Nandita Das’s biopic Manto, the only Indian production in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival (May 8-19), isn’t only about Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The biopic also promises to shine a light on Safia Manto, who was married to the legendary writer from 1936 until his death in 1955 and bore him three daughters. While Manto is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Safia is played by the gifted Rasika Dugal. The 33-year-old actress made her debut in Anwar in 2007 and has since appeared in the television series Powder (2010) and movies including Kshay (2011) and Qissa (2013).

Manto charts the life of the author in Mumbai and Lahore, to which he migrated after the Partition. The film also stars Rajshri Deshpande as Manto’s contemporary Ismat Chughtai and Tahir Raj Bhasin as Manto’s friend and Hindi film hero Shyam. In an essay in, Nandita Das argued that Manto may not have been the hero that he became had it not been for Safia, who stood by him through thick and thin. Das revealed that Safia was “simple to a fault, needing less and less through their hardships”. Dugal, who trained at the Film and Television Institute of India, speaks to about bringing Manto’s better half to life.

Did you know that a biopic on Manto was in the making?
I had read about it. I had already read a lot of Manto’s writings anyway. And, funnily enough at that time, I was taking Urdu classes, just like that. So, this was like poetic justice in a way. It is amazing how in this industry, sometimes you keep trying for certain things and they never work out and then some miracles just sort of fall into your lap.

Rasika Dugal as Safia Manto and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Saadat Hasan Manto. Image credit: Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

How did you get cast in the biopic?
I was acting in a play called Bombay Talkies, which was selected to be one of the plays that would be filmed for an initiative Nandita was supporting called CinePlay. They were filming existing theatrical productions and later on they went on to do plays through filming. She said she really liked my work and asked me to keep in touch and tell her if anything interesting came up.

At that time, Qissa was being released. I invited her for a screening of the film and she really liked it. She told me that she had me in mind for a project and as soon as she could put it all together, she’d contact me.

Almost a year later, she called me and said she’d like to meet me. She told me that she was making Manto and she wanted me to play Safia Manto and here was the script. You want me to test, you want me to read with Nawazuddin once, you want me to audition, I asked her? No no, I’m sure you can pull it off, she said. I remember telling her that if there were video cameras in her area, they would have found me dancing with joy after that meeting.

What research did you do for the role?
The script was rich enough to start with. I don’t really have a set way of working on anything, I just do things that I find fun around a project. Within that, you find the point of entry with which you connect with your character.

Nandita had gifted me five volumes of Manto’s works, which is called Dastavej. One of the volumes is his essays – his account of some things that were happening in his life. This was very interesting because you felt like you were talking to a person and not reading a story.

I also read some essays that Ismat Chughtai had written about Manto, and she had talked about the first time she met Manto and Safia. Manto used to write a gossip column about the film industry which is compiled in a book – it’s called Stars from Another Sky in English. There’s one chapter on Nargis. In that, Manto talks about how Safia and her sisters apparently used to prank-call Nargis because they were simply in awe of her.

I used to also on and off speak to Nusrat aapa, who is one of Safia’s three daughters. It was very sweet because I felt that when I did the look test for the film, I had a strong resemblance to Safia. I thought I was delusional. But when Nusrat picked up the phone to talk to me, she said, I have seen your photograph and you closely resemble my mother. It was really nice to hear that. I thought okay, if she also felt this way, then it must be true.

Safia and Saadat Hasan Manto. Image credit: Nandita Das.

How did you play a character about whom relatively little is known?
Yes, unlike Manto, there is very little written about Safia. In fact, Manto himself has not mentioned her too many times.

Nandita had a lot of anecdotal information from the family. She spent a lot of time with Manto’s daughter and Safia’s sister in Pakistan. Much of that is already in the script. That information is priceless. You can’t find that anywhere else.

There are some characters with whom you spend a lot of time and you just don’t end up finding an entry point into them. And then there are others that you feel are made for you. Safia was one of those.

What was your take on Safia Manto, the person?
I didn’t walk into the film with any preset ideas about the kind of person that she would be because that’s not how we function in real life. I didn’t want to give Safia any adjectives in my own head. For instance, a strong woman and things like that. Once you vocalise such things, it becomes very uninteresting for an actor.

