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‘Manto would have a lot to say about these times’

Nandita Das on her next directorial venture, Manto, a film that encapsulates seven crucial years in the life of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Written by Pooja Khati |
Updated: June 1, 2016 12:00:21 am
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IT WAS in 2008 that Nandita Das first donned a director’s hat for Firaaq, which revolved around the 2002 Gujarat riots. Eight years later, the 46-year-old will once again assume the role for her next project, titled Manto. Based on the life of Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto, the film will focus on his non-fictional work, and has Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing the lead. As the film goes on floors shortly, Das talks about why she chose the prolific Urdu writer as the subject of her second directorial project and how she connects with him. Excerpts:

You are returning to direction after eight years. Why did you choose to make a film on Manto?

For years, I nursed the idea of making a film on Manto, even before I made Firaaq. Now, I feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively to tell this story that so needs to be told. What drew me to Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. He wrote with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I realised that it felt like I was reading about my father, an artist. I feel he is most relevant to our time.

When did you first come across the works of Manto? Which one is your favourite among them?

I first read Manto when I was in college and was struck by his simple yet profound narratives. I have many favourite Manto works, please don’t ask me to choose. Manto had once said, ‘Why would I undress a society that is already naked? It is true I make no attempt to cover it, but that’s not my job…my job is to write with a white chalk so that I can draw attention to the blackness of the board’. Manto wrote as he saw, as he felt, without any dilution.

Why have you chosen to focus your film on the non-fiction work of Manto?

The film follows the most interesting seven years in the life of Manto (from 1946 to 1952) and that of the two cities he inhabits during those years — Lahore and Mumbai. This narrative is seamlessly interspersed with some of his most powerful short stories, where the line between his work and his life gets blurred. So, the film is not based on any one book or any specific work. It has taken me three years of research, along with my writer Ali Mir, to tell the story that seems most relevant to our times and me. The spirit of Manto is the spirit of the film.

You have chosen Nawazuddin Siddiqui for the lead role.

Manto is a challenging role and very few actors have the nuances required to play Manto. I am glad I have found Nawaz to play this character, which explores a vast range of emotions and is full of contradictions. Also, I have finalised Rasika Dugal to play Manto’s wife, Safia. Nawaz and Rasika will give power-packed and authentic performances.

How would have Manto and his creative freedom survived in today’s India?

The deeper I delve into this project, the more convinced I am about the relevance of Manto in these times. Not much has changed. Almost 70 years later, we are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Even today, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class and religion as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. Banning things and silencing creative expressions is becoming the order of the day. He would have had a lot to say about these times.

How do you connect with Manto?

It is his fearlessness and a deep concern for the human condition that I have always felt most deeply connected to. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him. For him, the only identity that mattered was being human. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world. I feel there is a Mantoiyat, in all of us — the part that wants to be free-spirited and outspoken.

Manto’s writings evoked much controversy and made the establishment uncomfortable. How do you view his work?

Manto was almost synonymous to progressive literature, even though he had a tenuous relationship with the Progressive Writers’ Association. However, if one chooses to label Manto, one cannot argue that he lived on his own terms, with no care for social dogmas. He was irreverent and had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the establishment, often with sharp humour. He was tried six times on charges of obscenity, both in India and Pakistan, for his bold stories. The women in his stories were complex and richly developed, but he reserved his most nuanced and sympathetic gaze for sex workers. When questioned on his choice of subject matter. Manto would often retort: ‘If you cannot bear my stories, it is because these are unbearable times’.

What are you working on next?

Manto is just about to take off and that’s my only focus at the moment.

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