Nandita Das does not expect her movies to start revolutions, but she hopes they will at least inspire people to go “one tiny bit toward a better world.”
As this year’s Maverick Spirit Award Winner at Cinequest — Silicon Valley’s annual Film Festival — Das, an accomplished actor and filmmaker, made the journey to the Bay Area from her hometown of Mumbai, India for the opening night of her latest movie, “Manto.” She’s also on a tour of American universities to talk to students about the making of the movie, which follows the life of acclaimed Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto — and his journey from Bombay to Lahore during the India-Pakistan partition of 1947 — which was steeped in controversy over his writing, resulting in obscenity charges six times.
Ironically, as is often the case, it’s the same writing Manto is celebrated for today.
Das herself is no stranger to controversies — having acted in Deepa Mehta’s “Fire,” the first Bollywood film to show a lesbian relationship which was met with vociferous protests in India. Manto premiered worldwide at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018,and Das was one of the 84 women who walked the red carpet in protest, calling for gender equality in the film industry.
Manto was banned in Pakistan in December, sparking the hashtag #FreeManto.
Almost every film Das works on delves on prejudice, discrimination and human suffering — issues she deals with in her role as a social justice advocate when she’s not making movies.
We sat down with Das right before her movie screened at the California Theater in downtown San Jose Tuesday to chat about how her film is relevant today in light of the current tensions between India and Pakistan, and her message to her American audience.
Here's an abridged version of that inerview. The full interview can be viewed in the video above.
Did you expect Manto to be banned in Pakistan?
I was very keen for Manto to release in Pakistan, because Manto belongs to both India and Pakistan. And he was someone who really looked at humanity beyond national identities — therefore I thought this should be released on the same day ideally in both places which didn’t happen.
The censor board there wanted some cuts and was almost sort of close to banning it — I sort of resigned to that fate. But to my surprise people there: artists writers students professionals, literally took to the streets. They filed a petition on their own completely unprompted and went on a march which started in Lahore and moved on to Karachi and Multan.
People literally took to the streets and said Manto should not be banned ... This is a story that needs to be seen widely. I don't know what’s going to happen now — with this whole Indo-Pakistan tension at the moment. Because of those horrible Pulwama terrorist attacks it has probably gone to the back seat, but in some ways Manto's story just continues to be more and more relevant. After all, his partition stories are some of his most defining works in times of violence, discrimination and prejudice. So in some ways I think he needs to be watched by many people and definitely by other countries.
How do you think your film is relevant today in light of current tensions between India and Pakistan?
It's been more than 70 years since partition and we know that we keep invoking it. It's part of our narrative in a very very deep way, and it created a kind of a Hindu-Muslim tension which is not just between India and Pakistan but within our countries as well. Especially in India, we do see that kind of attention constantly popping up when there are riots. This is a recurrent theme until we rise above these divisive forces that are constantly telling us how different we are in the name of religion or caste or gender or sexual preference. So I think his convictions, his courage, his championing freedom of expression and his desire to show reality is all relevant today.
What is the message you want to send your audience in America?
"Art definitely has a very strong role to play — otherwise art wouldn't be banned. Why do conservatives feel threatened by a film, because obviously they know that it can very subliminally impact you without you even realizing it. And that's the power of cinema — it can trigger conversations."