A few things we know about Nandita Das’s upcoming biopic on Saadat Hasan Manto: it will not be a “conventional biopic”; it will focus on the period between 1945 and 1949, it will be set in India and Pakistan, and it will not glorify the Urdu writer.

“Making this film was not about putting Manto on a pedestal,” Das said at the Times Literature Festival on Sunday.

The biopic stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manto, the prolific writer of short stories, radio plays and film scripts, and Rasika Dugal as his wife Safia, who stood by him through his years of struggle, the obscenity cases filed against his writings, and the trauma of the Partition in 1947 and the relocation to Pakistan. The cast includes Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta, Paresh Rawal and Rishi Kapoor.

The movie is woven around five of Manto’s stories. “If you watch a movie about Mozart, then you expect it to have the music composed by Mozart, don’t you? So, we have woven in several short stories into the script,” Das said.

Among the stories is the searing Toba Tek Singh, which looks at the tragedy of the Partition through the eyes of Bishan Singh, an inmate at a mental asylum. The role has been played by Vinod Nagpal, who replaced Om Puri after his death in January.

Manto is a very intimate story of a writer, of a man, of a husband, of a father, the many roles that he plays,” Das explained. “It’s about friendship, guilt, being lonely, wanting to be yourself, wanting to go beyond nationalist identities that constantly pull us down – hopefully that is what I have managed to capture. I want this film to be accessible, because I have not done justice to his work if his work is not accessible.”

Nandita Das at the Times Literature Festival in Delhi.
Nandita Das at the Times Literature Festival in Delhi.

A portion of the film looks at Manto’s heartbreak at having to leave Mumbai, a city he loved and that inspired several of his short stories. “It is my take on why Manto left Bombay and the trauma he must have subsequently gone through,” Das said. “He used to even say ‘main chalta-firta Bambai hoon’, I’m a walking, talking Bombay. Manto had taken the Partition extremely personally.”

The characters in the biopic include Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, who was friends with Manto and who contested obscenity charges alongside him in 1942. The movie will have a few scenes involving the feminist Urdu writer, of which one focuses on a letter by her to Manto after he moved to Pakistan, Das said. “We can’t know what actually happened, but we know that his friends from India were writing to him constantly, asking him to come back, but he never even opened these letters. One can imagine that there must have been piles of letters in their home lying unread.” In the scene, Safia Manto encourages him to read the letters and he picks the one by Chughtai.

Apart from Chughtai, the film shows the deep friendship between Manto and the 1940s movie star Shyam. “Shyam was a charismatic young actor and my producer told me that there is scope here to try and get a big name from the industry to play the role of Manto’s closest friend,” Das said. “I must have gone to every young, happening actor who would grab eyeballs, but they all very respectfully declined because they didn’t want to play the second lead.” The role eventually went to Tahir Raj Bhasin.

The biopic is aiming for a 2018 release. A peek into Siddiqui’s portrayal of Manto was provided by a short film made by Das earlier this year.

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