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Sunday, June 20, 2021

I have started to own the woman-director identity: Nandita Das

Nandita Das on Manto & I, and how the book and her 2018 movie Manto, are deeply connected but not the same.

Written by Divya Goyal |
Updated: February 16, 2020 10:32:26 am
Nandita Das, Nandita Das on Manto, Saadat Hasan Manto, Manto film, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, book on Manto, indian express news Nandita Das during the making of Manto.

An established actor with critically acclaimed films such as Fire, Earth and Before the Rains, and later Firaaq as a director, Nandita Das expanded her repertoire further in 2018. She introduced people to legendary writer Saadat Hasan Manto, born in village Papraudi of Ludhiana (undivided Punjab), whose writings on the pain of Partition still resonate in India and Pakistan alike. She directed ‘Manto the Film’ with Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing the lead. Das is now reinventing herself as an author with her first book ‘Manto & I’, which talks about what she calls ‘Mantoyiat’ imbibed in her. Excerpts from an interview.

After Manto the film, why this book?

When I finished making Firaaq, my directorial debut in 2008, I wanted to write a book on it. The journey of making the film entails so much more than what I even knew as an actor. There were so many behind-the-scenes stories that I never shared. That book still remains in my head, though the memories are getting foggier with time. A decade later, I wanted to make sure that the journey of making Manto did not fade away. This time around, I had even more stories to tell and not only because it took me six long years to make the film but also because it was very intense. I felt the need to chronicle that journey. While writing the book I travelled with the film all over again.

What can readers expect from this book?

Apart from answering the questions I have often been asked, much of it is simply stream of consciousness — memories, reflections, dilemmas, struggles and the little moments of euphoria. All very candid. Right from the most obvious ones like ‘Why Manto?’ to more personal ones such as, ‘What has this journey left me with?’ have been captured. It starts with introducing Manto to those who do not know, and takes the reader through the process of researching, writing, gathering funds, crew and locations, shooting, editing, sound and music, festival hoopla and the release saga. But I have chosen to share not just my creative, but also my emotional, political, and spiritual experiences of the time I spent on the film.

Nandita Das, Nandita Das on Manto, Saadat Hasan Manto, Manto film, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, book on Manto, indian express news Book cover of Manto & I

Is the book taking readers beyond the film? If yes, how.

I believe, together, the images and words will tell you a story you haven’t seen on the screen. When you see a film, you see what the filmmaker has intended to say or show. But the book tells you the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of it. They are deeply connected but not the same.

The saddest part that remains about ‘Manto’ the film is that it could not reach many people because of several constraints. With this book, what response are you expecting?

Why a film doesn’t reach its audiences has many reasons and sadly they are never known to them. Thankfully it is on Netflix and many have watched it now. People who saw the film will enjoy reading about the book, they will get answers to questions such as: why I chose to intertwine Manto’s stories with his own life, why I focused only on the period between 1946 and 1950, and how I managed to convince a wide range of actors to play cameos in the film. And how I coped with the challenges of leading a motley crew of 120, a large cast of 90, and of recreating Bombay and Lahore of the 40s. And for those who did not see the film, I hope this book pique their interest enough that they will want to see it.

So when you are saying here ‘Manto & I’, is it about your spiritual connection with the real Manto through his writings, or the on-screen Manto or both? What has Manto made you accomplish in life?

The book is as much about my journey with Manto – the man, the writer, the film, as it is about making the film. Since I did not go to any film school or assist any filmmaker and I do not even watch too many films, my learning, even as a director, has been through various life experiences. The sheer experience of being at the helm of a project that has a large cast and crew taught me a lot. Accomplishment is an elusive word and the Manto journey has primarily been a long learning curve. The project attracted a lot of people with, what I call, Mantoiyat in them. That has been one of the most precious gifts.

After being an actor, director and now a writer, which has been the most satisfying experience?

I have always enjoyed doing different things. I don’t see any reason why one has to make choices when one can potentially do both this and that. For me, the different things I do lead to the same end and in some way feed on each other. I have to admit, the direction is the most consuming of them all and precisely for that reason, I would want to do other things between two directorial projects, to recoup my energies and live life a little.

What is your closest memory from the Manto journey?
There are so many memories, it would be tough to choose. From speaking to Manto’s sister-in-law Zakia Jalal, who shared amazing nuggets, to writing a letter to Manto on his birthday on how he inspired me and reading it out to the crew. Briefing around 250 villagers who had to double up as junior artists to getting a standing ovation in Cannes – there are so many moments that are still so vivid in my memory and extremely close to my heart. Apart from everything else, writing the book has been deeply cathartic and gave me the opportunity to document this personal journey.

How do you react to the label of being a ‘woman director’? Did you face any sexism on the set, despite being the director?

Until a few years ago, the label of being a ‘woman director’ used to upset me. But of late, I have started to own the identity. In a time where we are struggling to create more space for women directors, I now say, ‘Yes, I am a woman director and I want to see more of us.’ From the time I started acting, I am seeing more and more women behind the camera, in every department. It is a fact that women are good at multitasking. But as heads of creative departments, the numbers are still very low. Manto had two young and talented women helming their respective departments. Rita Ghosh, the production designer, and Sneha Khanwalkar, the composer, brought a fresh perspective to their work.
The short answer to experiencing sexism is yes, and the longer one is difficult to articulate. These days, it is often subtle and therefore more challenging. If someone is outright discriminatory, it is easier to deal with. But when the subtext and the gaze are covert, it becomes difficult to call out. One can clearly feel it, but if called out, the response is ‘stop being a feminist all the time’. Often, I have found the crew speaking differently to my male peers in the way they take instructions and give suggestions. They find it easier to play subordinate roles to male leadership. My antennae have sharpened over the years, making it difficult to not notice even the smallest of biases. So, either I can spend all my time and energy fighting these battles, or I can ignore them and respond only when it becomes unbearable. For my own sanity, I choose to do the latter.

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