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A conversation with director Nandita Das on her new film Manto

Nandita Das

Nandita Das, the director of Manto

Photo courtesy of Nandita Das

Nandita Das is an Indian actor and director who has appeared in more than 40 feature films. Her newest film, Manto, follows the life of Saadat Hasan Manto, an Indo-Pakistani playwright and author who chronicled the partition of India following the country's independence from the British Empire through his short stories. Nandita is coming to Stanford to discuss the making of Manto at an event on Monday, March 4, 2019 sponsored by the Center for South Asia, the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, and Global Studies.

What compelled you to tell this biographical story?

I first read Saadat Hasan Manto when I was in college and was struck by his simple yet profound narratives. He chronicled the world around him as he saw it, as he felt it, without dilution. It was only in 2012, around his centenary celebration when much was written about him, that I was introduced to his essays. Reading them, I got to know the man behind the writings, and I was able to see Manto beyond his stories. 

Manto’s free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds and his compulsion to tell the truth resonated with my own aspirations.  All this and more made me feel that, by telling the story of Manto, I would be able to share my own angst and concerns. 

You spent a number of years conducting research for this film and spending time with Manto’s family members. What surprising details did you learn about him through this process?

Fifteen odd photographs were not enough to recreate the person. I needed to know how he sat, spoke, walked, behaved with his wife and children – all the little trivia that flesh out a character making him real. As he died young at 42, there aren’t many alive who had met him.  There were, however, two people who did meet him: one was Intizar Hussain, the well-known Pakistani writer, and the other was Manto’s sister-in-law, Zakia Jalal, who appears in the film. She shared many important pieces of information about Manto and her sister, Safia, who is a very pivotal character in the film.

I feel fortunate that his daughters and his grandniece, the historian Ayesha Jalal, were all so forthcoming and supportive. Ayesha’s book on Manto and the partition and the one she wrote on Manto’s centenary with his youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal, are some of my most treasured gifts. Manto, the husband, the father, the friend – these relationships I could only understand through the important nuggets his loved ones shared with me.  I could never have found those in any book – how he ironed his wife’s saris, made pickle, cleaned the house, read stories to his wife and sister, and told poems to his daughters.  

Manto is a story of finding the courage to speak up and fearlessly express one’s opinions and beliefs.  How will this film resonate with today’s audiences, and why is it an important film to see?

Manto was relevant then and will continue to be relevant for a long time to come. We are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Today, more than 70 years after independence, our identities are inextricably linked to caste, class, race, and religion, as opposed to seeing the universality of the human experience. Manto shows us a mirror like nobody else does. The film will help us look at our own moralities, fears, aspirations and convictions more honestly. It will disturb us and yet give us hope. I have now shown the film to a cross section of audiences, both within the country and outside, and the response has been overwhelming. The emotions explored in the film have a universal resonance. At the core of it, it is a deeply human story, and to journey with Manto through those tumultuous years is, I think, a deeply moving experience.

What message or feeling do you want audiences to take away from the film?

For me, making Manto was not just about telling people about him but to invoke Mantoiyat (‘Mantoness’) – the desire to be outspoken and free-spirited. I believe all of us have that desire within us, whether dormant or awakened. After all, we all want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic, and free-spirited. Manto inspires us to be that.

You and Manto are both storytellers and artists. What other similarities (or differences) do you share?

Our means of expression are different, but his faith in the redemptive power of the written word resonates with my own passion to tell stories. His stories blur the line between fact and fiction. Manto did not like to be labelled and never wanted to be part of any organized group.  Despite being a forward-thinking writer, he never joined the Progressive Writers’ Association. Likewise, even after having worked for more than two decades in films, I have never worked from within the film industry. The activist world thinks of me as a film person, and the film fraternity sees me more as an activist. I can’t claim to be doing justice to either. Through Manto, I feel I have been able to further my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world.

Manto takes place in the 1940s during the partition of India. What kind of legacy has the partition left in both the subcontinent and Great Britain?

The British left the economy paralyzed. That, coupled with the partition, ruined the socio-political fabric of the country. We witnessed the largest mass migration in the world  14 million people were displaced along religious lines. More than a million died in schismatic riots. Friends and brothers turned against each other; it was a total moral anarchy.  We see its deep-rooted impact even today. The “them and us” mentality has fractured society and the vision of India that was created through our constitution and by the sacrifices of our freedom fighters. But art can play its role by being the balm on these wounds, by building bridges and not walls, by humanizing 'the other', by telling important stories and even inconvenient truths, and by challenging prejudices.  Making Manto is my little contribution.

You once said, “by speaking about Manto, I have found an opportunity to respond to what’s happening today.” Can you elaborate on this statement?

In the face of all the friction and disharmony surrounding us, and conversations becoming increasingly polarized, I thought I could take refuge in history and in Manto. It allowed me to express what I wanted to say as there is a deep resonance between Manto’s struggle to be himself and our own desires to find our true selves. The times are not too different either, even after 70 years. We have much to learn from Manto’s convictions and courage.

On March 4you will be speaking at Stanford to discuss the “Journey of Making Manto: From the Written Word to the Moving Image.” Why should people attend this event, and what can they look forward to learning about?

The process of an artist always intrigues me. All that goes into making a piece of art is always exciting for me. So I am hoping that my stories of making Manto will be of interest to the audience. Those who have seen the film will be able to make connections with the creative process, and I will be whetting the appetite of those who haven’t seen the film. Moreover, I will be interspersing my talk with clips from the film, making it more visual and illustrated with anecdotes.  I enjoy sharing the Manto journey, and from my past experience, I can say that the audience has enjoyed listening to my talks. I am hopeful that the session at Stanford will be no different.  

Manto is now available to watch on Netflix