Actor-director Nandita Das is all set to make a film about Manto, her second after Firaaq. In a freewheeling chat, she spoke extensively about Saadat Hassan Manto, a renowned Pakistani short story writer. He died at an early age of 42, leaving behind 600 short stories and hundreds of essays.
Das -- who was in Chennai with her theatrical debut, Between the Lines, which she wrote, helmed and acted in with her husband, Subodh Maskara -- said Manto was a free spirit, who wrote what he saw, and what he wrote was controversial and far ahead of his time. He penned elaborate essays on sex workers. "In those days, nobody wrote about them, and in such a raw way as he did, empathising with their dilemmas and their tragic lives", averred Das, who is scripting her story along with a New York-based writer and Manto expert, Ali Meer.
It is not surprising that Manto would have invited the ire of the administration. He was tried six times for obscenity -- thrice by the British and thrice by the Pakistani Government. (After the Partition in 1947, Manto moved from Bombay to Lahore.) "In many ways, his life and times resonate with the kind of mood and atmosphere we see today."
Das is not really making a biopic of Manto. Rather she has picked some aspects from his life and work. Partition will be a focal point of her film. "His Partition stories are very, very powerful, but he does not look at this division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in an epic sort of way. He looks at it in a very intimate fashion: What happened to individuals in 1947, and the kind of horrors they had to face. The Partition affected him terribly. He was deeply pained by the sectarian killings, and realised that even the noblest of men were capable of devilishness in moments of madness."
Das first came to know about Manto when she was in college. "I was fascinated by his short stories, and later when I used to think about movie direction, I thought that I would make a film out of one of these."
"I first read Manto in English, and then a few years later, I bought the Urdu collection, Dastavez, in Devanagari. I was struck by his simple yet profound narrative and his insightful capturing of people, politics and the times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters."
Like Manto, Das appeared disturbed by the insensitivity and the intolerance of the times we live in. "What is this notion of other," she wondered. "How do we treat women, how do we treat those who lives on the fringes of society?"
Nandita helmed Firaaq in 2008 with celebrated actors as Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Paresh Rawal and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The film displayed the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots through the eyes of a variety of men and women -- some victims, some perpetrators and some observers.Das herself has gone through fire and fury. Her second film as actor, Deepa Mehta's Fire, had caused a raging controversy. The conservative sections of Indian society were angry that the work spoke about lesbianism. Mehta tried telling them that Fire was not all about homosexuality. Rather, the film was about relationships, more precisely about friendship between two lonely women, played by Das and Shabana Azmi.
File photo of Saadat Hasan Manto.
But the fire burned only brighter, the bitterness growing more malevolent -- so much so that when Mehta was ready to shoot Water some years later in Varanasi, she and her crew were chased away from the town by fanatics. Her two lead stars, Das and Azmi, were ready for the camera to roll, and had even had their heads tonsured. Eventually, Mehta made Water with a different set of actors and in Sri Lanka.
It was through such anger and disquiet that Das emerged as a fine performer -- doing movies in several languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam and English), and with directors as renowned as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam, Santosh Sivan and Jag Mundhra among others.
Her range of roles has been fascinating. Das was a poor destitute in Azhagi, a rape victim in Bawandar, a spinster in Naalu Pennungal, a village lass in Before the Rains, a soldier of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Kannathil Muthamittal...and the list goes on.
Das seems to have made a smooth transition from the screen to the stage. With Maskara, essaying the only other character, Shekhar, in Between the Lines, Das was just marvellous as Maya, a novice criminal lawyer, in a gripping courtroom drama. She finds herself opposing Shekhar, the prosecution counsel -- also her husband in the play.
Between the Lines is tinged with biting sarcasm -- as it is laced with hilarity -- between the partners -- who cannot help transporting the legal arguments into their living room. With lines blurred, the relationship begins to sour, and the case of Kavita, accused of trying to murder her husband, starts to mess up the lives of the two lawyers -- one prosecuting and the other defending the woman in the dock.