Even before she had written a word of her first book, filmmaker and actor Nandita Das knew what she wanted to call it: Manto & I. In the recently published coffee table book, Das takes readers behind the scenes of her second film Manto (2018), documenting a six-year journey that she spent crafting a portrait of writer and playwright Saadat Hasan Manto and his times.
Manto’s relevance has only increased since Das began working on the film, she writes in the introduction to the book, and the kind of censorship he faced is uncannily similar to curbs in the present sociopolitical climate. In Manto & I, interspersed with lush photographs are Das’s memories of and reflections on the long years of research, the writing process, the challenging search for locations, the casting, shooting and the business of “selling” the film, while taking what she calls “Mantoiyat” – the spirit of Manto – beyond the big screen.
A day after the 65th anniversary of Manto’s death, Das spoke to Scroll.in about why she decided to turn the making of Manto into a book, before going up on stage for a lively session at the Kerala Literature Festival in Kozhikode. Excerpts from the interview:
Why did you want to write Manto & I?
When I made Firaaq in 2008, there were so many stories (from the making of the film). Though I have acted in many films, it’s a whole different journey when you are directing. The journey begins from the inception of the idea of why you choose to tell that story to the very end, like the challenges of releasing the film and the response to it. And that journey continues. Firaaq was a pre-social media film. There are more platforms now, in the sense that the shelf life of a film is slightly longer.
There were basically a lot of unsaid things that were raring to come out, more so with Manto because it was a six year long journey. I started it in 2012, Manto’s centenary year, and it was released in September 2018 and then it continued because I took it to various universities and festivals. So I felt that not only was it cathartic, but I also wanted to document my creative, emotional, sociopolitical journey, the things that I have learnt.
I have always enjoyed seeing the journeys of artists. Like when a musician is rehearsing, I find it very fascinating how they rehearse. It’s not just the outcome, but the process in which an artist is engaged. So I thought maybe it will be of interest to others as well. Art and artists are quite inseparable, as we know, so what is that connection, why do they make the choices that they make?
Were you thinking about documenting your experience while shooting the film? Did you take notes or keep a journal? What kind of a book did you want to write?
I didn’t really plan it. Nothing in my life is planned, one thing leads to another. By the end of it, I thought it would be interesting to document the process. I wasn’t journalling while shooting, there was not a moment to breathe. It’s like you are reliving the film in a way when you start writing.
I had initially thought, I had given so many interviews, I would compile them…and I have a kind of a FAQ, I would just put it together with the many lovely photographs that hadn’t been used. I thought it would be much easier. But when I actually started writing (I realised) you are also writing for an audience which hasn’t seen the film, those who don’t know who Manto was, and those who have watched the film.
So I was also thinking, who am I sharing this journey with? How can I be true to the journey I want to share, and to readers who are so diverse. When I was making the film, there was a small percentage who knew a lot more about Manto than I do, there were a whole lot who know nothing about him, and then those in the middle, who had half-baked knowledge, who are the most dangerous because they think they know more than they do. Then I had to select the photos, write captions, and include some quotes of Manto’s. All in all, it became a bigger project than what I had imagined it to be.
You have written in the book about the many people who worked with you on the film, your relationship with Manto’s family in Lahore, and why you chose to make a film on Manto. What are some of the other things a reader might find in Manto & I?
I wrote it almost like a diary, a stream of consciousness where you just literally relive the film. Why I thought of the film, how I put it together, how I generated the funds for a film like this, about someone whose name people hadn’t even heard – they said, “Manto, Minto, who is that, what does it even mean?”
Starting there, how do you go to actors? I had collected a whole lot of known actors in the hope that I wouldn’t compromise on the way I want to tell the story, so if I could get actors who were credible and right for the part, maybe that would help. The book also discusses the struggles of independent films, how you market and distribute it, the nexus between producers, distributers and exhibitors, etcetera.
I also write about what it is to be a mother and make a film. Why are there so few women? It’s also because we having to juggle between a lot of things. What is it to have a female gaze? How has my own relationship with owning the label of “woman director” changed? After Firaaq, I used to hate the label, but today, I feel you have to assume that title if you want more women directors to come in.
You can’t say I don’t want to be labelled that way, but that I want more women directors. These labels are probably important because there are so few of us. But things are changing. So every little thing that found its way into my journey has also found its way into the book.
The book also talks about how your son too has had a bit of a journey with the film. Could you talk to us about what that was like, for him to watch you so deeply involved with a subject like Manto? How does he relate to him?
Yes, it was almost in parallel! He was born in 2010, so in 2012 he was two years old. So from the time that he has had any kind of consciousness, he has seen me working on Manto. And it is a challenge because it is long drawn out, and you go to a shoot while balancing everything. I have written about all of that.
If you ask him, he will tell you who Manto is – “Saadat Hasan Manto and his wife was Safia Manto” – he knows the broad story. He also had a small role in the film – slight nepotism, I have to admit (laughs). He is credited it as “Boy on the bar”. It wasn’t written for him, the role was already there and I got him into it. So he was very much a part of the journey.
Sometimes he asks me when I am working, “What are you working on, mamma?” And I say, a film. “Again? You are going to make one more film?” And just when he thought the film was over, I started writing the book. “Now you are writing about all of this?” he asks. Of course, writing the book was far more solitary. I also worked from home, trying to juggle.
I have also written in the book about what it is like to work from home, how as women we are constantly distracted because we are multitasking, we really never enjoy that full focus. You can ask most mothers, there’s a constant worry or thought at the back of your mind.
Did working on your book make you view your film differently?
Yes. You see your film so many times, you see it with a different lens every time. When I was doing the subtitling, I could only see the words to check whether the English was right for it or not. When you are doing the sound, you only hear every distinct sound. So at a subconscious level, you know you are creating a context.
If I see the film now, there are a hundred things I want to change, but there are decisions you made at that time with the information you had then, which happens to all of us. It’s true that when I was writing the book, there were stories that came to my mind that I had not shared at all, even in interviews. There are new things that come to your mind.
The only things I have withheld are the not-so-good experiences, the disappointment of working with certain people, and some things that didn’t pan out the way you had imagined. But when you have a certain distance even those don’t seem as bad as they were at that time. At that time it was like, “Oh god, I should not have hired this person, or I should not have worked with so and so!”
Mishaps happened and I have mentioned some but I haven’t gone into the details of who and why because it’s immaterial right now and there is always more to be grateful about. They were learning experiences.
What are you working on now? Another film?
Yes, which I can’t talk about yet. A couple of things, actually. There’s a lot of work coming after Manto, especially web series, things like that. A lot of it is like a business almost – like “just make two episodes, you don’t need to do the rest”…but I have never really worked like that.
Even both the films I directed, it wasn’t like “Oh, I want to direct a film and let me find a story.” It was more that I really wanted to tell that story. So I’m still kind of struggling with that space. So I am going to take my time. This book also took some time. I continue my social advocacy through everything.
Manto for me is not just a man and the writer, he represents a certain idea. That’s why I keep saying I want to spread Mantoiyat which is Mantoness, which means the will to be free-spirited, the will to be courageous, the will to be more honest and truthful. Whether I do other projects, it’s now something that is part of…
Yes, I think it always was, and now it’s got a name. It’s like an inspiration and a constant reminder. Of course there will be other stories, but Manto will always be there somewhere.