After starring in over 40 films and directing two, Nandita Das recently sallied into the literary world. Her debut book, Manto, chronicles what transpired behind the scenes of the eponymous movie that she directed. I caught up with the versatile artiste at the fifth edition of the Kerala Literature Festival, where Das got candid about her triumphs and tribulations as a director, travels around the world, and bucket-list destinations. By Adila Matra
Why did you decide to write Manto?
Manto, the movie, was a six-year-long journey, that began in 2012. There was a lot that I learned during the course of it, from the inception of the idea to the challenges of releasing an independent film. I felt the need to document this journey somewhere. Hence, the book.
Tell us a bit about finding the perfect location for the movie Manto, since it is set in the Lahore of the 1950s.
I was documenting Manto’s life from 1946 to 1950 and wanted it to be authentic. I really wanted to shoot in Lahore, but it did not work out. Then we thought Punjab would be a good choice, since its architecture is similar to that of Lahore.
But the two don’t look similar anymore.Everything has changed, it has lost its old-world charm. After weeks of research, we finally found the Lahore of the 1950s in Vaso, a small village in Gujarat. I saw photographs of the town first, and it felt like Vaso was stuck in the past—the bylanes, streets, and markets reminded one of Lahore.
Most of your movies like Before The Rains and Earth are known for their breathtaking locations. How has your experience of travelling as an actor been?
For Mrinal-da’s (Mrinal Sen) swan song Aamaar Bhuvan, we travelled to Bengal, to a small town near the River Ichamati. Across the river was Bangladesh, and Mrinal-da would say that the sun rises in Bangladesh and sets in India. I have done films in 10 different languages, and that has allowed me to travel to many obscure places that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I shot a movie about farmer suicides in Amravati, one of the driest places in Maharashtra. Bawandar was shot in the middle of a desert in Jodhpur, during winter, where we would go to bed thirsty as drinking water turned to ice at night. Had it not been for my films and social advocacy work, I would not have seen and experienced these parts of the country. My movies have also taken me to festivals around the world—Vladivostok in Russia, San Sebastián in Spain, Durban in South Africa, and so on.
How is it to be a woman filmmaker in an industry that is still mostly dominated by men?
At times, I wonder about the notion behind the label, ‘women directors’. Maybe it is because women constantly juggle many roles. I had a son to take care of while shooting Manto. From the time he was two years old, he has seen me working on the movie. It is a challenge—balancing home, shoots, and holidays.
Which countries would you describe as women-friendly?
All the Scandinavian countries are very evolved that way—men with prams are not an unusual sight there. I went to Vietnam recently, and was stumped by the amount of physical labour women do there. Be it high-altitude regions or riversides, women are an important part of the working class. It is so heartwarming to see them carrying huge baskets with fruits and vegetables. They are also in hardware shops and restaurants. And it makes you feel safe as a woman traveller.
What are the destinations on your bucket list?
I went to Vietnam, but I missed out on Cambodia. That’s definitely on my bucket list. Latin America is another region that I would like to explore.
What kind of a traveller are you?
Right now, I am a traveller who is also a mother. With a child, you see a destination in an entirely new light. I recently went to Japan with my son, and we visited the Suginami Animation Museum in Tokyo and an owl cafe—places that I hadn’t visited on my earlier trip. It always depends on who you travel with.