Tag Archives: Nandita Das

Nandita Das Delights at Stanford

Born in British India, Manto migrated from his beloved Bombay to Lahore, Pakistan after Partition. Many of his stories reflect his heartbreak and disaffection at the violence and inhumanity that ensued on both sides of the British-imposed border.

I had watched the film “Manto” on Netflix a few days earlier, and was deeply moved and impressed by the directorial choices, acting, and Manto’s integrity which shone through every scene.

Das was introduced by Jisha Menon, Associate Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford.

Menon remarked that 20 years ago, when she was still a student a Stanford, she saw Das debut in Deepa Mehta’s film 1988 “Earth” based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel “Cracking India.” Das was “luminous” in that role, she said, and 20 years later, is still luminous.

Other panelists were Usha Iyer, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies, and Asha Jadeja Motwani, an investor who was one of the producers.

Das showed video clips of several scenes throughout the event. The first was the Irani Café scene, where Manto sits with other writers, members of the Progressive Writers’ Association: his dear friend Ismat Chughtai, Kishan Chander, and Manto’s wife Safia. Das mentioned that Manto himself never joined PWA, he resisted anything organized.

Their very first court case was a joint trial: Manto for “Boo” (“Smell”), and Chugtai for “Lihaaf” (“Quilt”). At that time they were filled with optimism, bravado. By Manto’s sixth trial for “Thanda Gosht” (“Cold Meat”), he had lost a lot of that bravado.

He was a prolific writer. He died at 42 with 300 short stories and hundreds of plays and poems to his name. Das had originally thought to cover the period from 1942 to 1952 in her film. In the 4 years it took her to write the script, she had to make many choices on what to depict. This film was her attempt to humanize Manto.

Manto was interested in individuals, “the other.” In the Irani Café scene he says to his friends, “If you cannot tolerate my stories, then you can’t cannot tolerate the world: we live in unbearable times.”

Das spoke of how she got close to Manto’s family. She learned more from them than from any other source.  At this point, Jadeja asked her what was the most interesting thing she had learned from the family. Das mentioned that Safia developed a rash that went away only after Manto died. Sometimes stress comes out in strange ways. Then Jadeja asked if Safia was “passive-aggressive.”  An odd and somewhat disruptive question. Das calmly responded that she shows some of the steel in Safia in one of the scenes, in the next video clip, of Manto and his family at dinner. Manto says to Safia, “I will write enough so you never go hungry.” And she responds immediately, “That’s my worry, that we will go hungry because of your writing.” Das remarked that Manto’s daughters gave her those lines.

His nephew Hamid Jalal (whose daughter Ayesha Jalal is Professor of History at Tufts University) wrote an essay called Uncle Manto. And he was very sad that Manto died before it was complete, concluding the essay in words to that effect.

In the film, scenes from Manto’s stories are juxtaposed with accounts of his life, and it is sometimes hard to tell when a story begins. Das shared that she uses a small device. Manto’s character looks into the camera when a story starts. A few minutes of “100 watt bulb” were shown—a scene with increasing tension ending with startling violence. The woman depicted simply wanted to sleep. Das’s direction brings out Manto’s deep compassion for his disadvantaged subjects.

Das spoke of the element of surprise without manipulation in his stories: he is not sentimental.

Usha Iyer asked about the Raftaar rap song used to market the film. Das interjected that she had nothing to do with it.

There are certain fictional elements to bring in things that were important to Das. For example nothing was written of Manto’s response to Gandhi’s killing. But she felt it important to include.

She talked of “Manto-esque” people. If you have conviction, courage will follow. We all have the will to be more courageous, more open-minded. Manto said “Don’t say one lakh Hindus have died and one lakh Muslims have died, say two lakh human beings have died.”

