There are two films at Cannes this year representing the biggest filmmaking country in the world.
There are two films at Cannes this year representing the biggest filmmaking country in the world. And both are by women directors. Actor-director Nandita Das is in the official selection at the 71st Cannes film festival, which begins on May 8, with her second directorial venture, Manto. Debutante director Rohena Gera’s Sir is part of the parallel section, the Critic’s Week. One tells the story of Manto, an iconic writer, and the other of Mumbai, a bustling metropolis.
The women-led Indian representation at Cannes this year, compared to the absence of a full-length film from the country in the previous edition, is a massive statement. Only last year, a survey on gender and cinema had painted a gloomy scenario for women filmmakers in India, with statistics showing female directors forming only 10% of the total. The skewed ratio hasn’t impacted the skills of Indian women filmmakers, though, as the Cannes selection this year shows. Cannes festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who doesn’t support positive discrimination for women directors, chose Manto as part of the nearly 60 films he selected from over 1,900 entries from around the world. On the other hand, Gera’s film, set in Mumbai, is the only non-European entry in the feature competition section of Critic’s Week.
“It’s an honour to be selected by a committee that comprises respected critics who have such a wealth of knowledge and understanding about cinema,” Gera told Financial Express on Sunday. “To be one out of just seven films selected from the 1,100 the committee watched is very humbling,” adds Gera, a Stanford graduate, who wrote more than 40 episodes for the TV series Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin. Sir, which received the support of the state-run World Cinema Fund of France for post-production, is the story of a domestic help and her employer. Ratna lives in the home of the wealthy Ashwin, who has given up on his dreams unlike his help who is full of hope.
Both Sir and Manto have Mumbai as an integral element of their narratives. “Mumbai is a heaving metropolis, with all sorts of contrasts brushing up against each other,” says Gera, whose film stars Tillotama Shome, Geetanjali Kulkarni and Rahul Vohra. “The film’s characters have very particular relationships with Mumbai, almost as if it is another character. For one, it represents freedom and possibility, for another, enormous constraints,” adds Gera, who will be vying for the Camera d’Or award for the first film of a director. “The city is a key part of the film, in that it represents millions of individuals, each finding their way in a challenging environment,” she says.
The first-time feature film director also applauds the selection of Nandita Das to the influential festival. “I am very happy to be sharing this moment at Cannes with Nandita, for whom I have a lot of respect,” says Gera, who co-wrote Bollywood flicks Kuch Naa Kaho (2003) and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008). “I feel it’s symbolic that it is two women this year (at Cannes). It’s a time for the women of our country to stand together and make our voices heard,” she says.
Das, the third Indian woman to be on the prestigious Cannes competition jury after author Arundhati Roy and actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, will be screening her film in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival. “I am most delighted that Manto will start its journey at Cannes,” Das says. The film focuses on the five years in the life of writer Saadat Hasan Manto just before and after Partition. The first two of those five years were spent in Mumbai, where Manto lived, and the rest in Lahore, where he moved to.
Three years in the making, Manto assembles a powerful cast, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui taking the title role. Rasika Dugal is Manto’s wife Safia and Rajshri Deshpande is his friend and writer Ismat Chughtai. Das, who dealt with the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots in her first directorial venture Firaaq (2008), chooses another tumultous period in the country’s history for her second. In doing so, the filmmaker tries to find echoes of the past in contemporary society.
“There is a stark relevance of Manto in current times,” says Das. “Not much has changed… almost 70 years later, and we are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity,” she adds. “Even today, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class and religion as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. We can see censorship all around. People self-censoring, fearing trouble. Right-wing groups taking on the role of being the moral police, and the official censoring body, where the rules are getting stricter and the decisions more and more subjective and arbitrary.”
Das says there are scenes in the film showing how people attacked Manto, saying what he wrote was obscene and pornographic. “Manto was tried for obscenity six times—three times by the British government and three times by the Pakistani government—just because he wrote about sex workers,” says the filmmaker. “His writing tried to understand and empathise with people who are on the margins of society. It was about those who nobody wants to write about. In fact, he also says, ‘If you can’t bear my stories, it’s because we live in unbearable times’.”
Manto, Das explains, is relevant today not just in the subcontinent, but around the world. “Artists, writers, free thinkers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced. Any society grows and develops when you have people speaking the truth and think ing differently. If you silence them, what hope do we have? I know he would have had lots to say about the times we live in.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer