(By Ashok and Sanghmitra Kumar)
Straight from the hustle bustle of Cannes into the winter morning of Sydney for the premier of her second directorial venture “Manto”, Nandita Das overcame time difference and the jetlag to sit prepared for the interview.
( The IST): Thank you very much for your time to speak with The Indian Sub Continent Times. Hope you’re having a comfortable stay in Sydney.
(Nandita): Yes, Thanks
I would like to weave our conversation today around you as a director, you as an actor and you as an activist.
(The IST): Saadat Hasan Manto was known to be a progressive, bold and practical writer. On one hand he was praised by the critics to write about truths of life which usually writers wouldn’t dare to speak of and on the other hand many found him obscene. So what drew you towards Manto that you decided to direct a film on him? Especially considering that he had decided to migrate to Pakistan during the partition
(Nandita): when I was in college, I saw a play on Manto at the Sriram Centre, New Delhi . I was so impressed that I bought a full collection (five volumes) of Manto’s works that is in Devanagri (Hindi) script from a nearby Book store. I read most of them and thought of making a film on him. I read most of his short stories. It was in 2012 on his birth centenary celebration a collection of his works came out in English “Why I write” that I found him very interesting.. My father Jatin Das is lot like Manto. He is a painter and he liked his writings Manto, at times misunderstood. My father never worked for money, he would say ‘love what you do and do what you love.’ Sometimes I feel that I grew up with a person who is at times so idealistic, so rude and so misunderstood. I thought there should be a film on Manto.
(The IST) Initially you were to cast Irrfan Khan as Manto; however that didn’t seem to work out. What was the reason and how do you now feel about casting Nawazuddin?
(Nandita) No never, someone else also asked me the same thing, Irrfan was not my mind but he is a good actor. Nawaz was always my choice. Once I met him at Cannes and I told him about the project. I considered Nawaz because like Manto he is also very short-tempered, he had a similar glint in his eyes, very grounded and had great sense of humour. I did a lot of research and Nawaz closely fitted into the role of Manto.
(The IST): Firaaq was based on the aftermath of the Gujarat violence in 2002. Manto was best known for his stories about the partition. Do you fear a backlash or criticism with the current political scene of the country?
(Nandita): They both had a similar socio-political backdrop. In both the cases, I am not a trained film-maker, I never assisted anybody, I watch very few films. I wrote both the stories, I just felt a deep desire to tell them (People).I am not a writer I am a writer by default. It was not like oh, let me be the director, let me look for a script. It didn’t happen like that. Like Manto use to say, “Main Afsana nahin likhta, Afsana mujhe likhta hai.” (I don’t write stories but stories write me) Something similar happened to me and that’s how I began writing. So for me tragedies, discrimination, how we divide ourselves in the name of religion, these kind of issues, fear, emotions are up on my mind. These kinds of stories are very important to me and that’s how Firaaq was born. The Gujarat violence happened and it was deeply disturbing, that’s when we saw visual after 24 hour channels began. It was not just seeing photographs in news papers but seeing the visuals that disturbed us. It came to our mind that we are dividing people in the name of religion. Like partition we keep on invoking even after 70 years, it has impacted our lives, for me it was more of Manto who spoke of the orthodoxy, who had the moral courage to tell the truth, I felt a good way to respond to what’s happening today. We live in times of much camouflaged kind of lives. The fire of truth we don’t celebrate any more. It’s again dividing line in our film line some people will agree with me some will not.
(The IST): There was a Pakistani film on Manto made by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat in 2015. How is your film different to his?
(Nandita): It’s very different. He dwells on his short stories and then his life while I start with his life with a little glimpse of his short stories. His film begins from where my film ends. He has taken last three years while I have taken 1946 to 1950. A Lot different in content and treatment but the fact remains the protagonist remains the same. Manto had such a short life but there are so many aspect of his life that I feel I could have made a hundred part series, he deserves that much.
(The IST): Writers like Manto and Ismat Chugtai were known to be ahead of their times (as a part of the Progressive Writers’ Association), yet the current generation knows very little of them. What are your thoughts about this situation? Do you feel that commercial cinema can adopt their stories and pass them on to the current and future generations?
