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Nandita Das on ‘Manto’: ‘His story is the best way to respond to everything in the world today’

The Saadat Hasan Manto biopic, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, has been premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Manto, Nandita Das’s biopic on Saadat Hasan Manto that stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rasika Dugal, was premiered today at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section.

For years – even before her directorial debut Firaaq (2008) – the 48-year-old actor and filmmaker has nursed the idea of making a film on one of the subcontinent’s most revered writers. Manto is as relevant today as he was during the turbulent times of the Partition, Das feels. She told in an email interview about what drew to her to Manto, the research that went into the film and how she chose her cast.

What is the importance and relevance of a film on Saadat Hasan Manto today?
My answer would be, why not Manto? The four years that I cover in the film between 1946 and 1950 were the most tumultuous in his life and that of the two countries where he lived – India and Pakistan – making it very interesting and insightful to portray in a film. Also his writings are so powerful and relevant today that his story seemed the best way to respond to everything that is happening in the world.

In 2012, when I read his essays, they helped the idea expand beyond his stories. It took me five years to feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story.

Manto’s fearlessness and an unflinching insight into the human condition are what I have always felt most deeply connected to. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him. The only identity that mattered to him was that of being a human, and not nationalistic or religious identity. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, also resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy. Making the film was not just about telling people about Manto but to invoke the Mantoiyat, the Mantoness that I believe all of us have, whether dormant or awakened.

His story is relevant both because of its universal nature and on the ground, in our subcontinent, not much has changed since he wrote them. We are still grappling with the same issues of freedom of expression and sectarian tensions, still negotiating between modernity and older ways of thinking. Even today our caste, class and religion take precedence over the universality of our human experience. We are still dealing with censorship and bans. Manto would have fit right in and would have lots to say about these times.

Manto (2018).

Why did you decide to focus on the period between 1946 and 1950?
These four years, in many ways, were defining moments for both Manto and for the Indian subcontinent. It is an intimate retelling of the times, seen through the eyes of an intensely engaged writer. The Partition of India impacted Manto very personally and his stories of the times bear testimony to that – some of his best works like Thanda Gosht, Khol Do and Toba Tek Singh.

The film’s narrative is seamlessly interspersed with some of his most powerful short stories where the lines between his work and his life get increasingly blurred.

What kind of help did Manto’s family members give you? And in India, where material on Manto is available but also scarce, what did you find?
Manto was very prolific and has also been extensively written about. So while I have read a lot by and about him, it can never be fully exhaustive.

I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to speak at length with his daughters, as well as with his grand-niece, the eminent historian Ayesha Jalal. Zakia Jalal, his sister-in-law, who is also featured in the film, is somebody who had the best account of Manto as a person. From all the conversations, I have collected nuggets that have seldom been found in books.

I also spoke with many Manto experts. For instance, Saeed Ahmed from Lahore, who I think is one of the most Mantoesque persons I have met thus far, apart from my own father [Jatin Das], a maverick artist – blunt and misunderstood, as Manto was. I met some people who were part of the Progressive Writers’ Association, like Shaukat Azmi, Sagar Sarhadi and others who gave me interesting insights with their stories and memories.

Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui on the sets of Manto. Image credit: Viacom18 Motion Pictures.
Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui on the sets of Manto. Image credit: Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

How did you choose your cast – particularly Nawazuddin Siddiqui?
It was not an easy feat to make a film that is based on real people, to find good actors with a reasonable command of Urdu and who look the part. But my casting director Honey Trehan and I did manage to put quite an exciting ensemble cast with many surprises. It is a large cast, as most of the actors that were in Bombay scenes could not be repeated in Lahore. It was almost like doing two films.

I always had Nawazuddin Siddiqui in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut, was Nawaz’s first significant role in a feature film. In 2013 at Cannes, when I was in the short film jury and he was attending the festival for Monsoon Shootout, I told him about the film. He was excited, and assured me that he would give all the time and commitment to it, whenever it happened. It took me longer as the subject was vast and challenging.

They say if you get casting right, 70% of your job is done. With Nawazuddin, that is exactly what happened. He looks and feels the part. He has an incredible range as an actor, but intrinsically Manto lies somewhere in his eyes – it was an obvious choice.

I have been fortunate to have many eminent and good actors who have supported me by doing cameos in the film, like Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Gurdas Mann, Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Neeraj Kabi…the list is long. Even Javed Akhtar acted for the first time in a film.

Rasika Dugal in Manto. Image credit: Viacom18 Motion Pictures.
Rasika Dugal in Manto. Image credit: Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

What about the rest of the main actors: Rasika Dugal as Safia Manto, Tahir Raj Bhasin as Shyam, and Rajshri Deshpande as Ismat Chughtai?
Safia, Manto’s wife, is integral to the story. She stood by him through his best and worst times, as many women have for their celebrated husbands. I had watched Rasika Dugal’s Qissa and had instantly decided that she was going to play Safia. She is an amazing actor and a delight to work with. She got into the skin of her character and brought out that quiet strength along with being the supportive wife that she was.

Finding Shyam was the toughest. I needed someone who had the charm and attitude of a star and yet was gentle and genuine. After meeting many Bollywood stars at the behest of my producers, I met Tahir Raj Bhasin. Apart from looking the part, he seemed to have all the characteristics of Shyam quite naturally.

What brief did you give Sneha Khanwalkar, who has composed the music for the film?
Music, as in the songs, are composed by Sneha, whom I have thoroughly enjoyed working with. She has a very unique way of approaching music and sounds, melody, instrumentation; all play an important role in it. We have taken many walks on Carter Road by the beach, ideating about songs and tweaking them endlessly. It has been one of the most creatively stimulating parts of the process for me.

I have also enjoyed observing Zakir Hussain’s process of creating music for the film as he gave form to the background score.

Rasika Dugal, Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Image credit: Facebook.
Rasika Dugal, Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Image credit: Facebook.
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