Nandita Das’s upcoming biopic Manto traces the renowned Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s years in Mumbai, where he cast a sardonic eye on the gongs-on in show business, his experiences of the Partition in 1947, and his battle against censorship after he migrated to Pakistan in 1948. The September 21 release also dramatises some of Manto’s best-known stories, including Toba Tek Singh, about a man trapped on the border between India and Pakistan. The writer is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the gifted actor who, at 44, has already notched up acclaim for his ability to inhabit a variety of roles.

Manto died on January 18, 1955, at the age of 42. Siddiqui had read many of Manto’s stories, but he knew little about the man beyond the page. In an interview, Siddiqui revealed the process through which he transformed himself into the writer, and the lessons he has learnt from one of the sharpest practitioners of the Urdu short story. Here are edited excerpts from a transcript of the conversation.

I had read Manto’s stories before. In 1992, I had acted in a production of Toba Tek Singh by the theatre group Sakshi in Delhi. My teacher, Maya Rao, also used to perform the story Khol Do, and it was very impressive. But I did not know anything about the man.

In 2013, I was at the Cannes Film Festival with Bombay Talkies, where I met Nandita Das on the red carpet. She was one of the jury members. She said, I am researching a film on Manto. Would you be in it?

Meanwhile, through my own research, I found out how daring Manto was, how much courage there was in his writing. He never stepped back, and never stopped writing. The way he used to look at the world, and this kind of bravery, I have never seen in another writer.

Manto (2018).

Becoming Manto

The process of getting under the skin of the character began with the costumes. After that, I tried to keep all gadgets aside and surrounded myself with old songs and old memories. A coolness and calmness came into my body language, and that helped.

I also looked at how people used to speak in those days. The Urdu writers were intellectuals, and they used to engage in a lot of word play and use language in a way that people don’t any more. They had great command over language, and said a lot with very few words, and not in a direct way. These insights helped me a lot in building up the character.

Also, Nandita had met Manto’s daughters, and I learnt about how he used to write, how he sat, how he held his pen. Manto would sit on his haunches and write in the middle of a crowd. He could sit in a train and finish a story. It’s amazing that he did so much and wrote so much by the age of 42. He held up a mirror for society in which to see the truth. He lived in the middle of people, observed them, internalised their thoughts, and wrote about them. He had the sensibility of an ordinary person.

All method acting techniques can fail if the honesty of the character does not come through. I felt that I should be thinking like Manto, otherwise it would not work. Nandita and I have tried to immerse ourselves, be nude, in a sense, to capture Manto’s honesty.

It’s also interesting when an actor starts making films. Sometimes, when actors become directors, they start performing out the scenes, which is absolutely wrong. Nandita did not do that, she never said, do this and don’t do that. She created an absolutely silent atmosphere for her actors. Because she is an actress, she knew how the crux of a scene was to be achieved.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nandita Das on the sets of Manto. Courtesy Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

Beyond the page

Manto was, of course, a creative person, but I was shocked at how much of a family man he was. Even when he was at the peak of his creativity, he cared for his family with the same amount of dedication as he wrote. We creative people have this tendency to keep our families aside, and this is what leads to anxiety and problems. You go off on other tangents, even as your family members want to get involved in your life. How did Manto balance this? I still don’t know.

What I learnt the most is that our society cannot tolerate the truth. Some have the courage to do something different and some don’t. Some of us have to compromise. If there is truth, it needs to be brought out, but the people for whom it is being brought out also need to be able to judge properly.

Manto was lucky, in a sense – he was without fear, and he kept speaking the truth. When I look at him and then myself, I feel very small. We don’t have that kind of courage anymore. We want to create an image where we say just about enough to impress other people and get by without problems.

Manto said what many of us are not able to. In a sense, I have spoken about myself through this role – these are my own thoughts too, I feel.

Rasika Dugal as Safiya Manto in Manto. Courtesy Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)