I had begun recces to find locations that would fit into Manto’s world much before I had raised any funds for the project. I wanted to see places that could also inspire my writing and where I could situate my scenes. I discovered some incredible locations hidden in narrow galis, Irani cafes in the most unexpected places, and homes that still looked like they belonged to the 1940s. It reminded me of my childhood summer vacations with my grandparents. They lived behind Metro Cinema, which was in the heart of what was Bombay. Walking through the lanes of today’s South Mumbai was often very disheartening—air conditioners jutting out, satellite dishes popping up from buildings, hoardings lining the streets, and many other signs of ‘modernity’, didn’t make it easy to visualize the period. Most old buildings were either too dilapidated for the era or too expensive to shoot in. In many cases, the owners were not even open to the idea of shooting on their premises.

Many friends, acquaintances and even strangers helped. Quaint hidden gems emerged, thanks to people like Rafique Baghdadi. On one of his Manto walks, he showed us a hall as a potential location. When we went to the office to seek permission, I instantly fell in love with the office itself! The switchboards, furniture, wooden partitions and windows, all were straight out of the location I had imagined for Tehseen Pictures, the Lahore film studio. The owners reluctantly allowed us to shoot there if it were on a Sunday.

On another day, I walked past a trade union office and peeped in through an open window. I saw three small rooms that looked like they were from the 1940s. Passion can make one fairly shameless and courageous. So, I walked in and could immediately imagine it to be Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s office in Lahore. To my surprise, the persons in charge quite readily agreed to rent it out for the shoot.

The trade union office in Mumbai that became Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s office in Lahore. Photo by Aditya Varma.

The famous Kyani Café in South Bombay has been a landmark for many decades. It was one of the first locations that we had seen and soon became a meeting point for all our recces in town. The crew would have countless cups of chai there, and this is where I first had keema ghotala which became my favourite dish there. Now, when we make keema at home, we just add a couple of eggs to it. That is all that is needed for it to become keema ghotala! So, when after several technical recces (and meals), the owners told us that they were stopping night shoots, it was a huge let-down. We had to shoot at night because of the silence and darkness needed for the scene. A panicked hunt for a replacement led us to a much smaller café in Matunga called Koolar Café. It was the last day, or rather the last night, of the shoot. There was incessant rain and all we got was six hours to shoot that scene. We managed to complete it only because the place was small, and that limited our camera angles.

The Independence Day Party scene had a similar trajectory. The scene germinated when I was invited to the Bombay Yacht Club for lunch and was enchanted by the place. The old colonial building and its interiors were so well kept that I felt we must shoot a scene there. So, I wrote a fictional scene where Ashok Kumar, the famous actor, director and producer throws a party for his friends on the day of Independence. At the time, I didn’t realise that the place that inspired such a pivotal scene would be impossible to get. I am not one to give up easily, so after trying for several months to secure permission to shoot at the Yacht Club—all to no avail—I went to Rippon Club. In many ways, it was even more charming as it had a lived-in feeling. It was not difficult to find a way to reach the top management but their rules too were so stringent that I finally gave up the idea of shooting in a club. Finally, the scene was shot in a big bungalow owned by a Parsi gentleman in Malabar Hill. It had high ceilings, grand doors and windows, a classic bar and some old furniture. were covered in scaffolding for restoration. The worst was when we did get to shoot in a picture perfect location but the scene itself had to be dropped on the editing table.

I was hell-bent on shooting in Lahore to bring out the authenticity of the place. All international and Indian films that have been set in Lahore have been invariably shot in India—usually in Delhi or in Malerkotla in Punjab. Even Earth, a film I acted in that was set in Lahore, was shot in Old Delhi. So, I was keen to show the real city for a change. Unfortunately, due to the political climate and a media wave of anti-Pakistan sentiment in India, we could not shoot in Lahore. And so began the extensive recces over five cities—Lucknow, Bhopal, Delhi, Pune and Ahmedabad—to find our Lahore in India.

Of all places, we ended up finding it in a small town called Vaso in Gujarat. It is quite an irony that Firaaq, which was set in Gujarat, was shot in old Hyderabad to avoid any disruptions. And here, Manto’s Pakistan was being recreated and filmed in Gujarat! Less than two hours from Ahmedabad, Vaso seemed from another era. As many residents lived abroad and came back only for their holidays, it was devoid of the usual modern-day clutter.

Vaso, the village in Gujarat that became Lahore in the film Manto. Photo by Aditya Varma.

Initially, the team and I were careful not to utter the words ‘Pakistan’ or ‘Lahore’ while shooting there as we were told that this could create trouble for us. We tried to refer to Lahore as Lucknow or Delhi, although more often than not, we slipped. I was probably the worst offender! People soon figured it out, but it did not deter them from being either helpful or warm. We forget that people on the ground connect at a more human level and are not always victims of prejudiced perceptions.

Excerpted with permission from Manto & I, Nandita Das, Aleph Book Company.