In the chapter on the iconic Nargis in Stars From Another Sky — a collection of Saadat Hasan Manto’s reminiscences on the ’40s Bombay film industry — the author recounts how his wife Safia and her two sisters used to make prank calls to actresses, posing as their fans, and make “nonsensical conversations”. They made one such call to Nargis and, to their surprise, struck a friendship with her. While reading about it, actor Rasika Dugal, who plays Safia in the Nandita Das-directed biopic on Manto, was slightly miffed with the author and wondered, “Why has he written so little about me?” For an author who was so prolific, Manto rarely wrote about his wife — his biggest support and strength.
While Dugal’s annoyance is justified, it also shows the deep affinity she harbours for Safia that, momentarily, blurs the divide between the actor and the character she plays. Working on this ambitious biopic, whose shoot wrapped up this week, turned out be an eventful journey, albeit full of challenges, for Dugal. “There is so little material on Safia and so much on Manto. It was difficult for me to understand how I should use what I have,” says the actor, who has done critically-acclaimed movies such as Kshay (2012) and Qissa (2015). Eventually, she decided not to be overwhelmed by his writings. “It was important for me to do that. After all, Safia must have looked at him as her husband, a person she woke up next to every morning,” she says.
Last month, Dugal accompanied Das and her co-actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who essays the character of Manto, to the annual Cannes Film Festival, where the movie’s first poster was unveiled and footage were showcased to potential buyers. “That is the first time that I sat back and watched scenes from the film. I had not watched the rushes except for the playbacks to help improve my performance. I find the rushes distracting and I rarely look at the monitor after doing a scene, especially an emotional one,” says the 32-year-old.She, however, was happy with what she saw on the big screen in Cannes.
For Dugal, last one year has been particularly hectic. “For Manto, I met Nandita last June, even though the shooting started in February. In the meantime, I acted in a television series POW — Bandi Yuddh Ke and web-series Humorously Yours. I have also done a film with Neeraj Kabi and Shefali Shah (directed by Kanwal Sethi and tentatively titled Once Again), which won an award at the NFDC’s Film Bazaar. My character is much younger and volatile in it. I find volatile characters tough to play as they can easily look bad on screen,” says the Mumbai-based actor, who anchored the television show Devlok last year. However, it is her short film Chutney, which also features Tisca Chopra and Adil Hussain, and the Google app ad that grabbed eyeballs last year.
A graduate from Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi, Dugal joined the acting course at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in 2004 on a whim. “This was one of those things that I got curious about and had the courage to pursue. I was very excited about the history of FTII and watched a movie every day,” she says. Once, she came out of FTII, she wanted to be part of “good and big” movies. “That was the ambition floating around. But I was not a very well-groomed actor. I was in my jeans and chappals. I did not know how to do my hair. So, it took a while to learn how to look presentable and approach people for work,” she says, with a laugh. What helped Dugal were several small assignments, apart from doing plays like Kissa Yoni Ka (the Hindi version of playwright Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues). “They helped me build my contacts. Later on, I went on to work with a lot of people I got to know during this period,” she says.
A still from Manto with co-star Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
In 2012, Dugal acted in Karan Gaur-directed psychological thriller Kshay, which is her first movie as a lead actor. “It was a fully indie film. We shot it in a house we rented in Bhayandar. We hooked up two computers at the director’s house to dub,” she says. Made on a shoestring budget, Kshay travelled to some international film festivals and received a good response. Her next, Anup Singh-directed Qissa (2015), too generated a buzz but its domestic business was affected by poor distribution. “Since a film like Qissa does not fall into the pattern of what audiences are used to watching, many lose faith in a film before it reaches theatres. The viewers have their idiosyncrasies — much more than distributors give them credit for. Someone who watches a saas-bahu serial might like Qissa too,” she says.
Manto has put the spotlight on Dugal even as her calendar today is dotted with varied acting assignments. “I would be shooting for an indie movie and a web-series in August if remuneration and other conditions work out. These are the roles I have not done earlier, especially the one in the movie which expects me to be overtly sexual. That’s something I am not in real life but admire in others,” says Dugal, and agrees that her flirtatious role in Chutney might have bagged her this role.