Actors · Conversation · Filmmaking

Nandita Das: Manto’s view of women and the dignity he gave to them is rare


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Nandita Das

Nandita Das does not need an introduction. Her body of work speaks for her. She is known for her unique acting, and now directing choices.

She quietly defied moulds with expert performances in Fire, Earth, Kannathil Muthamittal, Azhagi, Kamli, Before The Rains and Ramchand Pakistani. Her directorial debut Firaaq, which she co-wrote with Shuchi Kothari, was based on 2002 Gujarat riots. Manto, her second feature film, follows four critical years of Saadat Hasan Manto’s life. He was an immensely respected and controversial South-Asian short story writer of his time, known for his searing, humane work on colonised India and subsequent India-Pakistan partition.

The director is fresh and happy from her Cannes experience, where she showed Manto and also participated in the women’s march on the red carpet, led by Cate Blanchett and Agnès Varda, calling for equal pay and representation in the film industry. Manto will also be screening at Sydney Film Festival 2018.

Nandita speaks to cinemaspotter about her Cannes trip, participation in the women’s march, inspiration for the movie, why she chose Manto’s life and its relevance today, plus her creative journey as a director and producer.

What was the experience and feedback at Cannes like, showing Manto?
We got an overwhelming response, both from the audiences and critics. Cannes is a rare festival that actually caters to film professionals and not general audiences, so they are very discerning and exposed to world cinema.

Initially I felt the excitement and nervousness of a director whose film is going to be screened at the most prestigious film festival in the world, with toughest-to-please audiences and critics. Strangely on the day of the premiere, I was neither euphoric, nor nervous. Just happy. The fact this film actually got made is a miracle. For it to be in the Cannes Film Festival was the second miracle.

After the film, we got a four-minute standing ovation. Some strangers hugged me, some sobbing, some rather sombre. Some just sat in their seats still immersed in the experience. Some chose to walk out quietly, as if not wanting to break their experience. Six years of relentless work and challenges had finally found their culmination. All in all, I have returned with great sense of gratitude for the kind of response the film has garnered. This year’s Cannes was like no other year.

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Nandita Das (second row) and Rasika Dugal (third row) at the 82-women protest march at the Cannes Red Carpet.

Describe the feeling of standing among 82 women in that historic event and moment at Cannes? What was going through your mind before, during and after?
It was an incomparable feeling, being on the Cannes red carpet with only women and that too with editors, screenwriters, producers, sales agents marching alongside the usual suspects. All of us wore small badges that said ‘50/50 by 2020’. While it is unlikely that we can achieve this dream in two years, the demand for equality has been expressed, loud and clear. It cannot be ignored anymore.

After walking up the stairs, we stopped midway. Actor and this year’s jury president, Cate Blanchett, and Agnès Varda, the Nouvelle Vague French filmmaker, read out their impassioned speech. They said, “Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise…. As women, we all face our own unique challenges, but we stand together on these stairs today as a symbol of our determination and commitment to progress. The stairs of our industry must be accessible to all. Let’s climb.”

And we did. To the top of the stairs. Some teared up, some smiled with pride, some squeezed the hands of the ones they were holding to show their solidarity, to express their excitement on this momentous occasion. On reaching the top, a spontaneous gush of emotions and choked voices began to fill the air. We hugged each other. It didn’t matter that we were strangers. The feeling of sisterhood was so strong that it felt most natural.

A young producer who held my right hand burst into tears. She told me that in the last 48 hours she had worked relentlessly for this initiative, and couldn’t believe that it had actually happened. The woman on my left apologised for her cold hands, a sign of her excitement. She said this was the most significant thing she had ever been a part of. It gave her a sense of purpose. Next day she came to the Manto screening and gave me a hug that conveyed more than any word of solidarity could have.

I have returned from Cannes stronger, having been part of the 82-women march who pledged to hasten the process. The onus needn’t be only on the women to speak up and be part of the #MeToo campaign. Our dream for an equal world must be seen collectively. It must be a shared dream, a call to action because the #TimesUp.

Where do you think we stand on gender balance in India today – Hindi and other languages – in terms of equality of women subjects as well as culture?
Like in every sphere, when more and more women are coming into the industry and thankfully also behind the camera, I hope this will bring in a diversity of stories and representations. We have definitely had too much of the male gaze and very little of female gaze. It is time we see the perspective that women bring naturally, subconsciously and organically. We are half the population, so it would be a pity if our stories weren’t shared.

Why did you choose to tell Manto’s story and creative journey?
What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and his courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. I have always felt most deeply connected to his deep concern for the human condition. No part of the human existence remained untouched or taboo for Manto. His faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of this hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more just and compassionate world. I feel there is Mantoiyat (Manto-ness) in all of us – the part that wants to be free-spirited and outspoken.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manto

How was your writing journey for Manto, given the scope and length of his creative life?
My research is based on his writings and some from those who have written about him. Many have helped me in the process as I don’t read Urdu and there are difficult words that I don’t understand. There is a long list, starting with Mir Ali Hussain, who was a consultant on the script, and strangers like Saeed Ahmad from Lahore, who has now become a friend. Manto, the husband, the father, the friend; these relationships I could only understand through the important nuggets his family shared with me.

