Nandita Das’ art is political and so is she. It explains why the actor-filmmaker – one of the strongest alternative voices in Hindi cinema – does not buy when some of her peers declare themselves “apolitical”. “I personally feel art and artiste can never be separated. I won’t take the names but I heard some artistes in our country say, ‘I’m apolitical.’ But to even say that is the politics of the fact that you do not want to engage,” the Manto filmmaker says in a group interaction.
Das believes, to counter the politics of indifference, one needs to keep creating unconventional parallel narratives. “It’s almost like you’re seeing injustice and you don’t want to call it injustice or you’re seeing discrimination and you don’t want to call it out. You don’t want to take a stand. But I don’t think there’s any merit in pointing finger whether it’s at a political party or a director or anybody. Because I can’t want my freedom if I’m not going to give others theirs. All I can do is the work I do. Whatever narrative I’m creating I have to just continue doing that.”
As a part of her resistance was her last directorial, Manto, which she also wrote and directed. The intention, Das says, was to spread spiritedness, freedom and truth- all the ideas that Urdu playwright and author Saadat Hasan Manto endorsed. While the filmmaker was hailed for her take on a particular portion of Manto’s inspirational life, it was perhaps the first time she felt her art was being burdened with the labels that she is associated with.
“I feel I only make films when I’m compelled to tell a certain story so I don’t think of it (art and the artiste concept) as a burden. I think of it as a catharsis and an empowerment. But like, I do a lot of gender work and sometimes people say, ‘Oh, why did you make Manto— a film on a man? Why is your protagonist a male? Why is it not a woman?’ And I say, ‘But women get impacted by everything.’
“For such a long time, men have decided the narrative of how they want to see men, women and the world. So the fact that I’m a woman itself is a female gaze. Also, just by having a woman protagonist doesn’t make a film feminist. How you are portraying the women in a story or how you are even portraying the men in a film, how you are telling the story— all of it kind of gives you that gaze,” she says.