Jadeja, to whom the professors had politely handed over the microphone, proceeded to ask a puzzling question about Puritanism in the film (it was not clear to me what she was asking), and followed it up inexplicably with “Do you not like Faiz?” “I have the greatest respect,” Das immediately responded, saying she has included two of Faiz’s poems in the film. Shortly thereafter, Jisha Menon took the mic back, to my great relief.

When Das comes to an NRI audience, she’s asked why are you showing the bad side of India? It is all about intention, she said. Do you milk it, or do you say this is my country: here is the good and the bad. You can know the intention of the maker, whether they wish to titillate, manipulate or genuinely show the reality.

She spoke of the conversation between Manto and his beloved friend Shyam. Shyam was lamenting the attacks on his uncle’s family in Pakistan. Angry at Manto for his seemingly high-handed literary references, he exclaimed that they were real people. Manto responded that either everyone’s life counts or no one’s.

An interesting piece of information she shared is that no Indian or international film that is set in Lahore has ever been shot in Lahore. Das was determined to but couldn’t, she was stopped. She looked for a place resembling Lahore in India, and found a place in Gujarat.

Jadeja talked about dinner with a friend at whose house she met Nandita Das.  The director had mentioned that she was raising money for a film.  While the topic was interesting to Jadeja, she said, “As a VC, I thought I won’t make any money on this.” Das exclaimed to the audience with humor and wisdom, “Those who have a lot of money want to make more money!”

In the next video clip, of Manto and Safia in the garden, we see the rash on her arm, and her distress at the alcohol in his breath on which even their little daughter commented.

Next, we see Manto’s statement in court that his controversial story “Thanda Gosht (“Cold Meat”) is literature. In that scene, he talks of Flaubert and Joyce and how they faced charges for their “Madame Bovary” and Ulysses” respectively. “My stories are the mirrors for society to see itself,” he said, “If someone has a problem with what they see, how am I to blame?”, adding “Neem leaves are bitter, but they purify the blood.”

The first question in the audience Q&A session was about the casting of Nawaz Siddiqui. Das said he was in “Firaaq”, her directorial debut, 10 years ago, and when Das mentioned to him that she was going to make a film on Manto, he said “I’ll give you two years! I’ll give you however long you need.” But by the time the she was ready to start the film, he had become a star! He was acting in “Munna Michael”. He did not have a lot of time to inhabit the role of Manto and deferred to her direction. But, she added, “he brought his authenticity and his beautiful eyes.”

The next question was about the form of the film, and questioner went on to ask about the meta-fictional aspect of the film. Das asked, to my delight, what does that mean? On hearing the questioner clarify that it was about the stories within a story, Das responded that she hasn’t studied film, it was quite organic. She decided to start the film with Manto’s story “Das rupiya” (“10 rupees”). The 14 your old girl seems happy and also you see the beauty of Bombay but it also makes you uncomfortable. There is a sense of foreboding. The girl is laughing but as the three men try to grab her, you think something is going to happen. So, to answer the question on form, it all came about very organically. For example, she did not do auditions, she just talked to the actors. She spoke with a wide range of actors, some very experienced and others, novices.

Who were some current fearless storytellers that she could name? She answered that she doesn’t like to name names, as it undermines those who are not named.

The next question was about how she balances artistic merit with commercial needs. Das responded that she is tried to make the film she wanted to make. No one knows the formula for commercial success! It is not a science; film is part of the arts because there is this alchemy,

She was asked about the production history. In her response, she mentioned Hewlett-Packard, and HP’s Satjiv Chahal, Vikrant Batra, and Jean-Pierre le Calvez (whose role at this event was primarily starting and stopping the video clips from a laptop by the podium.) HP was the official partner for Cannes. There she met Batra and mentioned that she was raising money for a film about a writer. He replied that there was alignment with HP’s tagline: “Power of Ink!” Viacom 18, the film studio was also a producer, better known for huge productions like Padmavat. Das ended up being producer, which was very demanding on top of everything else. In her next project, se declared, she will first look for a producer. Of course, art needs patrons. What it also needs is faith. (“Asha, are you listening?” she quipped to Jadeja.)

