Actor-director Nandita Das with Associate Editor Alaka Sahani in The Indian Express newsroom in Mumbai. (Express photo: Nirmal Harindran)
A prominent actor and director, Nandita Das recently published her first book, Manto and I. She has acted in some of the most-talked-about Indian movies, such as Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), as well as Bengali film Shubho Mahurat (2003) and Tamil film Naalu Pennungal (2007). In 2008, she made her debut as a director with the hard-hitting Firaaq, which she co-wrote. A decade later, Das made Manto, a biopic of Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Known for her social advocacy, Das is a strong supporter of the campaign against colour bias. She has served as the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society of India and also been on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival on two occasions.
Alaka Sahani: The movies directed by you are quite political. Art is often linked to politics. Is being apolitical a choice anymore?
When someone says ‘I’m apolitical’, I don’t even know what that means. To not engage or comment on what is happening around is also a political choice. I tell human stories, but as we don’t live in isolation, the context becomes important. For instance, my directorial films Firaaq (2008) and Manto (2018) are about people and relationships in times of violence and communal strife. Our prejudices, our struggle to own and distinguish identities, our fears and what we do to each other in difficult times are all of great concern. That’s what compels me to make a film. I don’t consciously make a ‘political’, ‘niche’ or ‘independent’ film — these are labels put on one’s work. For me, the personal is political.
“The point is how do we strengthen the parallel narrative that needs to be communicated. More actors are speaking up, journalists are also writing about issues that matter. So, a shift is happening," Nandita Das said.
Alaka Sahani: You worked on the film Manto for six years and then worked on the book Manto and I for a year. What have been the triggers that take you on these artistic journeys?
My film work started with acting, which was neither a dream nor ambition. I did my graduation in geography, took a year off and during that time taught at Rishi Valley School and travelled across the country. I decided to do my Masters in Social Work and then worked with NGOs for a few years. Fire (1996) was the first film I acted in. I sort of stumbled upon it. Despite many offers, also in mainstream films, I only did those films that resonated with me. Not every choice was right, as how a film finally turns out is beyond the control of an actor. As a director, I had the opportunity to tell stories that move me and disturb me. For me, art has always remained a means to an end. But it is not enough to tell a relevant story. How you tell it is just as important. The content and the form are inseparable for me. At all times the film must engage, and not become didactic, preachy or boring.
Nandita Das caricature
Mohamed Thaver: Do you think you can say what you have to but in a more accessible way, for instance, the way Rang De Basanti did?
I don’t want to refer to any one film but, broadly speaking, I tell stories in the way I want to see them. I tell them more instinctively, despite all the planning it needs. I can’t think like someone else or create the perfect balance — ‘Let me put all the right ingredients to make it more palatable’.
Also, I am not a trained filmmaker and nor have I worked behind the camera to learn it on the job. As an actor you are only privy to the shoot, which is a small part of the entire film process. I also don’t watch too many films. Guess, it helps in freeing myself of too much grammar and helps me maintain my own voice. I personally see films as a medium of engagement. What may be entertainment to one may not be to the other.
Tabassum Barnagarwala: Deepika Padukone received a lot of flak over her visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University. Do you think that discourages top celebrities from speaking up?
We are all driven by our own conscience, what we want to or not want to do. It is not my place to say who should do what. I fiercely believe in freedom and each to their own. Of course, it would help if more people spoke up because that is the need of the hour. Especially those who have a large circle of influence, as they impact the social discourse, as Deepika did. We all want a more peaceful and equal world, but it is not going to happen on its own. Bigotry and divisive powers are on the rise so it is important to speak up against them. So many protesters are out there putting their neck on the line for the larger good. But we all operate in different contexts and have different compulsions. So, I’d rather not judge anyone’s decision. Even among the liberals there is so much posturing. Infighting to prove that we are more liberal than the other, or pointing fingers at those who are not speaking up in the way we are. Undoubtedly what’s happening in the country is deeply troubling. But finally, it is everyone’s personal decision.
Sherrie Marker: The movie Manto familiarises the viewers about Saadat Hasan Manto’s life and work. How different is your book Manto and I from the biopic?
