Manto is a film which has the potential for being a global film
Award – winning actor, director, columnist, committed social activist and philanthropist Nandita Das’s introduction on Twitter reads that she wears many hats intermittently. Her current focus is on her upcoming film on renowned novelist, playwright, essayist, screenplay writer and short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto. This has also brought her to the ongoing NFDC Film Bazaar with an agenda to find co-producers and international sales agents for her film Manto. Das speaks to Pandolin about how the idea behind Manto grew and how the objective of the film is to tell the world that we had a writer like Manto.
What intrigued you about Manto’s writing that made you pick it up in Devanagari after having read it in English during your college days?
I read him (Manto) in college days but never thought of him as a film. Although even before my debut film Firaaq (2008), I’d started thinking that it would be so amazing to make a film on some of his stories. But reading his essays was a discovery because there was a lot more that he talked about and how he thought about different things. His essays were not just fictional and I got to know more and more about him. And then I started reading about his life and found it so fascinating and interesting and felt that this would make for a very compelling film. I felt that the issues of his time haven’t sadly changed that much. There is still a struggle for freedom of expression, especially in today’s atmosphere where most of us are artists or writers; a lot of people are struggling to express themselves.
The questions of identity haven’t changed much – we are still struggling with multiple identities whether it is religious or nationalities. Some identities are thrusted more on us than we want. Issues such as belonging, refugees, migration are also universal issues. Manto was a Bombay writer and after partition he had to move to Lahore because of fear and a sense of betrayal that he felt at that time. He did not actually wear his Muslim identity on his sleeve at all. He didn’t even think he was an Indian writer. He just thought of himself as a writer and at the most, a Bombay writer. So there were many aspects of his life that I felt have resonance in today’s times and it would make sense to make a film on him in these times.
From being a social activist to making your debut film around Gujarat riots and having acted in films that highlights issues prevalent in the society; your work also resonates with Manto’s writings. On what levels do you relate to him and his writings?
My father Jatin Das is an artist and at a person level I feel he is very Manto-esque. In the sense that though being an artist he has never really been part of the artist’s market group, as art has also sadly become a commodity. Like Manto, he has also never really been driven by money. He is very out-spoken and somewhat a misfit. I’m very close to my father and when I come across struggles of someone who is so honest and wants to speak up all the time, I feel there is a connection I have with Manto. Also I don’t see acting or direction as professions; I still see them as interests. Somewhere I feel that the film on Manto has the power of making a difference. That’s why I want to do films.
This is something that I feel so passionate about because it is a story that I really want to tell. I feel Manto had this feeling that writing and literature have that power of making a difference. That’s why he continued writing even when he was financially in a bad shape and became an alcoholic especially when he was in Lahore. But he had a belief that his writing can contribute to some kind of change – not that he has ever said it but at a subconscious level he believed it. I think there is a resonance there as well.
As you mentioned, Manto’s writings to be relevant in today’s time as there is a lot happening everywhere especially the struggle for freedom of expression. What are your thoughts on that?
He never perceived himself to be an activist. He in fact says that ‘as much as Gandhi has to do with films I had to do with politics’. He didn’t feel that he was political and yet he was actually extremely political in all his writings. According to him political meant to understand why things happen the way they happen. In today’s times, we can see this all around – censorship or the formalized board like we have – CBSE, people who are self – censoring to avoid trouble or moral policing where some group decides that something is hurting their sentiments.
Here at Film Bazaar I got to know that the entire section of films by students has been taken out as they don’t want to show films by students that are about the FTII strike. So these are different forms of censorship and silencing us. And that is what Manto fought against. He was tried for obscenity six times – three times by the British government and three times by the Pakistani government, just because he wrote about the sex workers. There are a lot of interesting essays. We also have scenes in the film showing the way people attacked him saying that what he wrote was obscene and pornographic and how he defended what literature is as his writing was not to titillate somebody. His writing tried to understand and empathize with people who are on the margins of society. It was about those people who nobody wants to write about. In fact he also says that if you can’t bear my stories it is only because we live in unbearable times. The stories only reflected what happened in society. So I think it is relevant not just in our South Asian sub-continent but also around the world. Artists, writers, free-thinkers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced. Any society grows and develops when you have people speaking up the truth and thinking differently. And if you silence them then what hope do we have.
You have penned the story along with a New York based writer. Tell us more about this collaboration and experience of working with him.
I was doing a fellowship at Yale last year for four months. It was a World Fellows Program and at that time I would often go to New York because it was an hour and a half away. A friend of mine introduced me to Ali Mir (Ali Husain Mir). He had written a book called ‘Anthems of Resistance’ which was about the All India Progressive Writer’s Movement of 1940s. So he knew about Manto and his contemporaries such as Ismat Chugtai who is also a prominent character in the film. I didn’t want to take someone who was totally from the film space. But Ali Mir had worked on the story and script of Dor and has done many songs for Nagesh Kuknoor’s films such as Dor and Iqbal. Hence he had a film sense as well. Also at the same time I wanted someone who could speak and read Urdu because some of Manto’s works haven’t been translated from Urdu. So for the research, the Urdu part of it and for somebody who had the knowledge of Manto’s writings; I just thought that he would be a good collaborator.
You even recently went to Lahore to meet Manto’s family and do some research?
Yes I have been to Lahore couple of times and it is a wonderful city. And I think if Manto cannot bring India and Pakistan at least culturally together, then I don’t know who will.
Pakistani director and actor Sarmad Sultan Khoosat also made a film on Manto recently. How different will your film be?
It won’t be similar as the only similarity is that the subject is the same. That film is set in the last few years of Manto’s life, which means it is all in Lahore. And I think every film is different. Manto luckily has so much in his life and his writings that more the merrier. To be honest, we are not at all threatened by the fact that a film on the same subject has been made. In fact we are glad because we want people to know about Manto and get intrigued because not everybody knows about him. Though people in India-Pakistan know about his name, they are not introduced to his writing. And a large portion of our film is based in Mumbai which is not shown at all in the other film. In fact I’m speaking with Sarmad Sultan Khoosat on Manto in Lahore in the next four days.
Manto has to various places from the 18th Asian Project Market at the Busan International Film Festival and to Film Bazaar. What kind of other collaborations do you have in mind?
We have been getting an amazing encouraging response with this film. We already have an Indian producer and 75% of the film is already funded. We also have a French co-producer and are slowly trying to put things together. I don’t know much about the producing part of it so even I’m gradually learning through the whole process because I want to make sure that I get strong producers. We always work really hard and struggle to make the film and if it is not properly distributed and released, then it is not worth it. Manto is a film which I think has the potential for truly being a global film. It is extremely rooted in the social cultural milieu of Mumbai and Lahore of that time – his relationship with the film world, with other progressive writers and his personal relationships. And the time period that we are taking is also very important in the lives of India and Pakistan because it is around the partition. I really want the world to know that we had a writer like Manto. I’m pretty sure that if Manto was born in Europe, a couple of films would have already been made.
What is your objective at Film Bazaar?
The main agenda is to look for other co-producers to do the gap funding and also to get international sales agents. There is lot of interest in the international sales agents. After this I’m going to send them the script and I hope we get the best ones.
-Inputs from Shweta Wadhwa