She was once asked what does the director do? She said a film like an orchestra and the director is the conductor. You have a vision and you share it. She took her driver to see the film and his reaction was as she had hoped.

A sophomore from Pakistan asked why Das hadn’t shown more of Faiz or something else. Das explained that it’s a two-hour film, you have to make choices.

The event ended with a video clip of Toba Tek Singh, one of Manto’s most celebrated stories.

Naatak, the Bay Area’s Indian Theatre company had put on a distinguished stage production of Toba Tek Singh in 2017, which I reviewed earlier. I noticed some Naatak members sprinkled in the audience—kindred spirits.

In the end Manto himself becomes Toba Tek Singh: in between India and Pakistan, on a piece of land with no name, lay Toba Tek Singh, and Manto.

Das thanked the audience with folded hands, and invited everyone for the screening of “Manto” in San Jose the following day.  If you can’t make it, she added, you can watch it on Netflix.

“This article was originally published at www.rajiwrites.com and is included here with permission.” 

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

Cover photo credit: Geetika Pathania Jain

What Would Manto Say? Nandita Das at Cannes Film Festival

She quietly defied molds with expert performances in Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), Azhagi (2002), Kamli (2006), Before The Rains (2007) and Ramchand Pakistani (2008). Her directorial debut Firaaq (2008),  which she co-wrote with Shuchi Kothari, was based on the 2002 Gujarat riots. Manto, her second feature film, follows four critical years of Saadat Hasan Manto’s life. He was an immensely respected and controversial South-Asian short story writer of his time, known for his searing, humane work on colonised India and subsequent India-Pakistan partition.

The director is fresh and happy from her Cannes experience, where she showed Manto and also participated in the women’s march on the red carpet, led by Cate Blanchett and Agnès Varda, calling for equal pay and representation in the film industry.

Nandita speaks about her Cannes trip, her inspiration for the Manto, why she chose his life and its relevance today, plus her creative journey as a director and producer.

What was the experience and feedback at Cannes like, showing Manto?
We got an overwhelming response, both from the audiences and critics. Cannes is a rare festival that actually caters to film professionals and not general audiences, so they are very discerning and exposed to world cinema.

Initially I felt the excitement and nervousness of a director whose film is going to be screened at the most prestigious film festival in the world, with toughest-to-please audiences and critics. Strangely on the day of the premiere, I was neither euphoric, nor nervous. Just happy. The fact this film actually got made is a miracle. For it to be in the Cannes Film Festival was the second miracle.

After the film, we got a four-minute standing ovation. Some strangers hugged me, some sobbing, some rather sombre. Some just sat in their seats still immersed in the experience. Some chose to walk out quietly, as if not wanting to break their experience. Six years of relentless work and challenges had finally found their culmination. All in all, I have returned with great sense of gratitude for the kind of response the film has garnered. This year’s Cannes was like no other year.

Describe the feeling of standing among 82 women in that historic event and moment at Cannes? What was going through your mind before, during and after?
It was an incomparable feeling, being on the Cannes red carpet with only women and that too with editors, screenwriters, producers, sales agents marching alongside the usual suspects. All of us wore small badges that said ‘50/50 by 2020’. While it is unlikely that we can achieve this dream in two years, the demand for equality has been expressed, loud and clear. It cannot be ignored anymore.

After walking up the stairs, we stopped midway. Actor and this year’s jury president, Cate Blanchett, and Agnès Varda, the Nouvelle Vague French filmmaker, read out their impassioned speech. They said, “Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise… As women, we all face our own unique challenges, but we stand together on these stairs today as a symbol of our determination and commitment to progress. The stairs of our industry must be accessible to all. Let’s climb.”

