60 Minutes with Nandita Das Movies

Manto would have been appalled that nothing has changed 70 years later: Nandita Das

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

The actor-director has brought out a book 'Manto and I' on the making of her 2018 film, and speaks about the continuing importance of the Urdu author's ideals

Nandita Das remembers wanting to do a book on her directorial debut, Firaaq. “It was a new experience for me to be directing a film [after] having acted in so many... There were so many stories that never got told, never got shared. I wish I had done that book,” she says as we settle down to talk about the volume she has just brought out. The lovingly put together and lavishly-produced Manto and I lies on a table in front of us in her living room with a view of the sprawling sea stretching ahead.

It was when the film was coming to an end, and especially after the disappointment with the way it was released theatrically, that she got the idea for the book. At the same time, with the digital medium coming in, many people were watching it online. “Every single day I would get emails, someone would message me. There were these mixed feelings about the whole journey.”

‘Journey’ has been the leitmotif of Das’s life. She feels the sense of exploration and adventure have been instrumental in freeing her from the fear of failure. “You are not outcome-oriented. You are not stressed about what will happen. It allows you to try out and experiment with different things. When I wrote my first play, acted in my first film or directed my first film... it wasn’t to prove [my] skills or to excel or reach out. It was just for the joy of doing and the desire of wanting to tell that story,” she says. The book was also born of the same compulsion, to say something without worrying about how it would turn out.

She gave almost six years of her life and a lot of herself to the journey with Manto — the film as well as the writer and man she has always admired. This unique voyage finds its way into the book. “In that sense the book was cathartic because I could relive the whole film all over again. Stories that I had forgotten came back.”

She also refers to the book as being “privy to the intimate process” of making the film, describing its structure as “very stream of consciousness” — going from where she began, to why she did the film, to how she slowly put things together.

“I have been as candid as I could in sharing the excitement, the challenges, and the trials and tribulations of making the film,” she says in the introduction.

Trials such as researching someone who had died in 1955; of Manto’s contemporaries, only his sister and one writer in Pakistan, Intezaar Hussain — who Das met briefly— remained.

Collection of stories

Similarly, from the challenges of casting and getting so many strong actors to do small cameos, to art direction, “every phase had a story that I felt I could share.” Then there was getting to know Bombay, the city Manto loved and where she herself was born but never really lived. “I came back and saw the Bombay that I could otherwise never have seen, through all my location scouting.”

The book’s title is Manto and I; it’s not just about the creative journey but Das’s own emotional, political, personal and spiritual experiences as well — experiences such as shooting with a small child in 45-degree heat, with Gurdas Mann and 250 villagers doubling up as junior artists. It also made her question why there were fewer women in the field, and she came to understand and accept the tag of ‘woman director’ that she had always been uncomfortable with.

What does the act of writing itself entail for her? “It’s about bringing thoughts, feelings and experiences together that you may not have articulated to yourself.” She enjoys the solitary nature of the process, in contrast with filmmaking, which involves having to deal with so many people. Nevertheless, “I also have a collaborative spirit. I thrive on both. They have their own separate joys and challenges.”

Das started writing in November 2018, two months after Manto’s release, and finished the book in October last year. This was a lean phase when she was involved mostly in social advocacy work, spending time with her son and making a guest appearance in Venu Udugala’s Telugu film Virata Parvam.

Kindred spirit

A lot of the book was written on flights, in the quiet time she seized without people and gadgets around. And much of the rest was fleshed out at home, in the midst of domestic chaos, much as Manto himself often wrote.

She may have grown up on Gandhi and Tagore, but she began seeing a kindred spirit in Manto when she started reading his work in college, and later his essays that revealed the man behind the words. She thinks that what Manto stood for is deeply relevant to the world today, be it to do with freedom of expression or the identity issues, divisiveness and strife that we are witnessing. “He would have been harsh and blunt and appalled that nothing has changed 70 years later,” she says. But, perhaps, also happy to see the young in his beloved Bombay rising up and resisting.

For Das, Manto is an idea, Mantoiyat, that represents the free-spiritedness, conviction, truth and courage we need today, especially to counter skewed narratives and lies. “I seek refuge in Manto to respond to today.” For now, in the midst of all the anger, fear- and hate-mongering, she wants to engage with the fence-sitters rather than the converted: “My language is now less about what I feel than about how I can share in a way that others can hear. I want to speak in such a way that they will listen rather than pull the shutters down.”

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 5:53:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/manto-would-have-been-appalled-that-nothing-has-changed-70-years-later-nandita-das/article30641919.ece

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