Manto died young, at 42. Very few alive, have actually met him. Among two of them were his sister-in-law Zakia Jalal, who also features in the film, and a well-known Pakistani writer Mr. Intizar Hussain, who passed away recently. Manto’s grand niece, the eminent historian Ayesha Jalal’s book, Pity of Partition – Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, and the one she wrote on Manto’s centenary along with Manto’s youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal, were one of the first gifts I got from the family.

The whole process of researching and writing was time consuming and hectic, but that’s what formed the backbone of the film. And this journey has attracted so many ‘Manto’esque people and that has enriched my life, and the film.

Tell us about the significance of those four years of Manto’s life.
The film follows four years (1946-1950) of his life, which in many ways are his and the Indian subcontinent’s most significant years. It is as much a story about two faltering cities – Bombay and Lahore, the Partition that saw the greatest mass migration in history as it is about one man trying to make sense of it all.

How relevant is Manto in today’s Indian political and social context?
Manto was relevant then and will sadly continue to be relevant for a long time to come. Not much has changed. 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. Manto shows us a mirror like nobody else does. I know he would have had lots to say about the times we live in.

For me, making the film Manto was not just about telling people about him but to invoke the Mantoiyat that I believe all of us have, whether dormant or awakened. I think people will see themselves more nakedly. It will make them uncomfortable in a way that hopefully they would want to do something about it. After all, we all want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited. And Manto inspires us to be that.

How easy or difficult was it, to fund the movie?
Finding funds for a film like Manto was a huge challenge but finally, we have three of them who also believe in its message.

The first one to come on board was the most unconventional of them all – HP Studios, an endeavor of Hewlett-Packard. Manto is going to be their first feature film. In 2016, when I went to Cannes to look for producers, their global head of marketing for print, Vikrant Batra, spontaneously decided to commit. They found a natural connect to the story of a writer as their tagline is, ‘power of ink’. As they do a lot of work on inclusion and diversity, they could also see that Manto was quite a hero in the way he wrote stories about the marginalised.

Viacom18 Motion Pictures came next. Their COO, Ajit Andhare, has been a supportive ally and will bring their experience in marketing and distribution. Without a good release, a film cannot reach its audience. Firaaq had suffered hugely. I’m happy Manto has producers that not only have full faith in the film but also the bandwidth to make the film accessible.

Namrata Goyal from Filmstoc, a new film company, joined us next. She is young, energetic and passionate about the film and what it wants to say. The company intends to tell compelling stories.

Magic If Films, founded by Shamas Nawab Siddiqui with his brother, Nawazuddin Siddiqui also come on board as co-producers.

I have also set up my own company Nandita Das Initiatives for this film, but didn’t realise that it meant I would end up actually producing the film on the ground. I hope to do many different projects, not just film-related, which will explore different creative means to tell stories that need to be told.

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Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui on the sets of Manto

Was Nawazuddin Siddiqui your first choice for playing Manto?
I always had Nawaz in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut was his first significant role in a feature film. In 2013 at Cannes, when I was in the short film jury and he was attending the festival for Monsoon Shootout, I told him about the film. They say if you get casting right, 70 per cent of your job is done, with Nawaz that’s exactly what happened. He looks and feels the part. He has an incredible range as an actor, but intrinsically Manto lies somewhere in his eyes – it was almost an obvious choice.

I brought in my research from books and many gems from Manto’s family, Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent. Together I think we have managed to bring out many subtleties and nuances to the character of Manto. Not to mention his natural instincts. Also Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto – deep sensitivity and intensity, anger, and a straight face sense of humour. These innate qualities have helped him transition into Manto on screen effortlessly. There were many magical moments with Nawaz during the shoot. And I truly feel that our actor-director relationship has struck a perfect chord. This is so important in a film like this.

What made you choose Rasika Dugal to play Safia?
Safia, Manto’s wife, is integral to the story. She stood by him through his best and worst times, as many women have for their celebrated husbands. I had watched Rasika Dugal’s Qissa and had instantly decided that she was going to play Safia. She is an amazing actor and a delight to work with. She effortlessly got into the skin of her character and brought out that quiet strength along with being the supportive wife that she was.

Do you have any thoughts on being an independent yet understated female in an otherwise patriarchal and flamboyant industry?
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 that I would 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, etc. would influence my sensibilities, form and content of my films.

Manto’s view of women and the dignity he gave to them is rare. It is one of the important aspects of his life and work that has definitely interested me.  Some felt that despite the fact that Firaaq was not a woman-oriented subject, it was evident that a woman had made it. They felt that the women characters were layered and grey, and even 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 the 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.

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