Nandita Das’ Manto was lauded at various international film festivals and upon the film’s release in India, many critics have applauded Das for not creating a heroic figure out of Manto’s flaws. Incorporating some of his popular stories into the narrative, Das created a world that beautifully merged Manto’s fact and fiction.
In a conversation with indianexpress.com, director Nandita Das spoke at length about her decision to merge Manto’s life and his stories in the film. She also discussed Manto’s relevance in today’s society and how “self-appointed custodians of culture” have always been a hindrance to free speech.
Q. Biopics in India are often accused of whitewashing the image of the protagonist. But in Manto, you chose to show him as the man he was and not make him unnecessarily heroic. Were you not tempted to glorify Manto?
I did not make this film in the hope of creating heroes. Manto was unsparing of everyone, including himself. He would have liked me to portray him with all his warts and blemishes and not put him on a pedestal. I have tried to show him as honestly as he shows his characters and if that makes him complex and even less likeable, then so be it. In fact, for me it is a way of questioning our own morality, and our righteousness that at times prevents us from seeing the essence of things.
Q. Many of Manto’s short stories find a place in the film as a part of the narrative. Don’t you think that those who aren’t familiar with Manto’s work will find it a little difficult to understand the transitions?
At Cannes, a commonly-discussed thread was the interweaving of Manto’s life with his work. While most found the “seamless intertwining” of Manto stories with the narrative fascinating, there were some who were a bit lost as they felt they weren’t warned before a story began. Critics and audiences have the right to question that choice, but this is what I had in mind from the day I began thinking of the film. I always felt that juxtaposing Manto’s real world and with his imagined one was essential to understand the man and the writer.
Q. Also, a few of these stories are the ones that got him arrested. Was there a motive to clarify those claims against him?
No, the idea was to intersperse seamlessly some of his most powerful stories that reflected his wide-ranging concerns. Some of them happened to be also the subject of the cases he got mired in, but that was incidental. In Manto’s own works, the line between fact and fiction blurred and I wanted to use the same form as it allows the audience to enter his state of mind, both as a person and a writer.
Q. Manto’s decision to move to Pakistan has always puzzled his fans but you chose to give an answer for the same in the film. How did that come about?
Many have inferred the same from two of his works that talk about the same incident with Shyam. It is clear that it deeply impacted him, or else he would not have mentioned it in his biographical sketch called Murli ki Dhun and also in his short story Sahay, where the names have been changed. His move is not the only puzzle, but also the fact that he didn’t come back, unlike Sahir Ludhianvi and others. Not only that, as shown in the film, he did not even respond to letters that many of his friends wrote to him.
Q. The film has some brilliant actors and not just the lead actors, even those who appear for a few scenes leave the audience in awe. Which actor surprised you the most?
Before the film, I knew Gurdas Mann as a popular, leading-singer in the Punjabi music world. For me the image he evoked was that of a colorful personality with even more colorful clothes. When my casting director, Honey Trehan suggested him to play a distraught, unkempt, unwashed father searching for his lost daughter, I could not see it. But when I met him, his humility and authenticity completely charmed me and I knew he could transform. And he has indeed captured the character with the right emotion and sincerity.
Q. Despite being a biopic, the film only deals with a few years of Manto’s life. We don’t see what made Manto the way he was, his early years. Was that a conscious decision?
The film is not a typical biopic that covers Manto’s life from cradle to grave. When I started with the script, it spanned 10 years of his life but with each draft I narrowed it down till I focused on 1946-50. I have only covered what I believe are the most significant and tumultuous four years in his life and that of the two cities he inhabited – Bombay and Lahore. After all, there is only so much one can cover in a two-hour film!
Q. Manto wrote a lot about women, and many believed that he was objectifying them. Today, there’s a discussion about the same. What do you feel is the difference between what he did and what is happening now?
I do not believe Manto objectified women, though the orthodox sections of society accused him and he was even tried 6 times for alleged obscene writing. In fact, his most empathetic gaze was reserved for women, especially those who lived on the margins of society, then and now, such as sex workers. The women in his stories were complex and richly developed. He turned them from objects of scorn to people that have agency; they were often the protagonists of his stories. His view of women was rare in literature of that time. It is one of the most important aspects of his work that has definitely interested me. Whilst Manto may himself have rejected being labeled a ‘feminist’, he was a feminist in more ways than one.
Q. What makes Manto relevant in 2018?
Manto was relevant then 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.
Having said that, making Manto was not just about telling people about him but also to invoke the Manto-iyat (Manto-ness) – the desire to be outspoken, courageous and free-spirited – that I believe all of us have. 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 we all want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited. And Manto inspires us to be that.