“...and it is also possible, that Saadat Hasan dies, but Manto remains alive”, said celebrated Urdu author and unapologetic iconoclast, Saadat Hasan Manto; and who better to keep the flame of Manto alive than Nandita Das, acclaimed actor, director, activist and the unflinching voice of uncomfortable truths.
Six years in the making, her labour of love, the eponymously named film Manto, finally comes to Singapore this week, opening the prestigious Singapore South Asian International Film Festival. At a time when divisive forces seem to be gaining strength in countries across the world and Manto’s mirror to society’s hypocrisy holds a poignant relevance, Nandita Das talks to Nandini Sen Mehra, Contributing Editor, Creative Sparq on the film, her creative journey and why hope is still that thing with feathers, that never stops in its quest to inspire.
You have an incredible resume. A Masters in Social Work, being a Yale World Fellow, an award-winning actor and filmmaker, serving on the Cannes jury, support of the Dark is Beautiful Campaign, receiving one of France’s highest civilian awards, Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters), and being the first Indian inducted into the International Hall of Fame of the International Women's Forum. With all of these achievements under your belt, what still moves you and spurs you creatively? What seems to be the unfinished work of your creative life?
I have always followed my passions and interests as opposed to a conventional career track. I came into acting and directing by accident and have enjoyed doing various other things that further my interest and concerns. Thankfully, now I am able to do so without the pressure of proving myself or fearing the consequences.
I am not a trained filmmaker, neither have I worked from within the industry, so my story telling largely comes from observing life and people through my different engagements.
Manto’s work was a powerful reflection and a scathing commentary of his time. To many, the times we live in now are an echo of a dark, polarised past that seems to be raising its ugly head in different ways across the world. What brought you to Manto and as an independent filmmaker, in today’s political and social climate, were there any challenges in bringing his story to life?
Directing for me has not been part of any design. It is a means to respond to what goes on around me as well as to share my concerns and interests. Both Firaaq and Manto, were born out of my socio-political concerns about the growing violence and prejudice in the country but were manifested through very personal stories.
Manto was relevant in his time and will continue to be relevant for a long time to come. Not much has changed. We are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Almost 70 years later, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class, race and religion, as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. Manto shows us a mirror to our fears and prejudices. I know he would have had a lot to say about the times we live in.
I think people will see themselves more honestly. It will make them uncomfortable in a way that hopefully they would want to do something about. After all, don’t we want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited? And Manto inspires us to be that. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of this hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to further my own conviction for a more just and compassionate world.
There were many challenges in bringing Manto’s story to the big screen – to recreate the character of Manto, we were reliant on some 10 odd photographs and descriptions of him by others and from his own writings. We had to recreate Bombay and Lahore of the 1940s in the midst of modern day clutter on a budget that did not allow elaborate sets or extensive visual effects. I had to get input and translation help from many people, especially at the beginning of the scripting process, so as to be able to access Manto’s original works in Urdu. The whole process of script writing, research, and filmmaking has taken 6 long years – the creative, emotional, spiritual and the socio-political journeys I went through with this film have impacted me profoundly and indelibly.
As a filmmaker, an actor and activist, you have consistently brought uncomfortable subjects to light – whether it was the outstanding Elements Trilogy or indeed your Dark is Beautiful campaign. Do you find that a creative representation of issues such as homosexuality, colourism or freedom of speech - which played a significant role in Manto’s life - can truly impact change at a grassroots level?
Cinema can raise questions, disturb us, push us to think, feel and act differently. It can give a voice to the voiceless. As a cultural tool, it can help humanise and personalise emotions, grievances and the fears of those who may not find other ways to be heard. Stories have the power to move us. I believe cinema has this profound impact at a personal and societal level – it can trigger personal reflection and social change.
Could you tell us a little bit about the creative process for Manto, the film? From his fairly extensive body of work to the well known trials and tribulations of his life, what led to the inclusions or omissions in the screenplay; what led to the narrative of the film?
