Day 2 of the 23rd International Film Festival of Kerala yesterday saw actress-director Nandita Das sit down for a conversation with film critic Meena T Pillai on subjects that veered from her film Manto (2018) to feminism and even the Sabarimala issue.
Praising the rise of the Women in Cinema Collective in the Malayalam film industry, Nandita Das said, “It is not a man versus woman fight. I think we all have to increasingly understand we are fighting patriarchy. Not men!”
She added, “Women have begun to question many things. Women have grown in many ways, and I am afraid the men haven’t. We are equals, and we both can question and can share our ideas. It is a slow process.”
The director’s film, Manto, was screened at the festival yesterday at 6.15 pm.
Speaking of her tryst with the story of Sa’adat Hassan Manto, Das said, “It is very difficult to make a film on a writer. In fact, only after I made the film did I realize that no film had been made on a writer. Except Mirza Ghalib (1955), written by Manto! He got the National award for it, but he was not able to take it because he was in Pakistan and in a very bad state.”
She also questioned the notion of not celebrating writers through cinema: “There are more films in Hindi about underworld dons than there are about writers and musicians. So, what kind of a role model are we creating?”
Describing Manto’s feminist writings, the director said she consciously chose women as heads of department for her production design and music. “There are always women assistants because they are focused and struggle harder to be there,” Das said. “But you don’t have enough women heads of departments.”
This, Das added, was being done in the name of ‘merit’. “Meritocracy is the biggest hurdle sometimes,” Das continued. “In the name of meritocracy, we don’t look harder. Meritocracy also has a historical wrong of equality. It is not just for gender, but for caste, religion also.”
While Das’s first film as an actress, Fire (1996), and her first directorial, Firaaq (2008), both opened at the earlier Kerala film festivals, the filmmaker said her role as a social activist exceeds her role as an artiste.
“Those experiences of street theatre with Safdar Hashmi, or social work days, that is what laid my foundation of understanding how the world works,” she said. “That is why for me art remains a means to an end. Art is not an end in itself. In that sense, I am not a true artiste, I confess.”
In an eloquent conversation, critic Meena T Pillai sought Das’s opinion on one of the more controversial topics in Kerala these years — Sabarimala. While Pillai did not name the subject, her choice of a question on menstruation was a leading one.
Das, however, sidestepped the issue saying that as a commoner she would “uphold the Supreme Court judgment”.
The actress-turned-director also slammed shamers of menstruation, saying, “In the 21st century, if ‘polluting’ is the word we are associating with women, then that is very sad.”