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Home / Brunch / Guest article by Nandita Das: Manto’s India... present, continuous, tense

Guest article by Nandita Das: Manto’s India... present, continuous, tense

The mirror that Manto held up to the country all those years ago still reflects the same issues

brunch Updated: Jan 26, 2020 00:03 IST
Nandita Das
Nandita Das
Hindustan Times
For Nandita Das, spreading ‘Mantoiyat’ – the desire to be more honest, courageous and free spirited – was one of the main reasons for making the film on Manto
For Nandita Das, spreading ‘Mantoiyat’ – the desire to be more honest, courageous and free spirited – was one of the main reasons for making the film on Manto

In 2008, after I made Firaaq, my first film, I wanted to write about the experience of making the film. That book still remains in my head, though the memories are getting foggier with time. Ten years later, as I finished making Manto, I wanted to make sure that my journey did not fade away. There were many stories hidden behind the six years of research and writing, and the making of the film. While I had shared some of them with close friends and family, and others through interviews and public conversations, there was still more to tell. The book is a stream of consciousness where my creative, emotional, socio-political, and spiritual experiences are all organically intertwined. I decided to call this deeply personal journey, Manto & I.

Spirit of azaadi

From the time I started making the film, Manto’s relevance has only increased. More than 70 years later, we are still grappling with the same issues of identity that are inextricably linked to caste, class, religion, and gender as opposed to seeing the universality of human experiences. What resonated with me about Manto was his free spirit and his courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. He fought six court cases for the same works that we celebrate today. His stories were a mirror to society and reflected the struggles of the time and his lens always remained personal and intimate. I subconsciously find myself doing the same.

Spreading ‘Mantoiyat’ – the desire to be more honest, courageous and free spirited – was one of my main reasons for making the film. Today, artists, writers, activists, students are all battling for freedom of expression. As the nation protests to keep the secular fabric of India, we are reminded of the time of Partition and how writers like Manto reflected the strife through their work. I took refuge in telling his story to primarily respond to what is happening around us. Nothing warms my heart more than when people see the parallels.

As the nation protests, we are reminded of the time of Partition and how writers like Manto reflected strife through their work

As I am now immersing myself in other films and characters, Manto continues to be my inspiration and my moral compass to tell the stories I feel must be told. For me, Manto is not just the man or the writer, but a state of mind, a way of engaging with and caring for the world we live in. With Manto & I, I share a very precious journey.

Story of a life

When I saw the 3,000 odd photographs taken by Aditya Varma, our on-set photographer, I knew it also had to be a picture book. He had managed to capture the precious moments of the film and the madness behind it. Though I am sure he would agree that the amazing work of the cast and crew and the locations we managed to shoot in had a significant contribution to the magic of the images. There are also many that have been taken through other cameras and cell phones, including mine. When I started collating the photos, snippets of my writings, quotes by Manto and responses from viewers, I did not realise how much more it would entail to put the book together. There were times when I wanted to abandon it, but I am glad I didn’t. Slowly, my memories, reflections, dilemmas, struggles and little moments of euphoria began to find their way into the book.

Saadat Hasan Manto (pictured above) fought six court cases for his writings, which are celebrated today
Saadat Hasan Manto (pictured above) fought six court cases for his writings, which are celebrated today ( Courtesy: The Manto family )

If you have seen the film, I think you will enjoy reading the whys and hows of making it. Why I chose to intertwine Manto’s stories with his own life; why I focused on the period between 1946 and 1950; how I managed to convince a wide range of actors to play cameos; how we recreated the Bombay and Lahore of the 1940s in today’s modern clutter and many such questions are answered in the book. And if you have not seen the film, I hope this book piques your interest enough to want to see it. I always find it fascinating to watch painters, potters, musicians, dancers, or directors at work as much as I am enthralled by their final expression. I think it is true that art and artist are inseparable.

I have been as candid as I could in sharing both, my moments of excitement and the many challenges. But I have chosen to withhold some disappointments as they are best forgotten. I am happy for those memories to fade away. It is no cliché that mistakes and failings create learning opportunities and acknowledging them is the beginning of finding solutions. And ‘letting go’ of things not in my control was one of the biggest lessons that time and again revealed itself to me. The angst and concerns that I have taken the liberty to share are more about systems that need to change and prejudices that ought to be challenged. They are not rantings against anyone in particular. I have enough reasons to be grateful to my wonderful cast, crew, producers and other fellow travellers.

This book took much of my time and much of myself, but now my Manto journey feels complete.

Author bio: An award-winning actress, Nandita Das has also directed films like Firaaq and Manto. She’s garnered critical acclaim internationally and has also made her debut as an author recently.

From HT Brunch, January 26, 2020

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