What to include and what not to include was a monumental and painful task of editing, as there was so much I wanted to share. But in the end, I chose to have the film focus on the four most significant and tumultuous years in the life of Manto and that of the two cities he inhabited – Bombay and Lahore.
The film showcases Manto’s journey as well as a glimpse into some of his best fiction writing. The line between his fact and fiction 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 truthful. I had the idea to include his stories right from the beginning of the creative process. It took 4 long years of research, many books and people’s inputs, and several drafts of the script for me tell this story. One that seems most relevant to our times. I feel what I have kept is hopefully more relevant than what I have had to let go!
With an artist father and a writer mother, it is evident that there was no dearth of creative influences in your childhood. Could you tell us about other influences that find their way into your work or inform your creative choices?
My upbringing exposed me to art and aesthetics from a very young age. And also to social political questions through my street theatre days and my NGO engagement which I did after my masters in social work. Lot of the influences are subconscious so it is difficult to list them. But having diverse experiences has definitely influenced my work and life choices. I have met many incredible people who have lived their lives with great conviction and have followed them with equal determination. I feel there are many Mantos who have upheld our truths, away from the media glare and I am glad to have met them as they have inspired me deeply and helped me in understanding Manto, my protagonist.
Do you believe adversity and strife are essential fertile ground that give rise to great art? Or to paraphrase Shelley, are our sweetest songs indeed that tell of saddest thought? What are your thoughts on this in the context of Manto’s work ?
Some of Manto’s most powerful works were born of deep empathy for the marginalized as well as of great pain, violence, dislocation and loss. Many sensitive artists, writers and filmmakers have found creative ways of expressing their pain.
To say that adversity and strife are essential ingredients for great art would be too much of a generalization. There have been great artists that have also produced great work even in comfort such as Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray.
What made you choose Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manto?
I always had Nawaz in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut was Nawaz’s first significant role in a feature film. They say if you get the casting right, 70% of your job is done, and with Nawaz that’s exactly what happened. He looks and feels the part.
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, vulnerability, 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.
Your casting coup has been the talk of the town, how did you choose your cast and why?
From the time I thought of making the film, I saw Nawaz as Manto. His lived-life eyes were perfect to portray Manto’s many contradictions. Nawaz melts into the characters he plays and that was essential to make him a believable Manto. Rasika was also my first and only choice for Safia, Manto’s wife. To find Shyam, his best friend took the longest time as most actors saw it as a ‘second lead’! I reached out to many, whose work I admired - most I knew but some I sought out. It has ended up being a fantastic ensemble cast and it would not have been possible without my casting director, Honey Trehan. He found amazing actors to portray real life characters such as Ashok Kumar, K Asif, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Naushad Sahab and many more.
I am overwhelmed that so many actors lent their support; doing small cameos. They brought a huge amount of credibility and goodwill to the project. Whether it was Rishi Kapoor in the role of a sleazy producer or Paresh Rawal who despite our political differences, supported both Firaaq and Manto. Or Gurdas Maan, as a distraught father (not easy to imagine him as that!), or Javed Akhtar, making his debut by playing a witness defending Manto in court! They, and many more worked for free to simply support the film and for their admiration of Manto.
Nandita Das has acted in more than 40 feature films in 10 different languages. She made her directorial debut with Firaaq in 2008 and Between the Lines marks her debut as a playwright and theater director. She is an advocate for issues of social justice andhuman rights. She was the Chairperson of Children’s Film Society between 2009 and2012. Nandita Das was the first Indian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of theInternational Women’s Forum. She has also been conferred the ‘Knight of the Order ofArts and Letters’ by the French Government. She was at Yale as a World Fellow in 2014. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
About The Interviewer
With a penchant for scribbling poetry on the commute through her busiest days, Nandini Sen Mehra has a background in communications and has worked across India, the United States and Australia before moving to Singapore eight years ago. Her interests include literature, art, dance, and all creative forms of expression. She explores her own voice and the world around her through poetry, photography and long walks around the Red Dot’s many reservoirs.