“A story humanizes the other. … Suddenly you see that unknown, and it’s a person,” said Nandita Das, director and writer of the 2018 biopic “Manto,” last Thursday evening at the Center for Contemporary South Asia’s screening of the film.
At the event, Das discussed questions of truth, identity and artistic expression relating to “Manto,” which follows Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto in the years surrounding the partition of India and Pakistan.
Leela Gandhi, interim director of CCSA, introduced Das as “an artist of tremendous conscience and conviction,” highlighting Das’ directional work in addition to her acting roles in over 40 films. Along with her numerous awards, Das became the first Indian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Women’s Forum.
According to Gandhi, “Manto” follows many of the themes of Das’ earlier work around gender, hyper-nationalism and violence.
The first half of “Manto” takes place in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1946. Manto, a non-practicing Muslim, works as a scriptwriter in the film industry, where he has established a network of friends, both Hindu and Muslim. Manto also writes short stories, columns and essays for various other publications. After India gains independence, and India and Pakistan are partitioned in 1947, the film follows Manto as he decides to move to Pakistan because of Hindu-Muslim tensions. Following his move to Pakistan, Manto encounters turbulence in both his personal and professional life. The plot of the film concludes with his departure for rehabilitation.
The final scene of the film after Manto’s departure shows one of his short stories, “Toba Tek Singh.” Four of Manto’s other short stories punctuate the film, engaging with issues of gender, prostitution and violence. Another of the short stories depicted, “Thanda Gosht,” which translates to “Cold Meat” in English, allows the audience to better understand the charges of obscenity that led to Manto’s trial in the second half of the film. All of the short stories frame and provide further insight into the main story line through Manto’s writing.
Lakshmi Padmanabhan AM ’14 PhD ’18, junior fellow at the Dartmouth Society of Fellows, moderated the discussions with Das before and after the screening. She remarked that the film “blends different kinds of truth” in its efforts to portray Manto’s stories, narrate him as a character and stay authentic to the time period. Das explained that films often blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction; for example, people sometimes attribute quotes from her script to the historical individual of Manto, she said. “I put words in Manto’s mouth, but I have a feeling he’s going to forgive me,” said Das.
Identity develops as a major theme throughout “Manto,” initially drawing Das to Manto’s story and ultimately allowing her to “engage with the issue of identity without making it didactic,” she said. Manto’s identity as a Muslim, even a non-practicing one, shapes much of the story in the film. At Monday’s event, Das expressed her frustration with the ways that divisive politics polarize and thrust identities upon people. In Manto’s writing, she continued, he discusses identity by talking about humanity. “In many of Manto’s stories, you can interchange the religion, and it wouldn’t change anything because they are really about human beings,” Das said.
Das described her vision for the film as a response to issues of identity, humanity and violence. She continued to explain how, in all of her work, she is motivated by the message over form. For Das, art functions as a means to an end, and she feels compelled to tell the truth, like Manto, she said. Another theme that resonated deeply with Das in the story of Manto was that of artistic expression. Das mentioned her experiences with censorship committees and described the pressures that people face not only with official censors but also with “other elements that have taken it upon themselves to be the censor, … the self-proclaimed custodians of culture who are telling us what to wear, what to eat, what to watch,” she said.