Playing the literary fireball

Character study: Actor Nandita Das admires Ismat Chughtai’s bravery and outspokenness; two qualities she can relate to.

Character study: Actor Nandita Das admires Ismat Chughtai’s bravery and outspokenness; two qualities she can relate to.   | Photo Credit: Vijay Bate

It might seem a tad incongruous, knowing the different times and worlds they belong to, but to play the indomitable Urdu writer and fierce feminist Ismat Chughtai, in Nandita Das’s upcoming Manto, actor Rajshri Deshpande is relying heavily on her own experiences: be it travel or voluntary work at the Rescue Foundation, an NGO involved in rescue and rehabilitation of human trafficking victims. “You need to be a passionate person to play a strong one like Ismat Aapa,” declares the actor.

On second thought, Deshpande doesn’t seem such a surprise choice for the coveted part. Her ease with Urdu and delivering filmy dialogues even while speaking casually, makes her seem quite Chughtai-like. Even to a curious bystander, she would appear unstoppable much like the onscreen persona she is soon set to enact.

Just a few days short of leaving for the shoot of Manto, we meet Deshpande on her return to Mumbai from a holiday in Himachal Pradesh. Wearing a white long kurta with a brown Nehru jacket, the gregarious actor enthusiastically starts narrating her travel tales. She points to her bejewelled nose ring, and says the best jewellery (along with the best travel and life experiences) is often found in lesser explored places of India. A bit like how the best of film roles have come her way in small films than big ventures. She played a woman fiercely fighting the system and seeking justice for her murdered brother in Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015). She plays the pivotal role in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s much feted experimental Malayalam indie Sexy Durga, which recently won the prestigious Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam.

Her unusual film choices, however, have roots in a rather regular upbringing. Raised in a traditional middle-class Maharashtrian household in Aurangabad, Deshpande studied law in Pune and then worked for seven years in advertising. After getting married, she found support in her husband who encouraged the move to Mumbai to study acting at Whistling Woods International. “If I was in Poona longer I would’ve been depressed,” she says. After graduating she joined Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley Theatre Group. “I was like an Eklavya to him… learning from a distance,” she jests.

Roles in Sony TV serials like Kuch To Log Kahenge and 24: India followed. But it was casting director Honey Trehan’s recollection of her theatre performances that got Deshpande to meet Das for a potential role in Manto. “The moment I entered she gave me a pair of glasses to wear,” recounts the actor. The duo shared their mutual admiration for Chughtai’s life and literature during the crucial meeting. Deshpande has been reading Chughtai’s fiction since the past ten years and counts Sorry Mummy, Chui Mui, Tehri Lakeer, and the controversial Lihaaf, among her favourites. “At the end of the meeting, Nandita said, ‘toh Ismat Aapa, aap humare gale nahi lagoge? (Ismat Aapa, won’t you embrace me?)’,” she recalls. That’s when Deshpande knew she had bagged the much coveted role.

Unsaid Relationship

According to Deshpande, the film explores the relationship between Chughtai and celebrated writer Saadat Hasan Manto (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and focuses on their interaction at Lahore High Court, where the two were summoned in relation to their controversial writings. Chughtai was there to defend Lihaaf which was charged with obscenity. Written in 1942, the short story discusses same-sex relationships and sexual desire among Muslim women. “Manto and Chughtai had an unsaid relationship. For Manto, Ismat was the most important part of his life, and vice versa,” shares the actor.

In the movie, Deshpande plays the writer when she was in her 30s. According to the actor, there are only a handful of photographs available of the writer which were clicked in her youth, making it even more challenging for her to learn Chughtai’s mannerisms. Hence to learn more about the writer, Deshpande interacted with people who knew her personally. She consulted actor Benjamin Gilani, who worked with her in Junoon (1978) and poet and lyricist Gulzar. “Gulzar saab said, ‘jab woh baat karti thi, hum sab chup ho jaate the (When she used to speak, we would all get quiet)’,” she recalls. The actor had to imbibe the writer’s self-assured attitude and linguistic confidence.

Deshpande claims that this is the first time Chughtai’s life will be seen on the big screen. “There’s no pressure but I can’t go wrong,” she states confidently. Apart from the writer’s literary finesse, she admires her bravery and outspokenness; two qualities she can relate to. All set to shoot in Gujarat and Mumbai, the actor hopes to do justice to Chughtai’s legacy, and in the process expose her own fluidity, receptiveness and strength, both as a person and an actor.

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2020 2:58:40 PM |

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