Set to open on September 21, Nandita Das's Manto – much like her first feature, Firaaq which came out a decade ago – talks about pain and pathos. While Firaaq detailed the aftermath of the horrific 2002 Gujarat riots that left thousands dead, many more wounded and property worth crores destroyed in what may seen as second only to the carnage which shook the Indian subcontinent during the 1947 Partition, Manto looks at the way geographical displacement and censorship affect an individual, here in this case Sadat Hasan Manto. Played with a touch of realistic brilliance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui (who has an uncanny resemblance to Manto), the movie premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last May.
The Partition forced Manto to forsake his beloved Bombay (now Mumbai), and he says time and again that he can never be the same. For Bombay is where he grew up, where his father and mother and also his first son are buried. Bombay, for Manto, was the inspiration for some of the most powerful words that emerged from his pencil. He did not use a pen, though he was an avid collector of some of the most renowned brands of the writing instrument.
And out of his pencil flew the most brutal, the most acerbic words - words that said what he saw. And he saw some of the ugliest things, often the hostility towards prostitutes. And obviously, India and Pakistan, where Manto relocated, were the least equipped to handle such honest prose, which in, one of the several court cases against Manto, was finally given the tag of literature by a judge.Several obscenity cases were slapped against Manto -- much to the anguish of his wife -- but till the end he continued to defend his own writings, calling them mirrors of society that exposed the ugly side of man.
In a long email interview with Nandita Das, she had the most fascinating things to say.
Was it easy to find producers for a film like this?
Finding funds for a film like Manto was a huge challenge but finally, we got three investors/producers on board.The first to sign on was the most unconventional of them all – it was HP Studios, an endeavour of Hewlett-Packard (HP). Manto is their first feature film. They found a natural connect to the story of a writer, as their tagline is, ‘power of ink’. They have contributed not just in terms of funds but also in giving us equipment and helping to print a lot of the material we needed for production design. Viacom18 Motion Pictures came next. Their COO, Ajit Andhare, has been a supportive ally and has brought a lot of his and Viacom’s experience to the marketing and distribution. After all, without a good release, the movie cannot reach its audience. Last but not the least is Namrata Goyal from FilmStoc, a new film company that intends to tell compelling stories. She is young, energetic and passionate about the movie and what it wants to say. I also set up my own company for this film, called Nandita Das Initiatives, but didn’t realize that it meant I would end up actually producing the movie on the ground.
Do you feel that we, in India, are more star-driven whereas world cinema and festivals are more auteur-driven?
True, in India we are star-driven, and actors are perceived as larger than they really are. I have been on both sides and I say this from both those experiences. Sometimes people even wonder, what does a director do? The camera man does the photography, the actor performs, the editor edits, songs are composed by the music director and so on. Why then do we even need a director? But can you imagine an orchestra without a conductor? In fact, in movies, it’s more than a conductor – it’s not just your vision, but an involved director is hands on in every department. I feel that the director collaborates with every key cast and crew to ensure what he or she has imagined is translated onto the screen.
What are some of the things you discovered while recreating that era in which Manto is set – 1946 to 1950 ?
At times, the perceptions we have about the past do not match the reality of that time. For instance: today, we see more women wearing hijabs and burkhas. During Manto’s times, very few did. In the film, very few people cover their heads. We also never really see Manto and Safia pray in their homes. We tend to assume that Muslim women need to be shown in their traditional attire, a reflection of their religiosity. Sometimes even a team member would say we should keep some people in burkhas in some of the scenes’ in the backgrounds. But I hardly used any. In total, there might have been five or six women wearing burkhas in the whole movie and very few skull caps which are far more visible now. Manto happened to be a Muslim, but he could be from any community and nothing would change.
How important was Manto’s identity as a Muslim?
When you see Manto in the film, I feel one forgets his religion. I am sure Manto would want to be remembered as a writer, as a human being with acute sensitivity than through the prism of his religious or national identity. He would say: How can I claim to be a true Indian when I don't even know what India really comprises of? And Pakistan even less because I have hardly been there In fact, he would always say, “main chalta phirta bambai hoon' (I am a walking-talking Bombay) – he considered himself to be a Bombay writer and loved the city.
You have often said that your father has helped you understand Manto better. Could you elaborate?
I derive a lot of my convictions and courage from my father, Jatin Das, an artist. I actually feel he is very Manto-esque, in the sense that he is a maverick who never became a part of the art market, has never been driven by money, is out-spoken and honest to the core. Thus, he is bound to be a misfit. My father’s fearlessness and courage to live his truth have given me the strength to make movies true to my conscience. I hope that the work I do and the life I lead are driven by the courage of my convictions. Creatively too, my upbringing exposed me to art and aesthetics from a very young age. For my brother and me, movies were never a form of entertainment. It was always music concerts, dance recitals, art exhibitions and plays. A lot of my creative instincts have been groomed by my early memories of growing up in the midst of art and artists. I am not a trained actor or director, and so the home influences, especially from my father, have deeply impacted my choices in life.
On a Pakistan release for the film
I absolutely would want Manto to release in Pakistan. When every Hindi film releases in Pakistan, then why wouldn’t Manto? In fact, he is one writer who belongs to both countries. He loved Bombay and felt it was the city that truly embraced him, gave him the respect and dignity he deserved. And it was in Lahore that he wrote some of his most powerful and defining work. Manto is actually one person who can bring some amount of sanity to the fractured relationship between India and Pakistan. I do hope that Manto will be released in Pakistan as there are as many people there as here who want to see Manto.
Why a book on the film?
I had wanted to write a book on the journey of making Firaaq, because something felt incomplete even after I finished the movie, but it never happened. As I was writing the script for Manto, then shooting, then through the post-production phase, I felt that there was so much more that I had gone through, that was left unsaid. Of course, it will be very cathartic for me. But beyond that, I think there are many stories to tell, that cannot be told just through the film. The creative, emotional, spiritual and the socio-political journeys I went through these past 6 years have made me a different person. I want to explore and share the whys of all these – what engaged me, how making of the movie still kept me connected with my context, my environment, things that I care for. I want to share my experience of what it was to do the film whilst being a hands-on mother. The book will have many photographs from behind the scenes, making it a more complete experience for the reader. I think Manto is going to be with me for a much longer time.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran saw Manto at the Cannes Film Festival)