They push the comfort zone
Acclaimed actress and filmmaker Nandita Das says making Manto was a most challenging yet interesting journey
It has been the most challenging journey for me but probably the most interesting one too. This by far has been the biggest learning curve for me. There were challenges I faced at almost every step of the process,” actor, director Nandita Das said about her latest outing, Manto, which premiered at the recent Cannes Film Festival.
“It took me four years to research and write the script and two years to get funding, cast, crew, locations and all the preparation to shoot and get the film out. The genesis of the idea of the film was in 2012, Manto’s centenary celebration, and now it finally premiered in Cannes.”
After having helmed Firaaq in 2008, Nandita went behind the camera to trace the life of writer Saadat Hasan Manto, to be portrayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the film, expected to release in September.
Manto, who died in 1955 at the age of 43, penned an impressive body of work touching various genres. He churned out about 22 collections of stories comprising a novel, essays, personal sketches and movie scripts. One of his literary gems was a story on Mirza Ghalib, a poet who is often compared with the stature of Shakespeare. His work also gained attention for weaving stories around the ordeal of Partition as well as sexuality. The film provides a window into his life during the tumultuous partitioning of British colonial India into two new nations — India and Pakistan.
Manto, co-produced by HP Studios, Filmstoc and Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, was the only Indian film in Un Certain Regard category at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. It will also be screened at the Sydney Film Festival, which started on June 6 and will go on till June 17.
Nandita said she was “deeply involved with every department and have learnt so much in the process. After all I never went to a film school or assisted any director, so everything was being learnt on the job and I was relying mostly on my creative instinct and life experiences.”
On her experience at the fest, she said, “I have been attending Cannes since I was invited in the main jury in 2005. Then again in 2013 in the short film jury. Including more recently, to raise funds for Manto. Other than these two opportunities, I have been there several times as a film lover. Apart from it being the most celebrated festival, it truly manages to combine great cinema and is a thriving platform for filmmakers and film lovers from all over the world. While you, of course, wish your film to be premiered in Cannes, one is aware that every filmmaker wishes that too. The competition is extremely fierce. And Manto is not a typical festival film”.
There is more which made the movie an unlikely candidate for Cannes according to Nandita. “The references and contexts are not always easy for foreigners to understand. I didn’t know till the day they officially announced the list. It was the only Indian film in the main official section and so it is a huge honour. I am most delighted that Manto has started its journey in Cannes.”
Nandita also discussed the recent attacks on films and media and drew comparisons of Manto with the current scenario. The director said: “Manto was tried for obscenity six times because he wrote about sex workers, giving them dignity that was rare and used the language of the street, deemed inappropriate. He said, ‘If you can’t bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times’.”
She quoted Martin Luther King Jr. to highlight the point further. “He said, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ These days whether it is media or individuals, people are being censored by self-proclaimed vigilante groups or are self-censoring themselves, out of fear,” Nandita said.
“Conservatives are increasingly becoming the moral police. At the same time, official censoring bodies are becoming more bigoted and their rulings are getting more and more subjective and arbitrary,” added Nandita, who had faced protests over her socially moving and bold film Fire.
The actress noted that artists, writers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced. “A society can grow and develop only when it gives space for dissent and free thinking. And this shrinking space threatens democracy and human progress,” she said.
When questioned about how far we had moved away from Partition, she replied, “Far from it. The Partition remains a very important part of the sub-continent’s narrative. It has been invoked for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes for political agenda, sometimes to understand the pain and trauma some still feel today. Close to 14 million people were displaced, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, women raped... it spanned all the heinous crimes that come with sectarian violence. It is bound to have a lasting impact. But I am not sure we have learnt all the lessons that we needed to learn.”
Bhatt’s photo: Pankaj Kumar
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