This year, actor-director Nandita Das will be at the Cannes Film Festival to promote her upcoming movie, Manto. Not quite a biopic, but more a perspective on his radical ideas -- as Das had once told this writer during an interview in Chennai -- the film on Saadat Hasan Manto could not be coming at more appropriate time, when the freedom of every kind is under threat in India.
In fact, a clip of 6.37 minutes of the movie that was screened at the recent India Today Conclave and which was titled ‘In Defence of Freedom’ was compelling to say the least. A fantastic actor like Nawazuddin Siddiqui portraying the angst-ridden Manto conveys the pain and anguish of those turbulent times when the Indian subcontinent was split. The writer-playwright -- who was tried for obscenity thrice in British India and thrice after Independence in Pakistan - wrote with power and punch that the Radcliffe Line was the biggest lie which was told to the two nations.
The short video - a ruthlessly honest call for freedom of speech and expression -- shows Manto discussing the charges against him (obscenity, blasphemy and morality issues) in a class lecture. He makes light of these accusations, and adds that his writings mirror what is happening in society. And just because they are unpalatable, it does not mean that they do not exist. He reflects on the lives of prostitutes and the labour class to tell us of their struggles against the morally rigid upper classes in post-partition India and Pakistan.
Das could not have zeroed in on a better performer than Siddiqui -- who is seen as the frail, bespectacled but firebrand of a writer who raised a tempest in the literary and cultural citadels of India and Pakistan. And when Manto stands accused, it merely reflects the kind of malaise prevailing then, and the desperate bid to throttle truth and hide all that is hideously wrong in the two counties.
For Das, Cannes is nothing new - having been there several times, twice on the juries. One of them was on the main international jury. One film old as director -- Firaaq on the trauma of the days which followed the 2002 Gujarat riots - Das has also been an extraordinarily sensitive actor, with works like Fire and Earth to her credit. She has acted in Tamil and Malayalam movies as well, and has a wonderful way with languages.
Yes, one hopes that Manto will get a screening slot at Cannes, and what is more, that the movie gets exhibition rights in India. Given the kind of restrictive climate which is muffling cinema (Padmavati is one example), let us all wish Nandita the best of times.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran will cover the Cannes Film Festival this May.)
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