The film is about the four tumultuous years of Manto’s life, interspersed with his stories. Through Manto’s life and work, I am able to talk about identity, censorship, fears and the role of art and literature in times of strife — everything that we are grappling with today. If I had made a film about our times, it might have ended up becoming too didactic. Which is why I took refuge in telling Manto’s story and yet responded to what’s happening today. And people see the parallel.
Actor-director Nandita Das with Associate Editor in The Indian Express newsroom in Mumbai.
The book is really the back-story of making the film. It chronicles the journey, right from 2012, Manto’s centenary year, to why and how I thought of making the film, the challenges and excitement of researching and writing the script, and releasing the film. I share my meetings with Manto’s family in Lahore and how I feel I am a part of it. The book has chapters about how I gathered an eclectic cast and crew and raised the funds. How we recreated the Lahore and Bombay of the ’40s in today’s time, when there is so much modern-day clutter, with ACs, satellite dishes and hoardings. I also talk about my journey of embracing the label of being a ‘woman director’ and what to me is the female gaze. The book is called Manto and I because it is as much about me as it is about the film.
Zeeshan Shaikh: How difficult is it for you to express your emotions as a director or a writer through a film?
As an actor, we just play the part that is written for us. An actor is perceived to be larger than they really are. But as a writer-director, we have the opportunity to tell the story we want to tell. For instance, both Firaaq and Manto are expressions of what I wanted to share — right from the inception to the way they finally turned out. Of course, there are always many challenges and limitations, but within them, I made choices at every step.
Even though 80 per cent of Manto is absolutely factual, there are many fictional elements. For instance, I made his wife Safia feistier than she was. When I had asked the family, they had said that she was a very gentle person, a supportive wife and a loving mother. But in a film, it neither makes for an interesting character nor a believable one, as living with Manto through his alcoholism and financial troubles could not have been easy. So I felt I could give voice to her unexpressed emotions. When I invited the daughters of Manto for the India premiere, I was nervous about their reaction to this liberty that I had taken. But to my relief, they were the happiest about the way their mother was portrayed. Maybe they carried that pain and felt it was cathartic to see this interpretation of their Ammijaan in the film.
Sherrie Marker: How much does Manto’s personality resonate with you?
Deeply. Now it has been seven years since I first started the Manto journey. It is a long time to travel with one person, who is only in written words, a few photos and some anecdotes from the family. Had he not resonated with me in my bones, I would not have been able to tell the story. His desire to tell the truth, to show reality as it is, his fearlessness — all these are extremely inspiring, especially in the times we are living in. I have also dedicated the book to the ‘Mantos of the world’. After all there are and have always been many Mantos in every era. Today some of them are behind bars, some have been killed and some are protesting against all odds.
Sadaf Modak: What is your favourite story by Manto?
Tough to say. He wrote close to 300 short stories and about 100 essays. Toba Tek Singh is very powerful and timeless. The absurdity of dividing people on the basis of religion is still so relevant. Also Dus Rupiya, a story that is often misunderstood, as it is very nuanced, almost poetic and horrifying at the same time. One of my other favourites is Hatak, which in English is called ‘Insult’. In one of the drafts, I wanted to start the film with it, but it was too disturbing to begin the film. There is a lesser-known one, the story I first read of Manto — Sarkando ke peechhe. I don’t know what it is called in English.
Tabassum Barnagarwala: You explored the subject of homosexuality in Fire at a time when it was a criminal offence. Today, it has been decriminalised but you must have faced some consequences back then.
Oh yes! Lots and of all kinds! Twenty-four years ago, we didn’t even have a vocabulary for it. Even journalists of prominent English dailies would say ‘that’ kind of relationship and not use words like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’. When Fire came out, many would ask if we were really ready for such a film because there was no conversation around it. It is never too early to be open about things and call them as they are. In fact, it was already too late. The reactions to the film varied — some applauded it for being so bold, some were livid and then there were lots who were confused about how to process it. I remember how, on flights, I would be told by strangers that I was inciting young women to become lesbians! We have really come a long way since and I believe that Fire had its little role to play in changing the discourse and attitudes around issues of homosexuality.
Alaka Sahani: What was the idea behind the use of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s ‘Bol ki lab azaad hain tere...’ in Manto?
