"Now, I Feel Equipped, Both Emotionally & Creatively To Tell This Story That So Needs To Be Told" - Nandita Das!

By Srikanth Kanchinadham. Posted on April 05, 2016

Bombay (or Mumbai as they call it now) has been hailed as the city of dreams much before it became synonymous with Bollywood. Saadat Hasan Manto, the iconic writer whose works have left a huge imprint on the modern day society, is also a product of this city. A cynic by nature, Manto’s writings had a blunt, satirical take on the societal taboos that were prevalent in the Indian society then.

He has also written the script and dialogues for Hindi films including Kishan Kanhaya (1936) and Apni Nagariya (1939). A film on the on the final years of Manto's life has already been written by the award winning Pakistani playwright and journalist Shahid Nadeem.

Now a film focusing on the writer’s life in Mumbai is being made by actress / director Nandita Das. The project has also been selected for The Asian Project Market, NFDC Co-Production Market and Drishyam | Sundance screenwriters lab.

Known primarily for donning unconventional roles, Nandita Das has always been part of stories that are meant to make a difference. She has also acted in numerous regional films by eminent directors like Deepa Mehta, Mani Ratnam, Mrinal Sen among many others. Her directorial debut feature Firaaq premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has won multiple awards internationally. Among the many honors, Nandita Das was also the first Indian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Women’s Forum. You can watch the trailer of Firaaq right below:

We recently interviewed the director on how she came about choosing Manto, the research process involved and much more.

1. What has been your experience trying to raise money for Manto from production houses in Mumbai? Hasn’t it become easier to get money for off-beat subjects given the success of films like 'Masaan' & 'Titli' in the last couple of years?

The biggest chunk of my funding is coming from a private investor, a US-based businessman/philanthropist. Actually, I have not approached any big studios yet though I hope to go to them for distribution.  I wanted a very hands-on producer who would be there on the ground. Vivek Kajaria, who produced Fandry, seemed like a good choice for more than one reason.  He has the reputation for being extremely credible, transparent and passionate.  I would say the same about my French producers Sandrine Brauer and Marie Masmonteil. As of now, I am the producer as I am putting it all together!  But I am hoping soon that all other producers will be officially on board and we can start rolling.

While Masaan and Titli are good examples of off beat films that have been funded, I am sure there are many that have not been so fortunate. Even with my project, despite it being a compelling subject and the script getting good feedback , there is a fair amount of pressure to get a star. As it is a period film, the budget is higher than a typical Indie film and for it to be viable it needs a more marketable cast. A different kind of project will always have its challenges.

Sasha Don

Nandita Das at work

Photo by: Sasha Don

I think APM (Asian Project Market) was a good opportunity to meet some potential sales agent and am very much looking forward to Sundance Drishyam screenwriters lab.  I am sure my script will benefit from intensive sessions from script advisers. I am very open for it to be torn apart if it will benefit the script. After all the script is the backbone of any film.

I am sure these labs provide writers with a new perspective and a fresh look at their own scripts.

2. What inspired you to choose the subject?

I first read Manto when I was in college and was struck by his simple yet profound narratives. For years, I nursed the idea of making a film on Manto, even before I made Firaaq. Now, I feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively to tell this story that so needs to be told.

What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against the orthodoxy of all kinds. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon I realized that it felt like I was reading about my father, an artist. He too is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from my protagonist.

Nandita Das with Manto's Daughters

Nandita Das with Manto's daughters

Finally, for sure it is most relevant to our times, for multiple reasons. We are still grappling with issues like freedom of expression and struggles of identity. I feel a film on Manto can bring India and Pakistan closer, and counter the stereotype perceptions.

3. Could you talk about your research process?

Manto has written extensively about himself and about people around him in his essays, which has been the primary source of research.  And then there are others who have written about him, like, Ayesha Jalal’s Pity of Partition - Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide and the Centenary book she wrote with Manto’s youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal; Ismat Chugtai’s  autobiography, Kaghazi Hai Pairahan.

Today there are very few people alive who knew Manto. I was fortunate to meet Intezar Hussain Sahab, who recently passed away. He shared many interesting anecdotes as he knew Manto well. I have spent considerable time with Manto’s sister-in-law who is in her 70s.  Apart from her, Manto’s daughters and other family members have been incredibly supportive of me and this project.  They have shared precious nuggets that cannot be found in any book.  I have also met Shaukat Azmi, Salma Siddiqui (wife of Krishan Chander) and Manto admirers like Sagar Sarhadi, Javed Akhtar,  Gulzar sahab and many others who have read Manto extensively.

4. When do you expect the film to get into production?

If all goes well I should be able to shoot before this year ends.


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