I first met Nandita Das back in July 1998 at a human rights conference in Rajasthan. I took a lengthy interview of her then. She comes forward as a human rights activist, a feminist and identified herself as a leftist. She continues in the same mindset, perhaps even stronger in her stance. She speaks of her country with a tinge of regret, saying she no longer recognises the country in which she has grown up.
Nandita Das is a big name in Indian cinema. Her film ‘Manto’ was released at the Cannes film festival in France on 18 May this year and it’s been a focal point of discussion since then. The film was recently screened in Bangladesh at the Dhaka Lit Festival. She also spoke in the discussion on the film there.
Who is this Manto? Why has this name generated so much interest? Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) was an exceptional Urdu writer. He was a non-communal, liberal and outspoken writer. He died at the age of 43, having spent 21 years involved in writing. In this span of time he came up with 22 books of short stories, a novel, two memoirs, three books of articles, five radio plays and many innumerable stories for films. He was Indian, but Pakistani too.
He simply could not accept the horrendous riots that took place during the India-Pakistan partition of 1947 where thousands of people were brutally killed. He was working with the Mumbai movies at the time and Hindu-Muslim conflicts emerged there too. Manto lost his job. Left bereft of everything and grieving, he began to live a secluded life. Then in January 1948 he left Mumbai and went by ship to Karachi and then on to Lahore. His wife Sufia and three daughters were already there.
Saadat Hasan Manto hardly found any work in Lahore, had neither any earnings nor recognition. He struggled financially. The Pakistan government considered him a communist and he faced all sorts of obstacles. Manto actually had a vision of a new free society and state, but this never materialised.
Nandita Das finds loud echoes of Mantos difficult predicament in today’s circumstances. He was under pressure for his writing and six cases were filed against him. He was penalised and then freed. But nothing could stop him. In our countries today, free thought and expression still face immense obstacles. That is why Nandita Das chose ‘Manto’ to seek solutions to the deep crises faced in contemporary times. She wants to stand by the Mantos of today, those who continue to speak out despite the risks involved. And she had done so with success.
Nandita Das was in conversation at the open restaurant in Hotel Sonargaon on 9 November.
Matiur Rahman: You are here at a special time for us, Prothom Alo’s 20th anniversary.
Nandita Das: Congratulations. I regret missing the celebrations.
Matiur Rahman: I saw your movie ‘Firaaq’ in Kolkata.
Nandita Das: Yes, that was 10 years ago in 2008.
Matiur Rahman: What a great movie that was on the 2002 riots in Gujarat. I really liked the film.
Nandita Das: ‘Firaaq’ has been screened at many festivals. The screening of ‘Manto’ has just begun, starting at Cannes.
Matiur Rahman: We know about Manto, the progressive writer in Urdu, Hindi literature…
Nandita Das: There was a strong progressive movement in the forties.
Matiur Rahman: The Indian Progressive Writers Union was an inspiration to us. They did amazing work.
Nandita Das: They had many writers in Urdu, Hindi, English…
Matiur Rahman: Manto was a part of this, so were his friends. What made you suddenly chose Manto for your film?
Nandita Das: Everybody asks the same question, why Manto? Actually I rediscovered him in 2012. I read his short stories in college, but in 2012 I read his articles and the writings of many media persons about him on his birth centenary. I was struck about how contemporary he was! The topics he dealt with at that time, the crises, freedom of expression, communal conflict, nationalism, all of these are so pertinent today. We were wanting to respond to all that was happening around us. I felt I could do so through this movie. We can reveal what was happening around us in our country and around the world, all the conflict being generated over identity.
Matiur Rahman: Manto was in Delhi and spent much of his career in Mumbai. But the partition and the Hindu-Muslim riots pained him deeply.
Nandita Das: Yes, it had a deep personal impact on him.
Matiur Rahman: There are a few incidents we know about. His friend, the actor Shyam, told him he could kill him.
Nandita Das: Yes, that hurt him deeply.
Matiur Rahman: He was also deeply anguished by the fact that he was dismissed from Bombay Movies and Filmistan where he worked and even someone like Ashok Kumar didn’t come forward to help him.
Nandita Das: Yes, he simply couldn’t write anything at the time.
Matiur Rahman: Manto just couldn’t rise up again amid these riots, the partition. He left for Pakistan in January 1948, went to Lahore and began writing again. But he struggled financially, lived through difficult times.
Nandita Das: Depression led him to drinking, to alcoholism.
