Manto’s Writing Ritual

Writing rituals are like training wheels that keep you balanced as you’re learning to ride. Writing rituals are ways to connect with your environment, time, and the flow of your life. They help you to connect, but this very connection is the thing that keeps you stagnant.

The life and energy in your writing comes from the very stuff of your life. This is the very reason why both writers and those around them fear the power of the pen. It’s the ego who has one way of seeing things that is different from the ego in the next body. This is why it’s always a good idea to ask permission before taking action. Other people will perceive things differently. If you surrender the power over to them for their will, be it of the ego or of the spirit, then you give them the choice to participate or not.

This evening, the Writer saw Manto, a film directed by Nandita Das. Prior to the film, a man asked her questions interviewed her about some of her thoughts. Here’s what she had to say:

It’s fun to create on your own, but the best part comes when you share your work with others.

The definition of a good movie is one that entertains. The definition of a great movie is one that saves lives.

Nandita Das is the director of Manto.  This is her 3rd time at Cinequest Film Festival. 

Her father, Jatin Das, is an artist and her mother, Varsha Das, is a writer. Throughout her childhood, Nandita met interesting people coming through their home all the time. Through them, she learned a lot about self-expression and she has always been open to finding different ways to express herself. She wrote a column for a while, for example.

Nandita is a mother, director, activist, screenwriter and much more. She’s a champion of multiple identities.

“People get boxed into identities,” she says, even for roles that they didn’t choose such as being a male or female, or born into a certain social position.

“Everyone has multiple identities and they’re fluid,” she says. It constantly changes and it’s thrust upon us. In this Cinequest theater full of white people, she might suddenly fall into the role of being a brown person because others perceive her as Indian. 

There are identities that we cling onto and try to hold onto, but others we try to shun.

When you ask a lower caste person in India, there’s not a day that goes by that they don’t think about being part of that caste because they’re reminded of it every day. When you do social work, it exposes you to different societies and different silos. We need to consider ourselves fortunate when we are exposed to different societies. 

People often ask her if there was a turning point. Every day there are turning points. Someone might say something to you and it sticks with you. There are small turning points like this all the time. Everything that happens in your life impacts you.

She told a story about a woman who had facial hair until she was 27. At that point, she had it removed and suddenly many people saw her as very beautiful, but she didn’t get a lot of attention prior to removing the facial hair. 

Nandita loves her work, so her “downtime” is her work. There must be a power to art because it goes into our subconscious. There are propaganda films that try to brainwash us.  Good Cinema is that which stands the test of time. The goal is to challenge prejudices and open minds. It’s easy to despair. We’re just a drop in the ocean, so it can feel discouraging, but do it anyway.

Do it because you feel like Manto. He just kept writing hoping that someone would read it and change from within. He was not doing it to be an activist. This resonates with her and her work. 

What is your why? In the morning there is no time to ask herself why. She has an 8 year old child that she has to get out the door. She also has email that she doesn’t want to do. She also has other things she really doesn’t want to do. 

She doesn’t watch films about violence. She doesn’t like violence. You can feel fear and emotional, but it’s not fearful.

She never had a moment thinking that she should do a particular film. In 2002, there were killings and gang rapes. This is when they finally got 24/7 TV and people could see the violence. She started to give a series of talks. When she was doing the talks, people were either for or against it. It felt too polarized. This is when she considered the idea of doing a film. The film happened organically. One thing LED to the other and she made the film. It had poor distribution. 

Some of the best films she has seen were pirated films on YouTube. 
Back in 2012, she read an article about out Manto in The New Yorker magazine:

The Seer of Pakistan

Manto reminded her of her father. When putting together the film, she took consideration Manto’s writing and the accounts of his life, but there’s a lot of her in the movie as well. 

As an activist, she spoke out on stage. She realized that she didn’t like being criticized on stage. 
The role of the artist is to find some truth (interviewer said). 
The beauty of art is that it can’t be defined. It’s no one’s place to tall another that this is what you should make. So much goes into making a film. Lots of time, energy and money goes into it. But if it’s a drop that makes the world a little bit more of what we want it to be, then it’s worth it.

One of Manto’s writing rituals was to keep a pencil and paper with him in his pocket everywhere he went. In this way, he was able to write about what he saw around him at any time. He soaked up the pain and suffering of those around him and penciled his observations. Don’t be fooled by the pencil. His words will never be erased.

A conversation with director Nandita Das on her new film Manto

I to I with Nandita Das

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