Nandita Das on subversive writing, politics, and her film 'Manto'

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Nandita Das

What does it truly mean to subvert ones political, religious and ideological environment. Saadat Hasan Manto, the Urdu-language writer whose daring and gorgeously crafted short stories garnered him great acclaim and great controversy. Isn't that the work of an artistic and cultural disputer?

Be yourself, because everyone is already taken, says Nandita Das the director of the TIFF featured film Manto. Here she directs a beautiful story about the man Manto, who knew well  that words are pregnant with meaning of various kinds - metaphor provides meaning. Religion, politics, gender disparity and ideology of all kinds are driven by the artful expression of the artist, writer and provocateur. Manto the man and the film address many of these relevant issues to us all.

Either everyone's life matters, Manto famously declared, or no one's does. It is a motto that resonates through Manto's writing, which often depicted the unjust destinies of the marginalized throughout the events so vividly recreated in this stunning film.

Nandita Das and David Peck talk about the film Manto, dignity and context, subversive push back, normalized equality, deep convictions, having a social conscience and activism and why you need to be yourself, because everyone else is already taken.

Manto, the film, begins in an optimistic India waiting to be free from British colonial rule. No one has any idea of the upheaval the Partition of India and Pakistan will soon bring. Riots between Hindu and Muslim pit neighbour against neighbour, and strain even the deepest friendship. During this period, Manto - one of history's greatest short story writers - is torn between his beloved Bombay, and moving to Pakistan.

Increasingly, his writings bear shocking witness to a society caught up in communal violence in which people become, for no reason at all, predators or prey. Meanwhile, Manto's own flawed humanity drives him to shine a light on the dark underbelly of society that so many chose to ignore.

As Manto fights to clear himself from charges of obscenity and maintain his freedom, his increasing alcoholism and anguish takes a toll on his family and leads him to a downward spiral. Through all of this, he continues to write, his works mirroring the harsh realities of the time as he continues to pen the truth, for which he pays the ultimate price. This is the tale of two emerging nations, two faltering cities and one man who tries to make sense of it all.

Biography- Nandita Das has acted in more than 40 feature films in 10 different languages. She made her directorial debut with Firaaq, in 2008 that won many accolades and appreciation, both in India and abroad. Nandita also acted, wrote and directed the play Between the Lines in 2012. She was on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival twice (2005 and 2013), among others. She has a Master’s degree in Social Work and is a strong advocate for issues of social justice and human rights. Her second directorial venture, Manto, based on the life and works of Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the greatest short story writers of South Asia, recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the only Indian film to be selected in 2018.

Image Copyright: Nandita Das. Used with permission.

For more information about David Peck’s podcasting, writing and public speaking please visit his site here.

With thanks to producer Josh Snethlage and Mixed Media Sound.

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