Matiur Rahman: He told the writer Ismat Chughtai that he wanted to return to Mumbai, but that didn’t happen.
Nandita Das: No, that didn’t happen. He had a bit of an ego too, his sensitivity had been hurt.
Matiur Rahman: Your film covers the span between 1946 and 1950. Why didn’t you deal with the time after that, when he suffered the most?
Nandita Das: When I started writing the screenplay, it was a story covering 10 years, from 1942 to 1952. But there was so much to cover, he wrote profusely, articles, short stories, everything. It would have made a six-hour movie! That is why I finally decided to focus on the most significant time of both his life and that of India and Pakistan, that is, before and after partition. After all, partition has really defined the subcontinent in many ways, just like it is for you all – before 1971and after 1971. So I narrowed it down to that time span. And a lot of people don’t know Manto, about the trouble that he went through. He loved Bombay. He would say, ‘I am a walking-talking Bombay.’ I explored why he had to leave that Bombay, why he never returned, how society destroys such people. We have a responsibility. We are complicit. There are Mantos today who speak out for all of us without any censoring. But they are not safe.
Matiur Rahman: Manto has a book of 22 short stories, a novel, memoirs, film scripts and so much more. Translated into English, his works are now read in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, all over the world.
Nandita Das: Yes, he has been translated in so many languages. I found his books in France, in Japan. And the publishers tell me after this movie, his readers have multiplied, sales have increased.
Matiur Rahman: Out publication house has published Manto’s work and we are bringing out another book of his this month. We are also planning on a short story collection of his.
Nandita Das: The young generation in particular should read Manto.
Matiur Rahman: Your film has brought Manto forward anew not just to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but to the whole world.
Nandita Das: Yes, it has reintroduced him. We know Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway and writers of the west, but people don’t know our South Asian writers. When they saw ‘Manto’ in Sydney, Cannes, Toronto, they said, my God, his is such a modern man. Was he really from India, Pakistan, was he really South Asian?
Matiur Rahman: And he had quite an ego, writing his epitaph: ‘who writes the best stories, God or me?’
Nandita Das: Yes, that was for fun. He knew his family would never use this epitaph so he wrote another one!
Matiur Rahman: From ‘Firaaq’ to ‘Manto’. What next?
Nandita Das: I will definitely make more films. ‘Firaaq’ and ‘Manto’ were not a matter of choice. Both were made out of compulsion to tell these stories. For the first time I am now choosing what I want to do and am fortunate to have a lot of projects.
Matiur Rahman: On one had you are acting, on the other directing. Then you work for social justice too. Will all this continue?
Nandita Das: Yes, that is my basic intent. Films, to me, are a means to an end. It’s not simply about being a director or an actor. This is just a medium. Through telling stories I can share my concerns to a larger audience, and that is what my intent is.
Matiur Rahman: I met you in 2000, in 2012 and now yet again. How do you view yourself in this span of time?
Nandita Das: I never planned or thought about where I would be in the next five years. I do whatever I respond to instinctively, but I do care about what is happening around me as you do through your newspaper and various activities. I have a lot of speaking engagements at universities and colleges. I will be speaking at Harvard, Tufts, MIT. Your universities here aren’t calling me, but I am invited by universities abroad, in the US, I like interacting with students.
Matiur Rahman: It’s good you mention that. So you have come to the Dhaka Lit Fest, you spoke on women’s issues, you have a campaign, ‘Dark is Beautiful’.
Nandita Das: I heard that a new campaign has started here, ‘beautiful doesn’t mean fair’, inspired by the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. That is good.
Matiur Rahman: I am a great fan of your father Jatin Das, of his paintings.
Nandita Das: He is still painting away and very passionately setting up an arts centre in Odisha.
Matiur Rahman: I know about the museum in Odisha. I took a lot of our local hand fans for the museum there when I visited it twice.
Nandita Das: It has a collection of 8000 fans.
Matiur Rahman: I gave many of them!
Nandita Das: Bangladesh will have a good representation when we have fan museum!
Matiur Rahman: Finally, yesterday during the seminar you said we must continue to speak out…
Nandita Das: Yes, no matter what problems arise, whatever censoring there is, we have to go ahead like Rabindranath Tagore said, ‘ekla cholo re…’
Matiur Rahman: Nandita Das, thank you for visiting Bangladesh.
* This interview appeared in Bangla in Prothom Alo print and online and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir