Manto chose me: Nandita Das
The actor, who is promoting her latest film, Manto, talking about her own personal journey to bring the writer to life in this film
A decade after her debut as a writer-director in Firaaq, Nandita Das is making a comeback with Manto. This time, she’s taken up the formidable task of narrating the story of the legendary and scandalous writer Saadat Hassan Manto, and in doing so, has joined hands with another fine artiste, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Manto, who had an eventful life and has seminal writing to his credit, may have seemed like an easy choice for a biopic, save for the lack of any reliable account of his personal life. The film that has already turned heads at the Cannes Film Festival, and here, Nandita gets candid about her Manto journey, and shares what went into the making of this film.
It’s been a decade since you took up direction.
I haven’t been completely idle. I had work to do... I took up a Yale fellowship, wrote a column in a news magazine. Of course, I was researching Manto, and that took me about five years. In fact when I made Firaaq ten years ago, it was during the pre-social media times. That film didn’t do so well and I thought I’d never make another one again. But a few years ago, when I started reading Manto, I started believing again. It’s a bit like how Manto believed that stories chose him. Something of the sort happened to me as well.
To mount a film on a timeline set over seven decades ago would have warranted extensive research and attention to detail. How did you make the film happen?
Even before we started the film, I went on my own looking for locations. There are Manto walks organised in Mumbai, the place the writer called home. I explored the places he was associated with. In fact he called himself, ‘Chalta phirtha Bombay’. It got me acquainted with places that still have the old world charm intact. The next challenge was to find Lahore in India. We finally found a place in Gujarat that brings to mind Lahore during Partition times. The offices there still used old switchboards and doors, and it worked perfectly for the film.
There isn’t much about Manto’s personal life in his writing. How did you trace his life?
That was indeed the biggest challenge. Manto wrote as a social observer and his work reflected his environment and was less about himself, his family, and his personal quirks. We didn’t even know how he sounded. He did hundreds of shows on All India Radio then but they were never recorded. He even acted in a film called Aath Din, but the reels were burnt in a fire accident. Our only link was his family. Safiya, Manto’s wife, had a great deal of influence on his life but is never mentioned in his writing. His eldest daughter was nine when he passed away. Their memory of him was hazy as well. But they and his extended family members gave us tidbits about his life including details like how he walked or how, say, he cut his fruit.
You’ve done extensive research on the writer as well as on his writing. How did you accommodate all this into a film?
The first draft of the film happened across a decade. But after many drafts, we decided that the film will run through 1946 and 1950. The time included pre, post and Partition period which was a trying time for Manto and which was when some of his best work saw the light. His work reflects the reality of society unabashedly. So goes the line in the film, “Agar aap mere afsao ko bardasht nahi kar sakte, iska matlab zamaana hi bekabil e bardaasht hai” (If you can’t tolerate my stories, then society itself is intolerable). We tried to incorporate and weave in his writings into his story. But of course, I always think there could have been a little more of Manto that I could fit into the film.
Themes of sedition, freedom of expression and censorship are running high today, as they did during his time.
In that age, writers were lynched, jailed and even killed for using their freedom of expression, Manto’s work sounds disturbingly familiar. It makes one wonder if Manto was so ahead of his time that he could create stories that are relevant 70 years later, or if society has not progressed during this time.