Nagraj Manjule: Acting is fun, but not as much as directing

Nagraj Manjule: Acting is fun, but not as much as directing

A year after Sairat, Nagraj Manjule returns to cinema as an actor in a Marathi film. The writer-filmmaker on how not to play a villain and why conversations about caste are heard more now.

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Director Nagraj Manjule became a phenomenon after his hit film, ‘Sairat’.| Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty

It has been over a year since director Nagraj Manjule’s second film, ‘Sairat’, became a phenomenon. The 41-year-old is now set to appear in a pivotal role in ‘The Silence’, a Marathi film directed by Gajendra Ahire, which explores the devastation of sexual violence. In this interview, Manjule talks about what drew him to the complex character he portrays in it, why filmmaking remains closer to his heart than acting and how ‘Sairat’ acquired a life of its own.


The character you play in ‘The Silence’ is rather dark, but complicated. Is that what attracted you to the role?

You know how it is in Hindi films, where everything is in black and white and the villain is pure evil. That’s not how it is in real life. Any person who behaves badly is not completely bad. In Rama and Ravana’s story, we depict Rama as good but if Ravana were to tell that story, he wouldn’t put it that way. He is the hero in his own story and Rama is the villain. When I thought about my character, I realised that he has not set out to be the villain. Something triggers his actions, which badly affects other people. I didn’t want to portray him as a man who laughs loudly or signals overtly that he is a villain. I wanted to play him as an ordinary man, with a negative shade.

What drew you to this film?

The story and the character, of course, but also the cast. This movie was shot a year before Sairat, and I had some time in hand. I heard that Anjali (Patil) and Raghubir Yadav are in it. I thought to myself that I’m neither a great actor nor someone who has years of acting experience. If I’m getting an opportunity to work with such actors, then I should grab it.


Acting and filmmaking are different creative processes. Which do you find more challenging and rewarding?

For me, directing a film is more challenging, but also more rewarding. That’s because when you’re making a film, you’re taking full responsibility for telling a story. An actor is a means by which someone else’s story is told. Whether or not the actor connects to the story does not matter so much. Acting is fun, yes, but not as much as directing is. This is something I realised quite late in life; I was very keen to act when I was young. But I prefer writing and directing, because these fulfill my intrinsic need to tell my stories.

Amitabh Bachchan is acting in your next film. Would it have been possible without the massive success of ‘Sairat’?

Anything is possible, but maybe it wouldn’t have worked out so easily. He (Bachchan) might have liked the script, but now there is also a certain amount of trust he has in me, because I have proved myself. But if I had taken a bad script to him, I don’t think the collaboration would have worked out, despite the success of ‘Sairat’. So, I look on every new project as a new beginning.

Tell us about the new film. I heard it’s based on the true story of how football changes the lives of a group of underprivileged children.

That’s true, but, unfortunately, I can’t reveal more because we have just begun with pre-production. It’s too early to share anything more right now.

Back to ‘Sairat’. It could have been like any other love story, but for how convincingly it dealt with caste identities. Do you think the Hindi remake, produced by Karan Johar, will be able to pull that off?

Karan Johar is a good filmmaker, and he has his own style. There must have been something about the film that he liked. Tastes change from person to person, and remakes don’t need to be exactly the same as the original. Because I’m a serious sort of man, ‘Sairat’ is the way it is. I wanted to direct the Telugu remake myself, in fact, but there were some delays with the project and I got the time to think it over. I realised I would be repeating what I had already said in ‘Sairat’, and that would just be a waste of time. Some friends also advised me against it, saying that I have enough original stories to work with. I don’t believe in clinging on to my creative projects. It’s like Sant Tukaram said, ‘Once you have set something free into the world, the wind becomes its father and mother. How it shapes up is no longer in your hands.’ I may have made ‘Sairat’, but it is now everyone’s film.

Your films draw heavily on your personal experiences, especially when it comes to caste. Will more stories emerge from these experiences?

Absolutely. Everyone has their own way of doing something. If I were to make a sci-fi film, there would have to be something in my personal history that draws me to the subject. That’s what life does — it gives you these experiences, and you make something out of them. I can’t do anything that doesn’t speak to me directly. As an actor, I could, perhaps, do so, but certainly not as a filmmaker. When you make a film, you are making a personal statement.

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Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty

Your movies have come at an interesting point in our history, when conversations about caste are becoming more mainstream.

I believe these conversations have always happened, but maybe not like right now. The voices before were low and repressed, but now thanks to the explosive growth of media and platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook, people can talk openly. I don’t believe things on the ground have changed much, but discussions are happening and that’s a good start.

Are films an important part of these discussions? As a writer and filmmaker, do you feel it is your duty to highlight caste discrimination or sexual violence?

Films have a great reach. I don’t believe they can change real life, or reform people. It would be too optimistic of me to believe that. Many important figures in history, like Shivaji Maharaj, Mahatma Phule and Shahu Maharaj, have done things that had an actual impact. As for films, we watch and forget them. At the same time, what a film depicts is very important. Does it reflect your reality? If there are issues, does it talk about them? That’s important, because if people don’t talk about these issues, we won’t find a way forward. Any art, whether it’s cinema or painting or music, can start a conversation and help in finding the way forward.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read or watched recently?

Right now, I’m enjoying the poetry of Rahat Indori and Naresh Saxena. I only get brief snatches of time to read, so I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. I watch movies at home sometimes, or when something interesting is playing in the theatres. But to be honest, I’ve been very busy and sleep is also important, as is spending time with family or just being by myself.

You also write poetry.

Yes, poetry is very personal. It’s close to me. With a film, even if you’re telling a story from the heart, by the time it finds its way onto the big screen, it has become bigger and more technical. With poetry, it’s a relationship between you, the pen and paper, and the person who reads your poems. I use poetry to express all the things that I can’t express in any other way.

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Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty

It’s said that if you want to be a good writer, you should read a lot. Is there similar advice that works for filmmakers?


I don’t believe that if you want to write, you should read a lot. If that were true, then anyone who reads the newspaper will be able to write. It really depends on what you take and what you give. As a reader, you can take from someone, but do you also want to give, do you want to express something? There was a Marathi poet called Bahinabai Chaudhari, who had never been to school, but she composed the most beautiful poems. Take my example. I have only watched very select films from world cinema. If I watch too many films, I find that I get distracted and then references start to creep into my own work. Of course, if you are exposed to all kinds of films, then maybe you gain the confidence to make your own, because you see that there are many ways of saying something.