Manto's fearlessness and compulsion to tell the truth resonated with my own journey, says Nandita Das
I felt like I could almost take refuge in Manto and respond to what’s happening today, says director Nandita Das
The bespectacled look of director Nandita Das adds to her aura of wisdom. Her work is synonymous with Indie projects but her upcoming film Manto has the backing of a reputed studio and thus the trauma that promotions of an Indie film entail is mitigated to quite an extent. Her relaxed posture says it all. Her vanity van also doubles up as her print interview location. After she has made herself comfortable on the sofa, she begins answering a clichéd question. “The reason why I opted for Manto is because he is so relevant today. I felt like I could almost take refuge in him and respond to what’s happening today. His fearlessness and his compulsion to tell the truth - all of that resonated with my own journey and my desire to engage with the world today in a not so didactic manner.” The actress director also informs that Manto was financially mismanaged and because of the trauma of partition resorted to alcohol.
For someone who had read Manto during her college days, it was the centenary celebration of the writer that triggered the thought in the director that herein lies a subject that can be brought alive on celluloid. “It was in 2012 when people started writing about him. There were articles on him even in The New Yorker and The Guardian. After that I started reading more about Manto and realised that the man is truly fascinating, I came to the conclusion that Manto is too modern and is speaking about things in a language as if he is a today’s writer. He is saying everything that I wanted to say – so much more and so much better.” Nandita further reveals that she could connect with the writer because of her father – well known painter Jatin Das. “I wondered at times that why he sounded so familiar and then I realized that he was so much like my father. I too had grown up with a Manto. I have always thought of my father as a blunt man, not of his times, misunderstood and misfit. He had no relationship with money, and words like career, profession and success were never used in our house. There was always chaos at our house with constant influx of people. When I was informed that Manto used to write in the disarray of kids playing and household chores, I saw the similarity between him and my father.”
Ask the actress-director if she can spot any Manto or Ismat Chughtai in the current literary scene and she feels that it’s difficult to spot any because of the prevalent safe-playing nature. “They must be hidden somewhere. Among the known ones, it’s difficult to say and its only because self-censoring has now become the norm. Things are being censored either by censoring bodies or by self-proclaimed custodians of culture. Manto would have felt uneasy in such a situation. He would have felt uncomfortable seeing the state of things. These days’ young film makers approach you with a story and later tell you as to how money will come for the project and how they will rope in a big actor for the ‘project’. Everything begins with the corruption of intent. Unfortunately, economics comes first when art is concerned,” states the Fire actress.
Quiz her if Irrfan Khan was the original choice for the role of Manto and she informs that it was Nawazuddin Siddiqui all along. “It was Nawaz right from the beginning but it’s also true that there was a brief period when I had thought of Irrfan. It was also the phase when the film was shaping up. I found in Nawaz the vulnerability that Manto had. Nawaz is someone who has sort of lived his life and his eyes say so much. Also I have worked with Nawaz in the past.”
Nandita is someone who considers herself neither a professional actor nor a professional director. With Manto’s biopic she has wielded the microphone after a gap of a decade and her last directorial venture Firaaq had hit theatres in 2009. “When I directed my debut film, I had no clue that the second one will happen. I did it because I was troubled by what had happened in Gujarat and Firaaq was my way to respond to what had happened. When I had acted in Fire, again I had no clue that I will be acting in a film again. There is no design to my life and I am wanderer and restless and like doing several things. In this gap, I was chairperson of CFSI, wrote a monthly column for The Week, did my fellowship at Yale and also raised a child who is eight years now apart from directing a play which explored gender inequality.” She adds that she never found the need to prove anything to anyone. According to her Manto happened in an organic fashion but at the same time is determined to make one more film.
Though Nandita is known for picking up unconventional subjects for her direction and plays, there was also a point when she starred in commercial potboilers like Aks which saw her pitted opposite Amitabh Bachchan. Does she still believe in such films? Nandita informs that it was Rakesh who was very keen that she sign the film but she harboured reservations about an older man marrying a younger woman which was devoid of any logic. She was then instructed by Rakesh to write and create a role for herself. “I was this young woman having fun writing with Kamlesh Pandey. After four months Rakesh turned around and said that I have only been writing and am yet to sign the film. It was then that I created a character called Supriya who talks about marital rape. That film turned out something else and it was not really the film that I thought it would be. As an actor you do not have control over all the factors that make a film. I have done 40 films in 10 different languages and I can put my hand on my heart and say that I did all those 40 films because I thought they were stories worth telling,” signs off Nandita.
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