“I have not put Manto on a pedestal” Nandita Das


Actress/director Nandita Das

Interview of Nandita Das

Nandita Das, the critically acclaimed Indian actor-director, whose realistic portrayal of a lady with ambivalent sexuality in Deepa Mehta’s controversial feature, Fire (1996), got her the attention of critics and audiences alike. She has also been praised for her performances in films like Earth (1998), Azhagi (2002), Kamli (2006), and Before The Rains (2007), among others. In 2008, she made her directorial debut with Firaaq, a film that focused on human relationships against the backdrop of violence, as well as contentious gender issues.

Her second feature film, Manto, due out on September 21 this year, depicts the life of one of the subcontinent’s greatest short story writers of the 20th century, Saadat Hasan Manto. The biopic, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the titular role, covers the writer’s last years — his pre-partition life in (the then) Bombay and his post-partition days in Lahore. In a little under two hours, the film is said to throw light on some of the most defining aspects of Manto’s turbulent life, along with his work.

In a recent email interview with The News on Sunday, Das talks about the challenges she faced while filming Manto, how the story would still inspire people, and what she thinks of the term ‘woman director.’ Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): Manto is due to come out in September. What were some of the challenges that you faced as a director while making the film?

Nandita Das (ND): Making Manto was a huge task. Writing the script based on extensive research, raising funds for it, finding locations, managing a large cast and crew — all of it took the life out of me. Also, being a hands-on mother had its challenges as my child was with me throughout the journey of making the film, including on set. And the shoot was super hectic. On all-day shoots, it felt like the sun was setting too fast, and on all-night shoots, it seemed as if it was rising too early! We were always racing against time to finish.

One of the toughest challenges was to find the right locations for Bombay and Lahore shootings, amidst modern-day clutter, on a budget that didn’t allow the luxury of too many sets and visual effects. Sadly, we couldn’t shoot in Lahore, as initially planned, because of the political tensions. So, we had to find Lahore in India. Thankfully we did and that’s a whole different story!

TNS: The film has already been screened at Cannes and Sydney film festivals. How was it received there?

ND: We got an incredibly positive response at Cannes, with a four minute standing ovation; strangers hugged me, some were sobbing. Six years of relentless work and challenges had finally found its culmination, that too at Cannes, which is for industry professionals only. It was no different in Sydney, where the screenings completely ticketed with general audiences, with Q & A sessions at the end. These screenings gave me a sense that the audience was eager to see and engage with the life of Saadat Hasan Manto.

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