"I have not put Manto on a pedestal"

September 9, 2018

Interview of Nandita Das

Nandita Das, the critically acclaimed Indian actor-director, whose realistic portrayal of a lady with ambivalent sexuality in Deepa Mehta’s controversial feature, Fire (1996), got her the attention of critics and audiences alike. She has also been praised for her performances in films like Earth (1998), Azhagi (2002), Kamli (2006), and Before The Rains (2007), among others. In 2008, she made her directorial debut with Firaaq, a film that focused on human relationships against the backdrop of violence, as well as contentious gender issues.

Her second feature film, Manto, due out on September 21 this year, depicts the life of one of the subcontinent’s greatest short story writers of the 20th century, Saadat Hasan Manto. The biopic, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the titular role, covers the writer’s last years -- his pre-partition life in (the then) Bombay and his post-partition days in Lahore. In a little under two hours, the film is said to throw light on some of the most defining aspects of Manto’s turbulent life, along with his work.

In a recent email interview with The News on Sunday, Das talks about the challenges she faced while filming Manto, how the story would still inspire people, and what she thinks of the term ‘woman director.’ Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): Manto is due to come out in September. What were some of the challenges that you faced as a director while making the film?

Nandita Das (ND): Making Manto was a huge task. Writing the script based on extensive research, raising funds for it, finding locations, managing a large cast and crew -- all of it took the life out of me. Also, being a hands-on mother had its challenges as my child was with me throughout the journey of making the film, including on set. And the shoot was super hectic. On all-day shoots, it felt like the sun was setting too fast, and on all-night shoots, it seemed as if it was rising too early! We were always racing against time to finish.

One of the toughest challenges was to find the right locations for Bombay and Lahore shootings, amidst modern-day clutter, on a budget that didn’t allow the luxury of too many sets and visual effects. Sadly, we couldn’t shoot in Lahore, as initially planned, because of the political tensions. So, we had to find Lahore in India. Thankfully we did and that’s a whole different story!

TNS: The film has already been screened at  Cannes and Sydney film festivals. How was it received there?

ND: We got an incredibly positive response at Cannes, with a four minute standing ovation; strangers hugged me, some were sobbing. Six years of relentless work and challenges had finally found its culmination, that too at Cannes, which is for industry professionals only. It was no different in Sydney, where the screenings completely ticketed with general audiences, with Q & A sessions at the end. These screenings gave me a sense that the audience was eager to see and engage with the life of Saadat Hasan Manto.

TNS: Nawazuddin Siddiqui is one of the finest actors Indian cinema has at the moment. Were their any specific reasons you chose him to play the part?

ND: I always had Nawazuddin in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut, was his first significant role in a feature film. They say if you get the casting right, 70 per cent of your job is done, and with Nawazuddin that’s exactly what happened. He looks and feels the part. He has incredible range as an actor, but intrinsically, Manto lies somewhere in his eyes -- it was an obvious choice for me. I brought in my research and script, and Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent. Together, I think we managed to bring many subtleties and nuances to the character of Manto. Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto -- a deep sensitivity and intensity, anger, and a dry, deadpan sense of humour. These innate qualities in Nawaz helped him transition into Manto on screen quite effortlessly. I feel that our actor-director relationship struck a perfect chord.

TNS: Was capturing the spirit of Manto’s times difficult, considering he died over 63 years ago? Did his family provide any input while making the movie?

ND: Manto died at 42, so there are very few alive who actually met him. Also, there is no audio or visual recording of Manto, despite the fact he did close to 100 radio plays and even acted in films. So, recreating and capturing his person required extensive research on his own writings and that of those who wrote about him.

Sadly, we couldn’t shoot in Lahore, as initially planned, because of the political tensions. So, we had to find Lahore in India. Thankfully we did and that’s a whole different story.

I also reached out to his family and they were generous with their time and stories. I spoke at length with his daughters and his grand-niece, the eminent historian Ayesha Jalal. Ayesha’s book, Pity of Partition -- Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, and the one she wrote on Manto’s centenary along with Manto’s youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal, were some of the first gifts I got from the family. I also had the chance to speak with two people who did know Manto personally when he was alive: one is his sister-in-law Zakia Jalal -- who briefly features in the film as well -- and the other was Intizar Husain, the eminent writer, who passed away recently. All this helped me understand the person Manto was and also the husband, the father, and the friend that he was. They shared with me nuggets that were not in any book.

