With more than forty films in her rich and lengthy resumé, Nandita Das can rightfully claim the status of a bona fide Indian and global film star and bask in the warm glow of klieg lights and the heady aura of celebrity. As the translation of her name from Hindi to English suggests, she could just be “happy.” But, despite her glamorous looks and storied career, Das has always used her talent and status to pursue higher ground, to strive toward making the world a better place through art.

San Jose’s  Cinequest Film Festival opens with Nandita Das receiving the prestigious Maverick Spirit Award and presenting her sweeping biopic, Manto.

Here is IndiaCurrents writer Mona Shah in conversation with Das about her inspiration and art.

IC: Manto is a moving and gorgeously crafted look at the work and life of India’s beloved and controversial writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. What was your inspiration for taking up this biographical project? Did you envision it unfolding the way it did?

ND: Thank you! What drew me to Manto was his free spirit and his courage to stand up to orthodoxy of all kinds. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives and the way he insightfully captured the people, politics and times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. I had read Manto in college but it was only in 2012, his centenary year, when so much was being written about him; that encouraged me to delve deeper. For the first time I read his essays, and that helped me hit upon the idea of expanding beyond his stories to telling his story, which was just as interesting and powerful. It took me 5 years to feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story that so needed to be told.

There are a hundred factors that impact the process of filmmaking so it can never be what one had envisioned. All I can say is that it was the most challenging thing I have ever done and I gave it all I had. It has been a huge learning experience and therefore I have no regrets.

IC: It took you over 4 years to research the film, what pitfalls did you encounter? How did you go about doing the research?

ND: Once I knew I wanted to make a film on the life and works of Manto, I began reading his works quite extensively and also read what others had to say about him. He was a very prolific writer, so it was not possible to be fully exhaustive. I did not grow up in an Urdu-speaking household, so it was harder for me to read him in the original language. I took the help of many, in particular, Mir Ali Hussain, who lives in New York and Saeed Ahmed, who lives in Lahore. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to meet and speak at length with Manto’s daughters and his grand-niece, the eminent historian Ayesha Jalal. Ayesha’s book, ‘Pity of Partition – Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide’, and the one she wrote on Manto’s centenary along with Manto’s youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal, were some of the first gifts I got from the family. Manto died young, at 42, so there are very few people that are living who actually met him. Manto’s sister-in-law, Zakia Jalal, who also features in the film, is in her late 70s and was a big help. She and his daughters told me things I could never have found in any book. Through the process of the film, I became very close to the family. Manto, the husband, the father, the friend – these relationships I could only understand through the important nuggets shared with me. The whole process of researching and writing the script was time consuming and hectic but that is what formed the backbone of the film. It took 4 long years of research, many books and others’ inputs, working through several drafts of the script, for me to tell this story.

IC: Manto is being showcased as the opening night film at Cinequest, do you consider it a mainstream movie? 

ND: I do not like to label films as mainstream or art. Every filmmaker wants their film to be viewed by the widest audience possible and every investor wants his or her money back. Having said that, some films like Manto, are not driven by commercial success and are independent in their thinking and in the telling of their stories. And therefore, they are termed niche, parallel, art-house and independent cinema. Also, the producers and distributors have pre-conceived notions about it and therefore often don’t give it a fair chance at the box office. When there is no level playing field, how will we know if the film failed because it was too niche or because it was badly marketed and distributed. This is clear to me – seeing the overwhelming feedback we have been getting from people who are watching it on Netflix. I think people in our country and globally, are connecting to the story because in the end, it is a human story of struggle and courage and the will to speak out and to be your own self – something we all struggle with.

IC: How do you think a diverse, non-Indian audience will relate to him and to the subject and will they walk away with something to think about?

ND: Many of the issues that Manto grappled with – freedom of expression and dangers of identity politics, the question of who belongs where and the need to be free-spirited,  are not limited to any region or language. When a film is true to its context, but universal in its emotion, it crosses national boundaries. The reaction to the film at the screenings at various film festivals, be it at Cannes, Busan, Toronto or Sydney has only strengthened my belief that Manto’s story resonates across countries and cultures.

IC: What do you want audiences to take away from the movie?

ND: For me, making Manto was not just about telling people about the man and his works but to invoke the Mantoiyat (‘Mantoness’) – the desire to be outspoken and free-spirited. I believe all of us have it, whether dormant or awakened. I think people will see themselves more honestly and ask questions about their own morality, fears, convictions and courage. It will make them uncomfortable in a way that hopefully they would want to do something about. After all we all want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited. And Manto inspires us to be that, without being put on a pedestal.

IC: You wrote Manto keeping Nawazuddin Siddiqui in mind. What about him drew you to him?