The turning point for me was when I almost got angry reading through Manto’s essays that he hadn’t mentioned anything about me – about Safiya, that is. I realised that something was happening within me – I was in the zone in some way.

At another point, I realised that I had to stop being in awe of Manto as Rasika. I’m sure she wasn’t waking up saying, oh my husband is a great writer. At the end of the day, it was a husband wife relationship and they had been through a lot together.

I grasped, very instinctively, what the role of a caregiver was. I also did not have trouble understanding the 1940s as a period. This could possibly be because some of my most favourite pieces of literature are the ones that have been written during the Partition. Also, my family too has been through a lot of displacement between Burma, Lahore and Jamshedpur, not during the Partition but around it. So maybe how you deal with displacement and how your memories are constructed around that time is something that I understood.

What was working with Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui like?
Nandita is very straightforward as a person, which is a rare quality to find in people, especially in the film industry. Manto too was like that – never to mince words that were on his mind. Nawaz and I used to call Nandita Lady Manto. She would say things as they are, with sensitivity and without any ideas of hierarchy or other qualms, which is an enviable quality.

Nawazuddin too has endured several years before getting the work he is getting now. I find that similar to my own journey and hence, I was absolutely keen on watching his process, what he did between takes, how he prepared for the role. I have a lot of respect for his craft. During the shoot of Manto, he must have found me staring at him in awe.

How relevant is Saadat Hasan Manto today?
Reading Manto’s writings every day while preparing for the role made me feel very empowered. I remember telling my husband that one Manto [piece] a day can see you through these polarised and jingoistic times. Unfortunately, Manto and his writings are more relevant today than ever. Not just in our country but everywhere. I wish it wasn’t so.

Qissa (2013).

You have been in front of the camera for over a decade – what do you make of your career thus far?
In terms of roles, until two years back, there wasn’t much choice and I almost took up anything that came my way. In the recent past, there has been some choice. But I look back at the time before I started out as an actor with a lot of envy. I had a lot of courage back then to try new things.

I studied mathematics, then on a whim I applied to a mass communications course, shuttled between Lucknow and Bombay taking up different assignments. Later, when I got bored with my job, I decided, again on a whim, to apply to FTII. It was such a liberated time in a way, learning to find myself through experiments. Now, I get the feeling I’m actually limiting myself.

The one disappointment that I’ve had is that the films that I have done haven’t reached as wide an audience as they deserved. They’ve not had good releases and I felt very let down by that. The short film Chutney was, in fact, my first experience of a piece of work reaching such a wide audience. It has opened up a lot of opportunities for me.

Whether it was Chhaya [from Kshay] or Neeli [from Qissa], I was not conscious of my process as an actor. In fact, that’s what I strive for even today: that as I do more and more work, I should not become more aware or conscious of my process as an actor. Once you become conscious, it is both very boring for the actor to perform and for the audience to watch. Even now, I realise how a character has impacted me much after I have exited it. I think that’s the way it should be.

Chutney (2016).

Atul Sabharwal’s acclaimed television series ‘Powder’ is getting a new lease of life on Netflix.
I knew it was ahead of its time. It had a fabulous script. If it had been marketed correctly, it would have made an impact. The fact that it was aired weekly once perhaps didn’t work because there was so much information in each episode that it was hard to remember all of it a week later. Had it been released as a daily, it might have done well.

Among your upcoming films is Aijaz Khan’s ‘Hamid’, about the relationship between a mother and a son in conflict-ridden Kashmir.
It is a sweet, simple story – a personal account of a mother and a son living in a conflict zone. I was nervous about taking it up because I was wondering if, as an outsider, I’d be able to do justice to a story about a land that has gone through and continues to go through so much. I do not want to be a voyeur to someone else’s grief. But shooting in Kashmir helped me find a connection, an entry point into my character Ishrat.

Then there’s also Gaurav Bakshi’s Reincarnation in which I play a different role – a break from playing the good woman, I can say.

Kshay (2011).