(Nandita): Yes, Manto and Ismat were very ahead of their times. Tomorrow if you see a 70 years old setting, we are grappling with the same issues whether it is identity or whether it is freedom of expression, lot of it is very similar, they both addressed the timeless issues that’s why their stories. In the western world there would have been a lot more, in our country, the decision makers are mostly English speaking people relying on translations that are not good enough. Now, we have and are will have more.
(The IST): Since you have written the story, according to you which period of Manto will you term as the golden period?
(Nandita): I think the time in India; he was given a great amount of respect. Even he used to say don’t call me an Indian or Pakistani writer I am a Bombay writer. I don’t know the whole country how can I claim to be Indian writer and know Pakistan even less. In Bombay, whether you are rich or poor the city never asks questions, Bombay embraces all. He was very sad to leave Bombay. He was a very sensitive man and his decision to leave for Pakistan was on an impulse. But in Lahore, some of his greatest works were written there
(The IST): You’ve cast Nawazuddin, Tahir Raj Bhasin and even Rishi Kapoor – all mainstream commercial Hindi Cinema actors yet you seem to stay away from commercial cinema yourself as an actor – any particular reason?
(Nandita): Well there are many eminent actors in the film you’ll be surprised to see. I was not exposed to main stream cinema and my parents never saw films. It all happened by default, it’s not by design. I did films that were with more conviction. I did some main stream cinema like I did Aksh with Amitabh Bachchan, Pita with Sanjay Dutt and with Om Prakash Mehra. I don’t relate to it much, it’s not my cup of tea. There are a lot of good actors like Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Gurdas Man all have done main stream cinema. If somebody tell me to do a cameo I’ll do it.
(The IST Do you feel parallel cinema or art cinema has diminished in India? Nowadays, people say they make “low budget films”. Do you think that’s a good thing or bad?
(Nandita): I won’t say diminished but shrunk a lot. Despite the fact that we have multiplex cinema, despite the digital cinema, the commerce always interferes with art. You require lots of money and an independent film maker is not able to raise enough money, because after making the film, there is advertising, marketing to deal with. Independent cinema struggles to make films, there is no level playing field. Independent cinema is still not there where it should be. A low budget or high budget doesn’t make film good or bad. There are some very small film not only in India but the world over they are well performed and very well made. Budget doesn’t decide a good film or bad film. As a viewer, I would like to see a good film whether it is low budget or big budget film. There are very small budget film makers who have very interesting stories to tell and don’t require big budget.
(The IST): In 2011 you were honoured with the French Government’s Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. In 2009 they had released a stamp featuring you. Do you feel that your work hasn’t been given the same honour and recognition in India?
(Nandita): I am an actor by accident and now a director; it remains a passion. I don’t work for accolades or awards. They remain as an interest, you do your work as a compulsion to share your work. If my country recognises its good, if they don’t that’s fine too, I am happy with the story. I am not a mainstream cinema star, my credibility of 22 years is there. That’s not what I am aspiring for either. Outside India, people who have interest in Hindi cinema know about it.
(The IST): You have a Master’s degree in Social Work and in the past have also supported many campaigns. Today, the country is undergoing a transformative phase where many revolutions are slowly coming about. Are you currently involved in any campaigns or projects?
Nandita: I am not a social advocate but I do support a lot of campaigns, support a lot of organisations, issues of women, issues of children, issues of discrimination or prejudice. There was a campaign Dark is beautiful in India there is a lot of obsession with the light skin and that has taken a lot of esteem from the other young women. I do a monthly column for e trade in The week, I write for Outlook magazine, I do lend my voice whenever possible and do talks in colleges and schools.
(The IST): I am sure the audience would love to watch more of you on screen and even off screen. Do you have any other projects, as actor/director, in the pipeline.
Nandita:Whether I am not making films, I am still busy with lots of things and there is no project in mind. I have not focussed on it as yet. I am the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, honorary work that I am taking seriously besides I am a mother and raising child is not easy.
(The IST): Thank you very much for your time, Nandita.