ND: I always had Nawaz in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut was Nawaz’s first significant role in a feature film. It is said if you get the casting right, 70% of your job is done, and with Nawaz that’s exactly what happened. He looks and feels the part. He has an incredible range as an actor, but intrinsically Manto lies somewhere in his eyes – it was an obvious choice for me. I brought in my research and script and Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent. Together, I think we managed to bring many subtleties and nuances to the character of Manto. Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto –  a deep sensitivity and intensity, vulnerability, and a dry, deadpan sense of humor. These innate qualities in Nawaz helped him transition into Manto on screen quite effortlessly. I feel that our actor-director relationship struck the right chord.

IC: Manto’s stories and the film’s narrative blend into each other’s worlds. Whose viewpoint are we seeing the movie from?

ND:  The film showcases Manto’s journey as well as a glimpse into some of his best fiction writing. The line between his fact and fiction are often blurred; and so, in the film too, his narrative is interspersed with stories that he wrote, almost seamlessly. This form allows the audience to enter his state of mind, both as a person and a writer. We will get to see, through his work, what makes him so uniquely empathetic and truthful. This was not easy to do, as selecting 5 stories from close to 300 was a mammoth task. But it was an idea I had right from the beginning of the project, even before I wrote a word of the script. Finally, the point of view of the film is always the writer’s and the filmmaker’s. So, while you see the story that I want to tell, I have tried to be as close to reality and as close to Manto’s being. As the film progresses, it gets more and more intimate.

IC: It’s a male-centric biopic, yet the women play nuanced roles in it. Is this a reflection of how Manto views women? His relationship with Ismat is of particular interest. Did you envision it playing out as it did?

ND:  Manto’s view of women is one of the most important aspects of his work. And that has definitely interested me. The women in his stories were complex and richly developed, but he reserved his most nuanced and sympathetic gaze for the marginalized, such as the sex workers. He turned them from objects of scorn to people that have agency and made them the protagonists of many of his stories. Whilst Manto didn’t want to be labeled as a feminist,’ he was, in more ways than one. He was surrounded by women he loved and cared for – his mother, sister, wife and three daughters. At home he ironed his wife’s sari, made pickle, cleaned the house, read stories to his wife and sister and was an engaged father. A rarity for South Asian men, even today!

I have always believed that gender sensitive films do not necessarily have to be women-centric.  It is more important that the representation of women reflects the diverse reality. I have often been asked that given all my engagement with issues of gender, why are Firaaq and Manto not women-centric? For one, women are impacted by all things in the world just as men are. And therefore, I have chosen to respond to issues that concern me. Secondly, in both films, the characters of women need to be judged not by their screen time but by their layered portrayals.

Ismat Chughtai, was a very important part of Manto life in Bombay and he missed her in Lahore. Seldom does one see such camaraderie, especially in those times. But as there were many threads to his life, I could not dedicate more time to Ismat. A whole film can be made just on their relationship.

IC: What about Manto resonated with you? What was the most challenging part about making the movie?

ND:  It is Manto’s fearlessness and deep concern for the human condition that I have always felt most deeply connected to. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him no matter how controversial. For him, the only identity that mattered was that of being a human. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world. Every aspect of the journey was challenging but also provided a learning experience. I am not a trained filmmaker or haven’t worked from within the film industry, so while not knowing the grammar freed me, it also posed challenges that I struggled with; getting the right cast and crew, raising funds and finally marketing and distributing it.

IC: You’ve played all three roles, that of an actor, director, activist – do you find that they are intertwined? How so?

ND: Yes, for me, they are deeply intertwined. They are different means to express and share my concerns and interests. I wear different hats at different times, depending on what I want to convey and depending on which medium is the best for it. I also wrote a monthly column for 8 years in an Indian magazine, The Week, and from time to time, in other publications. That too gave me an opportunity to express myself and to connect with people. For me, art and social activism are not so different. I see myself more as a social advocate who at times uses art as a medium to reach out. Art has the ability to subtly enter the subconscious and impact how we feel, think and respond.

Both the films I directed, Firaaq and Manto, happened because I felt compelled to tell the story; because they provided me with a language to respond to what was of deep concern. Films and social advocacy are not that different for me, rather just different means to the same end.

IC: You resent being called “dusky,” and have been a champion for women to “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful.” Tell us more about why your skin tone should not define who you are.

ND: While I was aware of the prejudice against dark skin and spoke about it in some of my talks, I never thought of it as a stand-alone issue. It was only in 2013 when the NGO Women of Worth approached me to support their campaign that I got more involved with the issue. I became the face of the campaign by default as most “dusky” actresses progressively were getting lighter and lighter! The “Dark is Beautiful” campaign urges you to be comfortable in your skin. I am so glad that such a campaign was launched and that I was able to add my voice to it. The issue impacts so many people, young girls in particular.

The response to Dark is Beautiful has been truly overwhelming. I think the time had come to react to this fairness obsession. When I had supported this campaign, I didn’t realize that it would resonate with so many and touch a raw nerve. I continue to receive so many emails, from mostly women, who share their stories of discrimination and feel more empowered by this campaign.

Cinequest Opening Night Film and Maverick Spirit Award


Tue, Mar 5 7:15 PM, California Theatre, 345 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95113.

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news and magazines. 

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor,...