Nandita Das did not come to cinematography the conventional way. Raised by a painter father and a writer mother (both infrequent film-watchers), Nandita’s childhood was mostly movie-less. “While I grew up with a lot of art and artists, books and writers, films were not a part of my world,” she admits. It took college friends to expose her to India’s indie movies and world cinema.
And yet, this year Nandita is director of Cinequest’s opening night film “Manto” as well as one of three Maverick Spirit Award winners.
Activism, Nandita’s true passion, initially spurred her film endeavors—and continues to do so today. “During my many travels and interactions around the world, I have sensed a collective desire to understand this complex and violent world we inhabit and a palpable need for peace,” she notes.
Due to this mindset, Nandita considers acting (her initial “in” into the film industry) “sheer accident.” She maintains that “Even today after 40 films in 10 different languages, acting remains an interest and not a profession.” That being said, her experiences developed an affinity for being part of a story, an appetite for unflinching portrayals of unconventional roles, and a fascination with watching the rest of the crew work towards shaping a scene.
Storytelling became Nandita’s “survival tool,” an effective way to vent angst and express concerns at social injustice (particularly those committed against women, children, and the marginalized). “[Film] may not directly create revolutions, but it goes into our subconscious in a very subliminal way,” she observes. “Cinema can trigger conversations, humanize emotions, challenge deep assumptions and prejudices, and can spark new ideas. It can move us and influence personal reflection and change, which in turn can lead to larger social change.”
As she continued acting, Nandita shares, “The desire to tell stories, the way I wanted to, started growing stronger.” Directing and writing scripts were the natural result. Her second feature-length film, “Manto,” is a biographical drama about well-known 1940s, Indo-Pakistani writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, and his struggle to publish provocative stories under the burden of heavy censorship. Freedom of expression and the struggle to solidify an identity remain current issues in this part of the world. “More than 64 years after his death, inequity and mindless violence still trouble the sub-continent,” she says. “So much has changed yet so much remains the same.” She also adds “For [Manto], the only identity that mattered was that of being a human. His works are a mirror to our fears and prejudices and force us to face inconvenient truths.”
Nandita credits her leading man, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as one of the reasons the story breathes with life, stirring with the subtleties and nuances of the title character. “If you get the casting right, half your job is done, and with
Nandita’s candor is a fundamental pillar of her directing style. “Film needs to be honest in its intent,” she affirms. Consistent with this value, she is refreshingly open about sharing the challenges of filming “Manto.” She states it was no easy task compressing this accomplished human’s life into a script-length story (“I was trying to condense four years into two hours—quite a task!”) and that filming constantly seemed like a race against time (“It felt like on all-day shoots, the sun was setting too fast, and on all-night shoots, it was rising too early.”)
What’s more, she doesn’t mind sharing that directing has been more demanding than acting. “But while direction is far more challenging, stressful and consuming, it is also a very rewarding experience,” she states. “You get to tell the story you want to tell and in your own way. Every aspect of film-making brings out a different facet of you.”
Even now, Nandita doesn’t own a TV—but there’s no question that her unique, unconventional approach to filmmaking is worthy of the big screen.
Watch a screening of Manto and listen to Nandita Das share more about the film on the opening night of Cinequest. The event will take place at California Theatre, San Jose on March 5th,
Written by Johanna Hickle