TNS: Your film covers the Bombay part of his life. How have you highlighted his friendship with his friend Shyam, which seems to form a part of your story?

ND: Manto and Shyam’s friendship was very special and went through many twists and turns. Shyam is undoubtedly a pivotal role in the film and impacts the story very significantly. I do not want to give away too much but I will say, that Tahir Raj Bhasin and Nawaz were able to really bring authenticity and emotion to the friendship. All I did was get Nawaz and Tahir together so they could get comfortable with each other, and then I shared my research with them. After all, Shyam features in more than one of Manto’s writings. Both ‘Murli ki dhun’, the biographical sketch that he wrote about Shyam, and the story, ‘Sahai’ (where the names were changed but it was evident that it was about Shyam) were clear indications of the significance of Shyam in Manto’s life.

TNS: Manto’s brilliance and intellectual genius is well-known. Do you feel your movie will do justice to this legendary but controversial writer on screen?

ND: He was controversial then but today he is a celebrated writer. These days the word controversial is often used to sell and devalue ideas and people. Anything can be controversial for the sake of publicity or at times for a false sense of morality. My approach in the film was to try and bring to the audience how Manto captured, with brave honesty and rare creativity, the joys and tragedies of the life that he lived.

Every person who knows Manto will have his own take on how the subject should have been handled. I have not put Manto on a pedestal and have tried to portray him as truthfully as he did with his characters -- warts, flaws and all. I think that is how he would have liked it.

The film showcases not only Manto’s journey but a glimpse into some of his best fiction writing as well. The line between his fact and fiction is often blurred; and so in the film too, his narrative is interspersed with stories that he wrote, almost seamlessly. This form will allow the audience to enter his state of mind, both as a person and a writer. We will get to see, through his work, what makes him so uniquely empathetic and universal.

TNS: There are rumours on the social media that fans on the Pakistani side of the border are having concerns about Nawazuddin’s talafuz (dialect). What do you have to say about that?

ND: I have not heard any such rumours but whoever has such concerns is definitely not seeing the trailers. Maybe there were a couple, seeing the short film that was done almost as a rehearsal, early last year, before we shot the main film. I believe once they see the feature film, his critics will change their mind. Manto was not Lucknowi, in fact his Urdu must have had a bit of a Punjabi lehja. While the talafuz is an important aspect, capturing the Manto spirit is far more important, which he does full justice to.

Also, I wanted the language to be believable of that time and yet accessible. I have tried my best to keep that balance in the dialogues. The language in his writings was accessible and I wanted the film too to be accessible to the widest audience possible.

TNS: How much significance does Safia Manto’s character have in the movie?

ND: Safia is a very pivotal part of the film and is integral to Manto’s story. She stood by him through his best and worst times, as many women have for their celebrated husbands. Safia was soft-spoken and caring, yet also had a quiet strength about her. She was a supportive wife to Manto till the end. There is not much written about her so the majority of the information I gathered was from her daughters and her sister, Zakia Jalal, one of the very few people still alive who knew Manto and Safia well. The daughters had more memories of their mother than their father as they were quite young when Manto died. They told me, in great detail, what a simple, gentle and soft-spoken person she was and also the struggles she went through.

TNS: Firaaq was on the topic of the Gujarat riots in 2002 while Manto is more of a literary drama. What was your inspiration for taking up this biographical project? What are your expectations for the film?

ND: I did not go looking for stories for Firaaq and Manto. The stories found me. Both the films were born out of my need to respond to the world around me, manifested through very personal stories. Being in the public space, I believe my work has some influence, even if it is only to a small extent. But with this influence comes responsibility. The way we view our society, relationships and people in films will somehow find its way into how we see them in our daily lives. This is what makes films powerful. I don’t like being didactic or preachy, no one wants to be told, but sharing stories can impact how we respond to people and events.

As for my expectations for Manto, I hope it will be able to invoke the Mantoiyat (‘Mantoness’) that I want to believe exists inside all of us -- the ability to be free-spirited and honest and to have the desire to speak up.

TNS: Do you think that there is something about Manto that still attracts people to him as a person, and makes him sort of relatable?

