By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Almost 20 years ago, I saw Indian actress-director Nandita Das on a balmy morning. She was sitting by the sea in Thiruvananthapuram, her hair flying in the gentle breeze making a lovely pattern on her face, much like the waves were on the sand. She was reading a novel, the name of which I forget now, but it took her a minute to look up as I stood waiting to grab her attention.
Das was just into her second film at that point in time, Deepa Mehta’s Fire — which was already beginning to rake up a raging controversy. The conservative sections of Indian society, including the radicalised Hindu political organisations, were angry that the movie spoke about lesbianism. Mehta tried telling them that Fire was not all about homosexuality. Rather, the work was about relationships, more precisely about friendship between two lonely women, played by Das and Shabana Azmi.
But the fire burned only brighter, the bitterness growing more malevolent — so much so that when Mehta was ready to shoot Water some years later in Varanasi, she and her crew were chased away from the town by fanatics. Her two lead stars, Das and Azmi, were ready for the camera to roll, and had even had their heads tonsured.
It was through such fury that Das emerged as a fine performer — doing films in several languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam and English), and with directors as renowned as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam, Santosh Sivan and Jag Mundhra among others.
Her range of roles was fascinating. Das was a poor destitute in Azhagi, a rape victim in Bawandar, a spinster in Naalu Pennungal, a village lass in Before the Rains, a soldier of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Kannathil Muthamittal...and the list goes on.
Maybe Das ran out of characters, and decided to step behind the camera — ridding herself of greasepaint and wielding the megaphone. She helmed Firaaq in 2008 with such celebrated actors as Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Paresh Rawal, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and so on. The movie saw the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots through the eyes of a variety of men and women — some victims, some perpetrators and some observers.
The other day in Chennai with her first theatrical play, “Between the Lines”, Das seems to have made a smooth transition from the screen to the stage. With her own husband, Subodh Maskara, essaying the only other character, Shekhar, in “Between the Lines”, Das — who also wrote and directed the production — was just marvellous as Maya, a novice criminal lawyer, in a gripping courtroom drama. She finds herself opposing Shekhar, the prosecution counsel — also her husband in the play.
“Between the Lines” is tinged with biting sarcasm — as it is laced with hilarity — between the partners — who cannot help transporting the legal arguments into their living room. With lines blurred, the relationship begins to sour, and the case of Kavita, accused of trying to murder her husband, starts to mess up the lives of the two lawyers — one prosecuting and the other defending the woman in the dock.
Das in the course of a long chat with me just before the curtains went up on her theatrical adventure, said that she was now writing her second movie. It would be about Manto — Saadat Hassan Manto, a Pakistani short story writer. He died at an early age of 42, leaving behind 600 short stories and hundreds of essays — all in Urdu.
Manto was a free spirit, who wrote what he saw, and what he wrote was controversial and far ahead of his times. He penned elaborate essays on sex workers. “In those days, nobody wrote about them, and in such a raw way as he did, empathising with their dilemmas and their tragic lives”, said Das, who is scripting her story along with a New York-based writer and Manto expert, Ali Meer.
It is not surprising that Manto should have invited the ire of the administration. He was tried six times for obscenity — thrice by the British and thrice by the Pakistani government. (After the Partition in 1947, Manto moved from Bombay to Lahore.) “In many ways, his life and times resonate with the kind of mood and atmosphere we see today,” Das averred.
She is not really making a biopic of Manto. Rather, she has picked some aspects from his life and work. Partition will be a focal point of her film. “His Partition stories are very, very powerful, but he does not look at this division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in an epic sort of way. He looks at it in a very intimate fashion: What happened to individuals in 1947, and the kind of horrors they had to face. The Partition affected him terribly. He was deeply pained by the sectarian killings, and realised that even the noblest of men were capable of devilishness in moments of madness.”
Das first came to know about Manto when she was in college. “I was fascinated by his short stories, and later when I used to think about movie direction, I thought that I would make a film out of one of these,” she contended.
“I first read Manto in English, and then a few years later, I bought the Urdu collection, Dastavez, in Devanagari. I was struck by his simple yet profound narrative and his insightful capturing of people, politics and the times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters.”
In a recent column in The Week, Das wrote: “For more than 10 years, I nursed the idea of making a movie on Manto, even before I had made Firaaq. But I felt overwhelmed by the large canvas — a period film, set in Bombay, Delhi and Lahore. His work, while being intimate, also explored the big events of the times — World War II, end of colonial rule and Partition. I didn’t think I could handle the research it would entail and was unsure if I had the depth and range of experience that was needed to portray a man like him. But today I do feel better equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story that so needs to be told.
“As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. I began to realise that it was because it felt like I was reading about my father. Baba (the celebrated painter, Jatin Das) is an artist who is engaged beyond art, a maverick who is intuitively unconventional, a misfit who is often misunderstood and even his bluntness isn’t too different from Manto’s. The similarity extends even to their unusual sensitivity and their non-relationship to money”.
Like Manto, Das appeared disturbed by the insensitivity and the intolerance of the times we live in. “What is this notion of other,” she wondered. “How do we treat women, how do we treat those who lives on the fringes of society?”
Questions galore, but answers may not be easy, though, to find. Nandita knows this well, but breaking barriers, whether they be of colour or caste or religion or just a different point of view, has been her passion — a passion that reflects in her screen roles, in the stories she chooses to tell and in the way she lives and loves.
* Gautaman Bhaskaran has been
writing on Indian and world cinema formore than three decades, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]
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