‘Manto’ a film by internationally renowned actor-director Nandita das, was screened on the first day of Dhaka Lit Fest 2018. Before the screening, she gave a candid interview to the Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Sadia Khalid
It is your second time in DLF?
I first came in 2012. I spoke as a panellist. But, I also brought a play with me. I wrote a play, which I directed and acted in. It was called “Between the lines.” We performed it.
How different was DLF this year, so far?
I find it grown. It has definitely grown a lot more. I think the audience much larger. And I hear that, 80% is below 25, which is incredible. Sadaf was announcing that this morning. I think in some ways, the minds of young people are more open, and also in conflict, as there are many things they are navigating through. So, if they can get to hear different speakers, and different points of view, it would definitely help in making their life choices or help with thinking about how they respond to things. These kinds of open spaces are definitely needed everywhere in the world, especially in our part of the subcontinent, where you do not have that many open spaces, where these kinds of discussions can happen more freely and frankly. I think it is a wonderful initiative.
“Manto” has been very well received in the festival circuit and you have seen the audience waiting in line for the film screening. How do you like the audience response?
It was overwhelming. I think there is a hunger for different kinds of stories. Because especially what we call Bollywood or mainstream cinema, it has occupied much of the film entertainment space. Anything different, it may be less in percentage. But in absolute numbers, there are enough people who want to see it. Somehow our producers and distributors don’t think so. Therefore, they do not release it completely. They always release it too much like niche film. Not realizing that there are people who are interested in these stories, and would be happy to see such films. These queues of people are a testimony to that. Even in India, when it released on September 21, a lot of people who saw it, loved it. There was a very good response. A lot of people said, “If it stays longer, I will watch it again next week.” And it just wasn’t there. It didn’t linger as long as it should have. Because distributors and producers want to give mainstream cinema more space. Probably more people come for that of course.
But then, what will happen to these kinds of stories? What happens to the independent cinema? We also want allies in distribution. Then we can do justice to all kinds of different stories.
What inspired to do Manto’s story? Why this particular writer and his stories?
Well in 2012 it was a centenary celebration on Manto. So, many people were writing about him. When I started reading his work, I was in college. But in 2012, it was like a rediscover of Manto. When I started reading about him, and also his essays –I was unaware he had written so many essays. These gave me a glimpse into his mind, as to how he usually thinks. And I felt that he was so contemporary in his struggles and what he believed in. It resonated so deeply with my own concerns. I was looking for a way to respond to what was happening around us. And I felt that I can take refuge in telling Manto’s stories, and still respond to what was happening around us. Whether it is identity politics being played in the name of nationalism, or in the name of religion, in the name of past, or in the name of colour of your skin. Everyone is being divided in some way or the other; even language. So I just felt Manto’s stories were very humane.
The beauty of his stories is that, he always believed that the best of people have shadows, and the worst of people can be redeemed. And there are no blacks and whites.
And also his struggles for freedom of expression were very strong. He struggled for the truth till the very end, despite all problems. And I think we need that conviction and that courage today. You are seeing what is happening in this country, and also in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Everywhere, speaking up has become more difficult than it was.
This morning you must have heard. I spoke about Shahidul Alam also. And it is a real pity. I have met him very briefly. I have known of his work.
Can you imagine? We are all vulnerable now. Anis spoke about freedom of expression in the morning. And this is a mainstream paper. It is good to have the head of a mainstream paper speak about freedom of expression, because, it can happen to any one of us. So we have to stand by each other.
A large part of “Manto” was centred round the time of India’s independence. It dealt with the theme of the Hindu-Muslim divide. Something you explored in “Firaaq” as well.
I was just talking to Annie about that. That there is a connection with Manto that was undiscovered until the film was made. When I did the film, I didn’t see it as a direct connection. You are more in the moment. You are thinking I am doing this film about this man. I mustexplore many issues. Slowly I started realizing the issues of prejudice, identity and fear.
I feel you gravitate towards this kind of themes for acting.
I think it is instinctive. You gravitate towards things you care for, right?
Are you going to explore these themes as a director even more?
It doesn’t have to be this. There are so many issues I care for. I know that I have this image, where I always do socio-political kinds of films. I just believe it doesn’t have to have a message or be heavy-handed all the time. You just want the film to have a social conscience, because, you have to put so much effort into making a film. So much money and time and so many people go into its making. I would want it to be something for a larger good, than just telling a story. I don’t know, but I just instinctively gravitate towards these kinds of things.
Are you already working on your next directing venture?
No. This is the first time I will be choosing a script, or choosing a story to tell. Both “Firaaq” and “Manto” happened very organically. I just felt compelled to tell these stories. I started writing, but I am not a writer. Through these films, I started writing. I am also not a trained director. I have never gone to a film school or assisted anybody in that film atmosphere, being an actor. So, I became a writer by default through directing these films. And for the first time, it won’t be just default. I would actually be going through the process. It will be interesting. I am already getting a lot of interesting offers. I still have not narrowed down on anything. I need a break. That break hasn’t happened yet.
You have had a break of ten years between the first one and the second film, directing-wise.
I did a lot of other things. I was the chairperson of Children’s Film Society. I raised a child, which is a lot of work. He is eight years old now. I did a fellowship at Yale. I did a monthly column.
So, is your next directorial work coming sooner?
I have no idea. If I had planned my life, it could be in a few months, or in a few years.