relevant to society even today, admits Nandita, in an exclusive interview.
What drew you to the stories of Manto?
I first read Manto when I was in college. A few years later, I bought the complete original works in a collection called Dastavez, in Devanagari. I was 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. For years I thought of making a film based on his short stories, even before I made my directorial debut, Firaaq. In 2012, when I delved deeper into his essays, they helped the idea expand beyond his stories. Today I feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story that so needs to be told. What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. He was irreverent and had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the establishment, often with sharp humour. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon, I realised that it felt like I was reading about my father (the artist Jatin Das). He too is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from my protagonist.
How does the film speak for the struggle of freedom of expression in India?
Manto never perceived himself to be an activist. He in fact says that ‘as much as Gandhi has to do with films, I had to do with politics’. He didn’t feel that he was political and yet he was actually extremely political in all his writings. According to him, what being ‘political’ meant was to understand why things happen the way they happen. In today’s times, we can see this all around — censorship, people who are self–censoring to avoid trouble or moral policing, where some group decides that something is hurting their sentiments.
And, that 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 about the sex workers. There are a lot of interesting essays. We also have scenes in the film showing the way people attacked him saying that what he wrote was obscene and pornographic, and how he defended literature, as his writing was not meant to titillate anybody. His writing tried to understand and empathise with people who are on the margins of society. It was about those people who nobody wants to write about. In fact, he also says that if you can’t bear my stories, it is only because we live in unbearable times. The stories only reflected what happened in society. So I think it is relevant not just in our South Asian sub-continent, but also around the world. Artists, writers, freethinkers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced. Any society grows and develops when you have people speaking up the truth and thinking differently. And if you silence them then what hope do we have?
How do you think the youth will connect with Manto as a protagonist?
The deeper I delve into this project, the more convinced I am about the relevance of Manto in these times. Not much has changed... almost 70 years later, we are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression, and struggles of identity. Even today, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class and religion as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. I know he would have had lots to say about the times we live in. It is no surprise that so much is being written about Manto and that many theatre groups are often performing his plays and essays. He was relevant then and will sadly continue to be relevant for a long time to come.
Tell us a little about working with an unfamiliar tongue — you’ve worked in a few different languages over the years.
I have acted in 12 different languages. At times, doing a film in a language unfamiliar to me was not easy, especially the South Indian languages. At times, it was the shooting conditions that were daunting, like that of Bawander (2000) or Maati Maay (2006). And at times, emotionally, they pushed my boundaries and became insightful experiences. The exciting part was to overcome the challenges and do justice to the characters.
Was it a natural progression from acting to direction, for you?
In many ways it was. It was always exciting to watch the rest of the crew work towards shaping up a scene. Often, I would get involved with suggestions or just ask questions. Slowly, the desire to tell stories the way I wanted to, started growing stronger. Actors are perceived to be larger than what they are, but what people don’t realise is that we — actors — are at the mercy of a hundred factors that shape a film. And so, I thought, maybe making a film from scratch and having the space and freedom to make what I want to would be more fulfilling.
Actor, director or activist – do you feel the need to choose a preferred role in real life?
I feel no need to choose, as they are all intertwined and different means to the same end.
What excites you more: performing for the camera or taking charge behind one?
Both are exciting in different ways. And, they are fairly incomparable. Although, I feel directing is more challenging and fulfilling, it is also more stressful. Also, acting allows me to be a part of different stories, travel to different parts of the country, and all the experiences put together make life interesting. So, I hope I never have to choose between the two.
How do you react to the label of a ‘woman director’?
After Firaaq, I was repeatedly called for panels on women directors, and asked what it was like to be one. My answer was simple: I’m a director who happens to be a woman, and there is no way I’d know what it feels like to be a male director! Having said that, I’m sure my gender, just as my upbringing, my life experiences, my class, my education and my interests, would influence my sensibilities, the form and content of my films.
Some felt that despite the fact that Firaaq was not a woman-oriented subject, it was evident that a woman made it. They felt that the women characters were layered and grey, and though the film was about violence, there was no blood and gore. Some are surprised that both Firaaq and Manto are not typically woman-oriented subjects, as if a woman, or for that matter, a feminist, must only make films on issues of women. Women think about many different things, and are also impacted by them. In any case, Manto is a celebration of a feminist man, though he too would have hated labels.
Would you consider being a part of more mainstream commercial films?
I never classify films as art or commercial, Hindi or regional. I do films that resonate with my sensibilities, in whichever genre it maybe. But when I look back at the 40-odd films I have done, many of which are regional, I realise that they needed to make less compromises with form and content. Also, I would love to do different genres, but who would take the risk of giving me a comedy role!
Tell us about your other campaigns. How did you get involved with such initiatives?
There are many campaigns I support. Recently, I supported campaigns for organ donations, signed petitions against genetically modified crops and to save the RTI from being wrongly amended. And, this one, which tells you to be comfortable in your skin, is one of them. I have always been outspoken about this issue, but till recently, it was more informal. I am so glad that such a campaign has been launched. As the issue impacts so many people, young girls in particular, by default, I have become a champion of it!
Nandita Das’ Manto is set to be released later in 2018.
Nandita Das on the campaign, ‘Dark is Beautiful’, launched by the group Women of Worth, headed by Kavitha Emmanuel:
Dark is beautiful
Contrary to reports, I haven’t started this campaign. Of course, I was glad to lend support, as it is about discrimination rampant across class, region and even gender! I have talked about this at many forums, formally and informally. And I will continue to do so. To change a mindset takes time, but even baby steps in the right direction are needed. As far as ‘Dark is Beautiful’ is concerned, I am directly connected to the cause. As a child, some far-off relative would ask me not to go out in the sun, lest I became darker, or when I walked into a cosmetics store, salespersons would offer me the best anti-tan or fairness cream, or I’d be told by the make-up man that I need not worry, as he was an expert in making people look fair. I even had directors telling me it would be good if I made my skin lighter, as I was playing an educated upper class woman! If I get told all this, despite people knowing my stand,
I wonder what other dark women are subjected to.Without exception, I have stood my ground, as I really do feel comfortable in my skin… literally! When they write about me, they often start with, ‘dark and dusky’. I don’t object at all. I am all for calling a spade a spade. In fact, dark doesn’t need to be even softened to dusky! All I wonder is why is there a need to describe me through the colour of my skin, as I hope there is more to me! Or is it simply because it is rather rare for a female actor to be dark and therefore it becomes imperative to make a point about it.
‘Dark is Beautiful’ is trying to say that we must be comfortable in our skin, even if the world around you tells us that you are not good enough if you are not fair. The campaign draws attention to the obsession with fairness and how it is destroying the self-esteem of people, especially young girls. Basically, the campaign is about boosting self-esteem in dark women and saying there is much more to any person than the colour of their skin. It is about celebrating diversity.
It is too much of a cliché to say beauty is not just skin deep. But then most clichés come from a kernel of truth. The inner beauty does impact the outer beauty. If you are happy, it shows. But even if we talk about physical beauty, to me, sparkling honest eyes and a genuine heartfelt smile are the most attractive elements.
So, be yourself and be comfortable in your skin. Don’t let anybody rob you off your self-esteem. Focus on your interests and talents, and do things that make you happy, instead of making your looks the focal point of your identity. Let your attitude and behaviour define you and not just whatever you are born with. Stay natural, stay beautiful.
Jaideep Sen was at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 by invitation.