In this interview with indianexpress.com, Nandita Das talks about her globally acclaimed film Manto and tells us why the writer is so relevant even today. Das also shares her thoughts on why it is important for her to own the tag of being a ‘woman director’.
Q. What made you take up this biopic?
I had read Manto in college, but it was only in 2012 that I started reading his essays when the centenary celebrations started and a lot more came out about him. That’s when I realized that he is so relevant today. Whether it was about identity, you know how we are divided in the name of nationality, religion and caste. Or about freedom of expression, because he was tried six times for supposed obscenity in his writing. Or about displacement and the issue of where do you really belong. All these issues haven’t changed at all. So, I thought that it would be interesting to be able to lift a page from history and tell how it is giving us a chance to respond to what is happening today. That was the primary reason, then there were other reasons too. My father is very ‘Manto-esque’ and I often say that he is very blunt and has been a misfit in the art world. He is a painter. So I saw many parallels and I felt that I have lived a Manto life because you are not just talking about bigger ideas but trying to understand who Manto was. It is a story at the end of the day. A lot of young people don’t know who Manto was, which is really sad. I got to know recently that this is the first film on a writer from the subcontinent, from India. So, I think this is a story that definitely needs to be told.
Q. How would you describe the film? Since it has travelled to so many film festivals all around the world, will it appeal to the masses here?
If we label the films, then we create preconceived notions. Because we put films in boxes, that a certain film is a festival film, an art film or a Bollywood film. This film has many ingredients of a mainstream film in some sense and has no such ingredients in some sense. It has got a lot of big actors which is one of the major ‘ingredients’ for a Bollywood film. It has Nawaz, Rasika, Tahir, Javed Akhtar, Rishi Kapoor, Divya Dutta, Ranvir Shourey, Paresh Rawal and Gurdas Maan. So a host of actors have lent their support for the film by doing even small cameos. It has got songs by Sneha Khanvilkar too. The film has a large vision. I think a film is a big or small film, not on the basis of its budget, but the idea. And, I think when the idea is powerful and big, for me it is an accessable film. If you ask me ‘Can this be a massy film?’, I would personally say ‘yes’. I don’t think we should label films like ‘classy’ or ‘massy’ or things like that.
Q. What do you have to say about the label ‘woman director’?
When you are directing, you are not thinking that you are a woman director. You are just directing. There are so many things you are doing and your mind is not on your gender for sure. You have multiple identities and you assume those at different times. Having said that, the fact that I am a woman, it must have impacted some creative choices. For instance, a film that is set in partition, I don’t like seeing violence. So invariably, even when it is set in that time, I don’t show violence. I don’t think we are matured as a society to deal with sex in a way that we understand sexuality and not make it titillating. Having been an actress and having been asked the same question hundred times over, I didn’t want to show skin. People ask me that even when Manto was so raw, how did I manage to not show skin in ‘Thanda Ghosh’. For me that wasn’t the point. I think Manto must have been very graphic in his writing, but if he had to film it today and know how women are viewed, he himself probably would have made those choices. So, I think that my being a woman has impacted things. Today, we want more women to come in this field, like every field. We want more diverse stories. We want more women’s gazes and participation. So, I also have to own this tag of being a ‘woman director’. I don’t want to shy away from the fact. If I want more women directors to make films, I first have to say that I am a woman director. So, it is a little bit nuanced. It is not so black and white. I have stopped struggling with it. Earlier it used to bug me a little if people would call me on a panel and introduce me as a ‘woman director’. I would want to say that ‘no, I am just a director’. But now I am okay with the tag.
I don’t know whether actors feel any difference working with a woman director. I hope they don’t. I think there is a certain level of empathy and emotionality working with a woman director. I don’t know though. I haven’t been on the other side. However, we can’t say all would have the same experience, we can’t generalise it, but largely women are more collaborative, and they are less top-down.
Q. What are your thoughts about the way India-Pakistan relationships and Pakistani characters are depicted in our films?
I haven’t watched too many films, but from what I have read and heard, often Pakistani characters are shown as enemies or as not being good. But then nationalism has become the new flavour. I mean, I am an Indian and I feel proud, but I don’t wake up every day on my bed and say that I am an Indian. I live here and this is where my experiences are from. My cultural and social exposures are from this land. I don’t think I have to vilify somebody else to feel good about myself. It is a real pity. We could have been like Europe, where we could have had our own identities and yet we could have travelled to each other’s countries, gain from each other’s cultures as India is such a diverse country. When I go to Nagaland or Kashmir or Kerala, I am supposed to remember that it is my country. But if I am from Delhi or Amritsar, and if I go to Lahore, the ‘khana-peena’, the ‘zabaan’ is the same, and yet I am made to think that that is an enemy country. It is all about perceptions and what is being whipped. I think if you are secure within yourself, you don’t need to make anybody your enemy. But, Manto is not about Indo-Pakistan. Of course, the backdrop is that and there is partition too, but it really is the journey of angst of a writer. Him having to displace himself and go away from the city he loved. He loved Bombay. He used to say ‘Main chalta firta Bombay hoon!’ He was a true ‘Bombay-wallah’. It is a very personal story at the end of the day.
Q. Manto couldn’t be more relevant than it is today as he was tried for his body of work. We now have activists being arrested. What are your thoughts?
I have a lot to say about it! For speaking up, people are literally being put behind bars. People are being shot! Gauri Lankesh, whom I knew well, was shot. Someone comes to your house and shoots you because you are constitutionally the voice of dissent. And in a democracy like this, if we can’t openly speak about things, that’s really something to worry about. That’s why I think Manto is very relevant, maybe he will invoke a certain desire in all of us to speak up more. Because it is really the silences of the good that is the beginning of the end of any kind of democracy.
Q. Is it your conscious decision to make films that make the audience think?
I think it is more of an instinctive decision. I was already involved with social issues. Often people think that you have become an actor and then you use that platform to do it. But for me, it was the other way around. I was already involved with issues of social justice before I got into films. My first film Fire, also because of the subject matter, it created a certain amount of noise which I am glad it did. It has a tiny role to play in the fantastic judgement that came out to decriminalize homosexuality. So, I think cinema, even if they don’t have a tangible link to burning issues like how Fire did, it goes into our subconscious. Cinema can trigger conversations, it can ask you uncomfortable questions and can spark ideas. Films can challenge your prejudices. So, definitely it has a role to play in the society. If it didn’t, why do they ban films? They do because they are threatened by it. Why else would they ban films and destroy art. They are telling us through their actions that art is strong and art can be the voice of the conscience of the society.
Q. We hear Nawazuddin Siddiqui charged Rs 1 for Manto.
Like him there were many actors who have done it for nothing. They have done small cameos. Tahir and Rasika are the highest paid actors on the whole film. It is not about the money! While I am very grateful that Nawaz did it for nothing, but we also have to start believing that there are other ways that motivate people and satisfy people. In fact I haven’t even given him his Rs 1 yet, and I’ll be indebted to him forever.