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Nandita Das: Manto’s many grey shades make him interesting

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Actress-director-writer Nandita Das' film MANTO, a biographical account of Indo-Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto's life in post-Independence India, was premiered at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival. Suman Das and Souvik Ghosh catch up with the filmmaker in Toronto for an exclusive interview.

Can you please take me through the making of MANTO?
I began working on the project since 2012, which marked the centenary celebration (of MANTO). A lot of things then started to be written about him. So I thought he is as fascinating as his stories are and then I started working on the film. My first draft actually was supposed to be a ten years' story from 1942 to 1952 but it kept getting narrower. Now it is a four years' story focusing on the time period before and after partition (Partition of India, 1947) as it is a significant time for both India and Pakistan and also in Manto's life.

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How excited were you to work with Nawazuddin Siddiqui who is excelling in every genre?
Nawazuddin is becoming popular in every genre because he is able to do different roles with a lot of credibility and believability. In Manto, Nawazuddin's character is very different from what he did in Sacred Games and GANGS OF WASSEYPUR. I think he has done a fantastic job even as Manto and his eyes are very powerful which give a lived-life kind of feeling to the character.

Was Nawazuddin your first choice for Manto's character?
He was my first choice. I thought of him right from the time I was thinking of the script and Nawazuddin was very excited as well. He wanted me to do the film so much that he decided not to take remuneration for the role. So he has worked in the film for free. I think it is an actor's delight to do a film like this.

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Manto was a controversial character. Do you think this will draw the cine-goers to the theatre houses?
I think anything worth speaking about today is going to be a bit provocative. But I don't think we are trying to do it (make the film) because he was controversial. Manto fought for freedom of expressions and he was tried six times for obscene writings which we are now celebrating. He was a maverick for sure and people do not just want to see the typical biopic of someone who becomes an extraordinary person despite coming from an ordinary background. People want to see believable characters (onscreen) who have contradictions. Manto is also a kind of person who has many grey shades that make him interesting. He is a mix of all but also has the will to speak the truth. He is honest, courageous, fearless, cares about marginalised people, women and sex workers.

You started your career as an actress but now you are a director. Now you see things through lenses. Do you follow the works of any national or international director?
Of course, I learn from life, world, and people but it's not a conscious learning. I don't think I studied any director to follow a certain style. The whole idea of creativity is to get influenced and impacted by everything around us followed by an internalization to tell one's own story.

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Do you think the Indian filmmakers are vulnerable to government pressures nowadays? Like what happened during PADMAAVAT. Do you think artists' freedom is at stake?
Well, I have still done the film. So I am not cowing down to any kind of pressure. I think if artists, writers or filmmakers are not being able to tell their stories then it will be really sad because the movie-makers are supposed to mirror the reality and what is happening around us in a way. So it is very important for us to have that fearlessness. In terms of censorship, MANTO has few cuts. Initially, the censor board had come up with a lot of cuts but I had explained to them the logic behind such scenes. I told them that I had no intention to sensationalize things. I think when artists will become more fearless and conscious of the society, things will also change. The government will have to think about it and we need to support each other. If we start getting scared and self-censoring ourselves, then what's the point of becoming a director.

There is a growing intolerance in the country. When the country was divided on the basis of religion, can we really blame people for the rising intolerance?
I thank God that our statesmen kept our country as secular while Pakistan became an Islamic state. Yes, things have been changing. People who are speaking up are being put behind bars (now). We see Gauri Lankesh (journalist-activist) getting killed in Bengaluru. It is a difficult and troublesome time. This is the reason why artists, writers, journalists should find the courage within themselves to uphold the democracy.

According to a Pakistani film critic, Manto is a controversial writer because his topic was sex-oriented but he also said the film should be nominated for the festival (TIFF). What would you like to say about it?
See everybody will have his own response to a film. Many Indians as well as Pakistanis, who came to the screening of the film at TIFF, were moved by the film. So I don't think the response of one particular critic is too much because I feel everybody will take the film in a different way. Even some people will be uncomfortable with the stories Manto wrote while others will admire them. The film speaks less about Manto and more about people and their prejudices. I am not judging anyone but people should decide. Let people give the final verdict.

Did you select TIFF for the premiere?
My world premiere was about to take place in Cannes (at Cannes Film Festival) actually. I couldn't have asked for a better start for the festival journey. TIFF is a special premiere as I started my festival journey here. FIRE (the film which featured Nandita opposite Shabana Azmi in a lesbian relationship) was shown here in 1996.

India's Supreme Court finally read down Section 377. How do you react to it?
I am very happy about it. This is a whole issue of social justice and human rights. Who are we to tell someone not to be in love? We should be against hate, lynching and the kind of intolerance we are seeing in the country. Why should one stand in judgement about anyone else's choice or sexual preference? So I think it was long overdue but I am very happy that finally homosexuality has been decriminalized in India.

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