Actor Shashank Arora made his Cannes debut with his first Bollywood film Titli three years ago. He was back at the coveted film festival recently, this time for Nandita Das’ much-anticipated directorial Manto. In between, what transpired in the actor’s life was lost projects, failed equations and a few undesirable changes within him that he owes to Bollywood.
In an exclusive chat with indianexpress.com, Shashank explains how according to him, it’s the lack of support from people in power that makes other artistes speak against the constant resistance to freedom of expression.
“It bothers me that I don’t speak up as much as I should or the man next to me doesn’t speak much. It bothers me that people who have taught me a lot about the business, don’t speak up. I try my best but I find myself unable to. Sometimes because I am at loggerheads with the man who is giving me my job and the day that happens, you are in a scary position. Then, you have to pick your battles smartly and the cause is much more important but to keep the capacity to fight is as important,” he said.
“So, you have to fight smart battles. You can’t point fingers at someone in this environment. This is very unfortunate and it’s because none of us are doing this. If all of us were to do this, we could out somebody. But when one person does it, you catch him for being honest. That woman, who comes out and says she has been sexually harassed, is harassed more. This is the state of affairs and I will fight it till I die. It makes me very sad.”
On the failure of #MeToo movement in Bollywood, Shashank said, “A girl, who has been sexually harassed at any point, is entitled to feeling scared and uncomfortable. Yes, she should speak up the truth but you can’t tell her, ‘Why didn’t you speak about it then?’. You can’t shout at her because she is going through trauma. You can’t say that she is a part of the problem because she didn’t speak up. She was scared.”
The same intimidation is also what an actor fears when he decides to refuse a script, which he believes is problematic. Shashank remarked. “Hence, the actor also doesn’t speak up. What will he tell his studio head? ‘That your film is right-winger, it will divide votes.’ He will say, ‘Leave the film.’ How will you fight then? It is easy to say, hard to do. If you are in the middle of all this and fighting a battle every day like I do, it’s difficult.”
Shashank Arora, whose short filmography includes Rock On II, Irrfan Khan-starrer Songs of Scorpion and Lipstick Under My Burkha, says he has lost a lot but earned many labels from the industry because he stuck to his ideologies.
“I have lost many friends and audience because I have not done a commercial film or because I have told people that their film was being financed by people with other agendas. I have told a producer that he had no idea what his script was about. It was about ghar-wapsi. And he asked me, ‘What’s the problem in it?’ I told him that the problem is that I couldn’t do it and I didn’t understand how he couldn’t see that I couldn’t be a hero who brings back a woman from a different culture and makes her a Hindu. This is what the film was about and I spent a month-and a half convincing the whole team what was the reality of their own film. And I fought to a point where they began disliking me and thought I was an anti-national,” he shared.
Talking about his latest film Manto, Shashank reveals what drew him to writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The actor plays Manto’s radio jockey friend Shaad Amritsari, who the actor describes as the writer’s “bitching buddy”. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the titular role in the Nandita Das directorial.
“Shaad Amritsari was a friend of Manto from Lahore. He became Manto’s drinking buddy. They used to drink together and bitch about the world, which is exactly what I do today with my wife. The film is about Manto’s life and how he faced a lot of opposition from the people about the kind of work that he as trying to do, which is exactly what’s going in our country. An artiste doesn’t have his or her voice. We are not allowed to speak or raise our voice. Manto is essentially about this and there’s no better time than now for Nandita to have made this film.”
To understand the character, Shashank spent time with people of his grandfather’s age. “I did read as much as I could but my major research was about getting into the mind of a radio jockey of 1940s. So, I spoke to a couple of people of my grandfather’s age about the time and how radio was.”
Manto fearlessly penned everything that the society shied away from and Shashank feels a writer like him is the need today.
“If Manto were alive today, his work would have been read by everyone on internet. He would have reached his audience at a faster speed. He would have taken the world on,” he said.
The actor is also disappointed in himself, for he feels the Hindi film industry has made him more restrained as an artiste.
“The bad part is that you withdraw yourself, you build walls around yourself for protection. The industry has made me more guarded in a particular sense. And I believe that an artiste must wear his emotions, he should be transparent otherwise there’s no point of being an artiste.
“But I will have to make the most of it. On some days, I feel like going out and saying it aloud, ‘No one will ever understand my cinema. I am very sorry I was born now.’ But maybe after 30 years, they will. All artistes want to say this but they can’t and this is our weakness. During our journey, we lose our sense of play and joy. It becomes about this constant fight of validation and correctness, which is the worst thing to happen to any human being,” added Shashank Arora.