The cast of Nandita Das’s upcoming biopic Manto is led by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the Urdu writer and includes a host of prominent actors as family members and contemporaries. These include Rasika Dugal as his wife, Safiya Manto, Rajshri Deshpande as writer Ismat Chughtai, and Tahir Raj Bhasin as the Hindi film actor Shyam. Bhasin has previously played villainous roles in Mardaani (2014) and Force 2 (2016), and for the 31-year-old actor, Manto is an opportunity to prove his acting range. The movie will be released on September 21.

The actor Shyam, born Shyam Sundar Chadda in 1920, was a dear friend of Manto. The writer dedicated a whole chapter to Shyam in Stars from Another Sky, his experiences with the Mumbai film world. Shyam made his debut in the Punjabi film Gowandhi (1942). His career took after with the Bombay Talkies production Majboor in 1948, and he had a series of releases during the 1940s and early ’50s, including Kaneez, Patanga, Bazar and Dillagi. Shyam died during the shoot of the 1951 film Shabistan, at the age of 31.

For Bhasin, playing Shyam is an opportunity to revisit a period of Hindi film history about which little is known, he told Scroll.in.

How did you become a part of ‘Manto’?
I was introduced to Nandita by Honey Trehan, who is the casting director on the project. She ran me through the story of what Manto was going to be and how I fit into it as Shyam Chaddha. I was immediately hooked because the idea of playing an aspiring Bollywood star in the 1940s was very exciting, especially in a period film space.

Also, when I read through the screenplay, I was fascinated that whenever Shyam and Manto are together, it brings out a different side to Manto than what is known to the world, of him being this brooding intense writer. I think Shyam brought out this softer, friendlier side of Manto that few people have known. To be able to do this with Nawazuddin Siddiqui was just the cherry on the cake.

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Manto (2018).

What can you tell us about your character in the film?
Shyam is an actor who rose to what is called box-office superstardom today. In the course of two years, he gave five back-to-back hits. He had dated popular actresses of the day, some at the same time. It was just incredible that these lives were led in the 1940s and so little is known of them.

Unfortunately, he passed away after an accident during a horse-riding stunt while he was shooting for a film. Otherwise, it is said that he would have definitely given the superstars of that time a run for their money.

How did you prepare for the role?
I’m very aware that when you’re playing a real-life character, you’re not trying to mimic him, you’re doing an interpretation of what he would be like. It is very interesting because it is a mixture of fact as well as imagination. But with responsibility thrown in, because you know that there are relatives of his who will be watching this.

There is a very interesting chapter called Krishna’s Flute in Manto’s book where he writes about his friendship with Shyam. And how Shyam was in between bad debt and dating actresses and he was living with Manto at the time, who was this star Urdu writer. It sort of painted this picture of what their friendship was like for me. A lot of the research came from there, from the letters that they wrote to each other. And of course I also had conversations with relatives of Shyam, who are in Delhi today.

Shyam. Courtesy Upperstall.com.
Shyam. Courtesy Upperstall.com.

What was your dynamic with Nawazuddin Siddiqui?
He’s such a collaborative actor. The mark of a true star is when you can make your co-actor feel like a star as well. And Nawaz definitely did that with me, and that’s what made me so comfortable being around him.

There was this surreal synergy between the characters we were portraying and our real-life dynamic, because I’m just starting off, I’m three films old and going off to my fourth film, and he has become this cult star. It’s sort of similar to Shyam and Manto in the film. They are at the same stages in their lives. So, it was this interesting chemistry that we had both off-stage and on.

What was the experience of working with Nandita Das?
She had just spent so much time researching Manto – I think she spent five years with the script. She was definitely so on the ball with all the details of every character and every aspect of the film. It was great to be working with someone like that. She was the point person whether you had questions on your costume or the way to deliver a line.

It was also added pressure because she’s an actor herself, so she really gets involved and knows the process. She can really guide you, but at the same time be very particular about what she wants.

Tahir Raj Bhasin and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manto. Courtesy Viacom18 Motion Pictures.
Tahir Raj Bhasin and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manto. Courtesy Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

Manto is a change from back-to-back negative roles in ‘Mardaani’ and ‘Force 2’.
I honestly look at them as anti-heroes because if you’ve seen the films, there are shades of grey in them. I think it is the age of anti-heroes if you look at anything that is going on internationally – whether it is Sacred Games or House of Cards or Breaking Bad. Audiences are enjoying these grey characters.

Having said that, one of the things I love about Shyam is that he is a boisterous charmer, a fun-loving guy who has dreams in his eyes and wants to be a star. So, yes, it is definitely a break from the previous parts.

Before ‘Manto’, were you starting to feel that you were being typecast as an anti-hero?
No, not at all. I think two films is a really short time to be typecast. Manto is a break from that, and so is a project that I’m going to be working on after this. It is a Nitesh Tiwari film. It hasn’t been titled yet, and we are starting the shoot in October. I can’t say more. I’ll just say that the film will revamp what friendship means for this generation.

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Mardaani (2014).