And we did. To the top of the stairs. Some teared up, some smiled with pride, some squeezed the hands of the ones they were holding to show their solidarity, to express their excitement on this momentous occasion. On reaching the top, a spontaneous gush of emotions and choked voices began to fill the air. We hugged each other. It didn’t matter that we were strangers. The feeling of sisterhood was so strong that it felt most natural.

A young producer who held my right hand burst into tears. She told me that in the last 48 hours she had worked relentlessly for this initiative, and couldn’t believe that it had actually happened. The woman on my left apologised for her cold hands, a sign of her excitement. She said this was the most significant thing she had ever been a part of. It gave her a sense of purpose. Next day she came to the Manto screening and gave me a hug that conveyed more than any word of solidarity could have.

I have returned from Cannes stronger, having been part of the 82-women march who pledged to hasten the process. The onus needn’t be only on the women to speak up and be part of the #MeToo campaign. Our dream for an equal world must be seen collectively. It must be a shared dream, a call to action because the #TimesUp.

Why did you choose to tell Manto’s story and creative journey?
What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and his courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. I have always felt most deeply connected to his deep concern for the human condition. No part of the human existence remained untouched or taboo for Manto. His 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 this hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more just and compassionate world. I feel there is Mantoiyat (Manto-ness) in all of us: the part that wants to be free-spirited and outspoken.

How was your writing journey for Manto, given the scope and length of his creative life?
My research is based on his writings and some from those who have written about him. Many have helped me in the process as I don’t read Urdu and there are difficult words that I don’t understand. There is a long list, starting with Mir Ali Hussain, who was a consultant on the script, and strangers like Saeed Ahmad from Lahore, who has now become a friend. Manto, the husband, the father, the friend; these relationships I could only understand through the important nuggets his family shared with me.

Manto died young, at 42. Two people who knew him were his sister-in-law Zakia Jalal, who also features in the film, and a well-known Pakistani writer Mr. Intizar Hussain, who passed away recently. The book written by Manto’s grand niece, the eminent historian Ayesha Jalal: Pity of Partition – Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide (2013) was one of the first gifts I got from the family. Jalal also wrote on Manto’s centenary along with Manto’s youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal.

The whole process of researching and writing was time consuming and hectic, but that’s what formed the backbone of the film. And this journey has attracted so many ‘Manto’esque people and that has enriched my life, and the film.

Tell us about the significance of those four years of Manto’s life.
The film follows four years (1946-1950) of his life, which in many ways are his and the Indian subcontinent’s most significant years. It is as much a story about two faltering cities – Bombay and Lahore, the Partition that saw the greatest mass migration in history as it is about one man trying to make sense of it all.

Was Nawazuddin Siddiqui your first choice for playing Manto?
I always had Nawaz in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut, was his first significant role in a feature film. In 2013 at Cannes, when I was in the short film jury and he was attending the festival for Monsoon Shootout (2013), I told him about the film. They say if you get casting right, 70 per cent of your job is done; 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 almost an obvious choice.

I brought in my research from books and many gems from Manto’s family. Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent. Together I think we have managed to bring out many subtleties and nuances to the character of Manto. Also Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto – deep sensitivity and intensity, anger, and a straight face sense of humour. These innate qualities have helped him transition into Manto on screen effortlessly. There were many magical moments with Nawaz during the shoot. And I truly feel that our actor-director relationship has struck a perfect chord. This is so important in a film like this.

How relevant is Manto in today’s Indian political and social context?
Manto was relevant then and will sadly continue to be relevant for a long time to come. Not much has changed. We are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression, and struggles of identity. Almost 70 years later, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class, race and religion, as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. Manto shows us a mirror like nobody else does. I know he would have had lots to say about the times we live in.

For me, making the film Manto was not just about telling people about him but to invoke the Mantoiyat that I believe all of us have, whether dormant or awakened. I think people will see themselves more nakedly. It will make them uncomfortable in a way that hopefully they would want to do something about it. After all, we all want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited. And Manto inspires us to be that.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

This article was originally published on June 14, 2018.