ND: I think Manto’s free spirit and his courage to stand up to orthodoxy resonates with people, as it does with me. He did not write in complex, inaccessible language -- his columns were read and appreciated by common people and not just those in literary circles. I think Manto’s writings encourage us to be more truthful, courageous, and empathetic and that is what makes him relatable. Also perhaps, we are at a moment when there is an increasing lurch towards extreme views, and Manto’s commitment to humanism speaks to many of us.

TNS: Firaaq’s subject matter was based upon a well-known tragedy. But as few international viewers are likely to know who Manto is, do you think the film might have trouble reaching beyond the sub-continent?

ND: I don’t think so. Many of the issues that Manto grappled with -- freedom of expression and dangers of identity politics are once again at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Not just in the subcontinent but all over the world. When a film is true to its context, but universal in its emotion, it can cross national boundaries. The reaction to the film at the screenings at the Cannes and Sydney film festivals only strengthened my belief that Manto’s story has a wide audience.

TNS: In the film, you focused mainly on Manto’s writing years following the Indian independence from British rule and the bloody Partition of India and Pakistan that followed. Were there any specific reasons?

ND: When I first began writing the script, it covered ten years of Manto’s life. But with each subsequent draft I began narrowing it down till it focused on the years (1946-1950) of his life in the two cities he inhabited -- Bombay and Lahore. Those four were the most tumultuous years in Manto’s as well as the lives of the two countries -- India and Pakistan. The joy of independence and the trauma of partition hugely impacted Manto’s life and his work.

TNS: The film comes at a time when the relationship between Pakistan and India is particularly tense. Do you think that this increases the film’s relevance in some manner?

ND: I think the role of art and cinema is to build bridges. When there is political tension, they can become the means to bring people closer, lessen prejudice and trigger conversations. Whenever I have been to Pakistan, I find people in admiration of our democracy, diversity, art, culture and in particular, cinema. Of course, we need to fight terrorism, governments that encourage it instead of stopping it, but we also need to have the wisdom to separate the people from those governments. Art can, in fact, become the balm to our common wounds.

TNS: You have come a long way from being an actor to a director. How has been the experience and what have you learnt about the craft? What excites you more?

ND: I never had specific career goals nor the ambition to become an actor or director. My becoming an actor was an accident with Fire. I became an actor, and remain one, purely for the experience of being part of stories that need to be told, whereas in direction you get to tell the story that compels you. In retrospect, perhaps the director in me was more present than the actor, as I was always more interested in the script, the art direction, the mise-en-scène.

As director, I enjoy the ability to work on multiple aspects of the film, whereas as an actor, one tends to only focus on the performance.

TNS: Do you think that the current unofficial ban on Pakistani artists working in Bollywood will have an impact on the relations between the actors of the two industries?

ND: No I don’t feel it will have a lasting impact. We have always had ups and downs in the political relationship, despite that cultural exchange has continued.

TNS: What do you think about the term ‘woman director’?

ND: After Firaaq, I was repeatedly labelled as a women director and asked what it was like to be one. My answer was simple: "I’m a director who happens to be a woman. Also, there is no way I would know what it feels to be a male director!" Having said that, I am sure my gender, just as my upbringing, my life experiences, my education and my interests, must have influenced my sensibilities. And I would want to see more and more women directors, so I don’t want to shy away from the woman director tag. We need more diversity and varied perspectives in films. It is a double-edged sword and needs a nuanced understanding. We need more women to tell our stories.

Today a lot of the sexism is subtle, so one tends to also confront it in the way one best can. It is possible to be assertive without being aggressive. I have had to manage big teams and have learnt that it was necessary to set my ground rules clearly and early enough. Given that, I did not train formally as an actor or director, I have had to learn things on the job. But in the end, I know that if you are sure of the story you want to tell, you will find a way to share it with the world. Some are surprised that both Firaaq and Manto are not ‘woman-oriented’ subjects, as if a woman must only make films on the issues of women. Women think about many different things and are deeply impacted by them.

TNS: One last question, what are the chances of Manto being screened in Pakistan? Are you in touch with any distributors in that regard?

ND: We are in talks with a leading distributor in Pakistan. And we are very hopeful that we will be able to screen Manto in Pakistan soon, but unfortunately cannot reveal more than that at the moment.


Manto hits the screens on September 21

"I have not put Manto on a pedestal"