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I want to move people but not in a manipulative way: Nandita Das

So much of what Manto said resonates today that the actor-director decided it was time to present him to modern audiences

June 23, 2018 04:25 pm | Updated 04:25 pm IST

 Nandita Das during a photocall at Cannes this year.

Nandita Das during a photocall at Cannes this year.

1857 ke khandhar mein, Mughaliya sultanat mein; Sab peeche dekh rahe hain, jab aaj ke kaatil lahu se tareekh likh rahe hain... ” Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Saadat Hasan Manto in Nandita Das’s biographical film on the celebrated Indo-Pakistani writer, talks about how we keep blaming everything on the past — the ruins of 1857, the Mughal empire — even as newer killers keep marching on, spilling blood to write fresh chapters of violence in evolving contemporary history. It’s a chilling moment on screen that stays with you hours after watching Manto .

A lot of what Manto says resonates so strongly today, I say, when I meet Das at her hotel after a mad dash from Debussy Theatre in a raining Cannes. “That’s the reason I did the film in the first place,” she responds. “I was feeling frustrated with everything that was going on in the world at large. Manto provided me the best way to respond to it.”

From humanism to freedom of expression to identity and Hindu-Muslim unity, the subcontinental icon’s liberal voice makes immense sense in these polarised times. “For me it’s a means to an end,” she says, “I don’t want to be didactic. I am not into pointing fingers at the government or the media... The onus is on each one of us. If we can look at our own biases and prejudices, how we discriminate, how we divide people…”

Das and her Manto — Nawazuddin Siddiqui — are in adjacent conference rooms at J.W. Marriott, talking to an endless stream of journalists. The small passageway connecting the two rooms is strewn with Manto posters. Das’s cup of herbal tea is taken away while she is busy holding forth about the film. In chasing her lost chai and ordering another cup, she briefly loses her trail of thought, then comes back to talk about Manto’s deep love for the Bombay of old, and how Manto used to say he would consider moving to Pakistan only if Bombay were to shift there. “He said, ‘ Ye shehar koi sawaal nahin karta; aap mehal mein ho ya sadak par (Bombay never questions you, whether you live in a mansion or on the streets)’… That’s the kind of love he had for the city, so you can imagine what it was like for him to have to go away.”

It’s a sense of displacement everyone responds to. Das talks of a young Romanian girl in the audience at the Cannes premiere identifying with the film. “This whole thing about where you belong — the core of it is very universal — even though I may have made the film for my own context and my own self.”

Of mind and heart

Das finds human stories interesting, both as a viewer and as a filmmaker; the kind that she can respond to with both her mind and heart. “I want to move people, but not in a manipulative way. I want to move them in a thoughtful way.” Otherwise what is a film doing anyway, she asks. “We [filmmakers] are not creating revolutions. We are just giving some thoughts, some questions [to the audience to reflect upon ]…”

That’s what Manto too did with his work, Das says. He was not a sentimentalist: “They [his works] are as is… raw, straightforward, without embellishments.” In fact, Das initially wanted to make short films of Manto’s stories. Then, in 2012, during the centenary celebrations for Manto, a lot more started to get written about him. “Aakar Patel did a translation of his essays called Why I Write and it was through them I got to know the person behind the name... The essays were about what he felt about certain things — freeloaders, smokers who bum cigarettes, and also freedom, the Partition, women.” And thus, from this and other readings, the idea of a film on him took root.

She looks back at the making of the film as overwhelming and challenging. There was the recreating of the Bombay and Lahore of the times, a huge cast, and several locations to jostle with. Getting funding for a project that was neither totally indie nor entirely Bollywood was a herculean task. “It has a large canvas yet you are telling an intimate story,” she says.

Fact and fiction

Ironically, there was also the unusual problem of an abundance of information. Das talks of having to read and sift through a lot. “I would have someone read out the Urdu books to me, and record them.” And, of course, there was Manto’s family — his daughters and his grand-niece Ayesha Jalal who wrote The Pity of Partition:Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide. The writing process proved to be the most time-consuming. Das researched all the way through 2012 to 2014, was busy writing, rewriting, editing and tightening the script almost until 2017.

From his bond with actor Shyam to the great camaraderie he shared with his wife Safia, from the habit of writing with pencils to reflecting on truths, however bitter, in his works — Manto’s persona shines through the film. There is also a panoramic view of the literary scene of the time — from Ismat Chugtai to Krishan Chander — and a glimpse of the Bombay film industry. Das has also woven in some of Manto’s stories such as ‘Dus Rupaye’, ‘Thanda Gosht’ and ‘Toba Tek Singh’ into the screenplay. “I wanted to have the stories seamlessly interspersed, a blurring of fact and fiction. A lot of lines written by him have been used in the film, but not just as his dialogues. A lot has been distilled from his writings, speeches, essays, stories,” she says.

Despite Manto at its centre, the film is not an eulogy. It is a portrait of the artist, warts and all, his anger, ego, cynicism and inability to take criticism; and at the same time it tells of his pain and suffering — over not being understood and not getting his due. According to Das, Manto himself used to say “ Jab tak insaan aur Manto mein kamiyan rahengi, tab tak main use khurdbeen se dekhta rahunga aur doosron ko dikhata rahunga (As long as people and Manto have weaknesses, I will use a microscope to look at them and to show them to others.)

“I wanted to show Manto to audiences with all his amazing qualities and his blemishes,” says Das.

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