Nandita Das about her new film 'Manto'
Nandita Das has acted in more than 40 feature films in 10 different languages. She made her directorial debut with Firaaq, in 2008, which won many accolades in India and beyond. Her second directorial venture, Manto, based on the life and works of Saadat Hasan Manto, was screened on the second day of DLF. In this interview, conducted before the screening, she talks about her new film as well as her experience as an artist.
Is this your second time in Dhaka?
The first time was for the Dhaka Lit Fest in 2012. I had come with my play called Between the Lines which we had performed here.
This time you’ve come here with the movie Manto which you’ve directed. How do you feel about the Bangladesh premiere of Manto?
I’m very excited. It has gone to many film festivals. It was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival, which is one of the most prestigious festivals in the world. It was a great honour. Then we went to Sydney, Toronto, London, Korea and many more places. But this is the first public screening that is not part of a film festival. It was released in India and we were really trying to release it in Bangladesh. But unfortunately the rules are very strict between our countries. It’s such a tragedy that we can go miles away to so many other countries, crossing the seven seas, but we can’t go as easily to a neighbouring country.
Manto talks about issues that I feel are common to our entire subcontinent because it talks about identity—identity of nationality, religion, and how to go beyond that. He was also a big champion of freedom of expression and as you know whether it’s in this country or ours or in the entire subcontinent, freedom of expression is under threat. So we all have to sort of fight for it. I think Manto is a great inspiration as far as freedom of expression is concerned.
One or two years back I read an article written by you in Scroll. It was an interview with Manto’s daughters. That writing tells me you’ve done a lot of research before you got down to writing the script.
It almost took me four to five years. I rediscovered Manto in 2012. I read him in college. But in 2012 it was centenary celebration and a lot of people started writing about Manto and I also started reading his essays. And I thought this one is so relevant, he’s so modern, he’s talking about things that we’re grappling with. So I did a lot of research through his works but I’m not from an Urdu speaking family. So I had to take help from many people. I read some in translation but I had to read the original to prepare a script.
We actually know you as an actor who acts with a difference, not just mainstream movies but movies that have some social-political relevance. Why this shift from acting to direction?
For me it was not a shift. I never really wanted to be in mainstream cinema. I was always interested more in independent films. In Hindi language an independent film faces more challenges because it has to compete with bigger sharks, the big Bollywood films.
When the Gujarat riot happened in 2002, it completely disturbed me and I saw how religion was being used in politics. I think it was for my own catharsis. So then Firaaq was born in 2008. And in 2012 Manto’s story compelled me again and I felt like this is the story I want to tell. I want to respond to what’s happening around me. I don’t think I have chosen to be a director. In a sense, the two movies I made were not a choice I made; rather I felt totally compelled to tell these two stories and that’s why I wrote both of them.
How was your experience with the cast of Manto?
Nawaz is someone I worked with in Firaaq 10 years ago. That was his first significant role in any Hindi film. When I started writing I was thinking that Nawaz is the right one. When I told him in 2013 that I was working on Manto he said he’s going to give me two years of his life for whatever I wanted because he’d do anything for Manto. But then he became a star. He didn’t have the time to give me two years of his life. He barely gave me the exact shooting time, but you know he’s such an instinctive artist. He does melt into character.
I had read somewhere that you were once a part of a very famous Indian street theatre, Jana Natya Manch (JANAM). Can we hear something about that experience of your life?
I think everything that you do in life impacts your choices. I was 17 back then and my classmate told me that there is a group called JANAM and Safdar Hashmi was running it. He was my guru. And that was in a way my first socio-political training because even though I came from an artistic family and even though we didn’t talk about any isms my parents were very inclusive and non-judgmental. Even so, my first political training happened with Safdar because we used to stage plays about workers’ rights and also about communalism and all the other social problems affecting Indian society. And those four years I worked with JANAM were very transformative.