I was wondering how to end the film. Usually, the question is ‘optimistic note par end karein ya pessimistic note par (should we end it on an optimistic note or a pessimistic one)’. But there was little to be optimistic about and yet I did not want to be pessimistic, as hope is what propels us to change the status quo. It was a real dilemma. The film ends with the Toba Tek Singh story. The quest of the protagonist, the Sikh lunatic, to find where he really belongs is also the story of Manto. And for many of us. So, I felt, a call to action, a way to inspire people to speak up, something that would bring out their Mantoiyat would be a good note to end the film with. The powerful lines of the poem ‘Bol ki lab azaad hain tere, bol zubaan ab tak teri hai (Speak, for your lips are free; speak, your tongue is still your own)’ hit the right inspirational note.
Om Marathe: Parasite swept the Oscar awards. Is the artistic fraternity sending out a message?
Definitely! But I don’t know how long it will last. I don’t want to be a cynic but it is possible that they will go back to their norm — White, male, American award winners. After Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2008), women haven’t really got much prominence in the Oscars. The pessimist in me feels it is tokenism, while the optimist in me applauds all good things in the right direction. Parasite talks about the stark inequality that we have skillfully managed to normalise, across most countries. That’s why it universally resonated.
Malini Bhupta: People want to see what is happening in this country, how intolerant we have become. Are these discussions even happening in Bollywood?
I have always worked from the fringes of the film industry, so I am not the right person to answer this. In any case, what does Bollywood mean? It means the mainstream industry, but that too isn’t a monolith. The point is how do we strengthen the parallel narrative that we think needs to be communicated. Though I feel more and more actors and film professionals are speaking up, journalists and media houses are also writing about issues that matter. More, than they did five years ago. So, a shift is happening. We just have to keep at it. This is not the time to be sprinting. We have to be marathon runners. The road to greater freedom and liberal ideas is long!
Mohamed Thaver: Are you optimistic about what some have called ‘the outrage of beautiful people’?
This country has a Constitution that gives everybody the same rights. If I believe in that, then I must uphold it. If it is being threatened, I need to work towards saving it. It is the Constitution versus the attacks on it that is worrying. And all people have a right and responsibility to speak about things closer home or atrocities far away. Let us not divide ourselves, or label each other. Even among liberals at times it becomes, ‘my way or the highway’. All voices in the Constitutional framework should be welcomed. I intend to do my little bit through my films, through the choices I make in my life and work.
Malini Bhupta: Do you think there is a fear psychosis that prevents Bollywood from speaking up?
While more have begun to break the silence, the atmosphere largely is of fear and it extends to all sectors. Why just Bollywood? It is happening in the corporate world and in the media. Still the voices are not many, even on less controversial issues like civic issues. If we have strong convictions, we will find the courage to follow them. There is fear everywhere but there is also enough courage. Just as fear begets fear, courage too begets courage. So as individuals if we become more courageous, we will also spread it faster.
Mohamed Thaver: Do you think bigotry is much deep-rooted than reason?
Of course. Bigotry is strong in its impact and it is often in the name of religion, tradition or culture. And a lot of our identity is linked to it so we are scared to push it away. It is also organised, as it is driven by a more uniform ideology. While the idea of liberalism, by its very definition, is free, diverse and hard to organise. It makes it therefore harder to combat bigotry.
Zeeshan Shaikh: Firaaq features Paresh Rawal, who in today’s context stands at a different end of the political spectrum. How difficult is it to work with people whose world view is very different from yours?
Coincidentally, Paresh Rawal is in both my films — Firaaq and Manto, and in negative roles! I wanted him because he is such a wonderful actor and fitted the parts. He has always known my views, and I have known his. In Manto, despite a cameo role, he wanted to read the full script, as a good actor should. We have always had mutual respect as artists.
We have to talk, work with, and understand the ‘other’. If we want to build bridges, then it has to begin with us. Otherwise we are speaking exactly the same language as the bigoted, except we are coming from a righteous position. Then how are we any different?
Benita Fernando: Between art and activism, what do you think is going to change the world?
Both are needed and for me they come together. My art is my activism. My activism is expressed through my films, my writings, my talks and my other choices. I make no distinction between work and life. We create too many straight-jacketed compartments. Artists in Iran subvert the system by making intensely personal films and yet talk about the larger issues in society, without being preachy. So, those who work on the ground, to the policymakers, and everybody in between, we all have different roles to play. You cannot do what I can do and I can’t do what you can. So, it’s about doing our little bit to make the world a better place.