If alive, Manto would have been in trouble: Nandita Das
Apart from Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing the titular role, the film has known faces such as Rishi Kapoor and Gurdas Mann. Was that deliberate?
I wanted to make it an accessible project, but without compromises. If I got some popular actors to lend their support to the film, it would generate curiosity and not be labelled as an ‘art film’. I didn’t know which role I was going to offer Rishi Kapoor. In fact, I went to meet him through a contact. I didn’t even know him and have always admired him as an actor. When I went there he said guest appearance ke liye mat bolna, poori industry wants me to do cameos. I told him I came to him as I needed popular names as I didn’t want my film to get the stamp of an art film. He asked about the role I had for him in mind. I read out a few (characters). When I came to the sleazy producer's role, he agreed. He asked me, 'What will I tell people?' I told him, 'Tell them that you did a cameo for Manto.' And he added, 'But I did it for you’. He came to the set and finished the shoot in half a day.
Was it tough to find a financier for a film like this?
Of the three producers for the project, one was me. It was tough as it is not a typical Bollywood film. Besides, creating a period film is a costly affair.
Will your Manto release in Pakistan?
I am pursuing it. I will ensure that Manto releases in Pakistan. Manto belonged to both countries. In this Indo-Pak strife, culture, art and cinema are being affected unnecessarily. Manto can act as balm and put things in perspective.
Making Manto was tough for Nandita Das. But the actor-director persisted because she was motivated to spread awareness about 'Mantoyiat' - the desire to be fearless and speak the truth. Das has thought deeply about what would have happened if Saadat Hasan Manto, who captured the anguish of Partition, was alive today. Excerpts from our interview with her:
Like Manto, you are known to be blunt and forthright. Do the similarities end there?
More than the similarities, I talk about Mantoyiat. I have done this film to introduce the younger generation not only to Manto but also what he stood for and to invoke the Mantoyiat that exists within all of us. It is the desire to be fearless, more honest and to speak up about things that you care for. Manto continued writing in the worst of times as he believed in the redemptive power of the written word. My father is a Mantoyist.
Would it have been easy for Manto if he were alive today?
Manto would have gotten into trouble. In today’s time, you get threats for liking a Facebook post. People who speak up in a constitutional way are being put behind bars. Gauri Lankesh, Dabholkar and Pansare are being killed. Manto would have been a troubled man if he was around. But he would also have given everybody a run for their money, especially the trolls.
Was there a need to meet Manto’s family in Pakistan?
The written word is the primary basis for my research. Manto was a prolific writer but I needed to get the nuances of the characters. There is not much written about his wife, Safia’s. To understand their relationship, I needed to meet the family. His daughters were quite young when he died. I talked to them to understand what they thought of him as a father. Despite the fact that he was an alcoholic by the end of his life and didn’t have any money, they have memories of him being a very good father. His sister-in-law, who is in her late ’70s, had a lot to share in terms of anecdotes and little stories. However, I had to be mindful of the fact that I didn’t want to put him on a pedestal. I have great admiration for him and what he stood for, but didn’t want to overlook his flaws. I think that's the way Manto would’ve liked it. He himself would have shown his spots and blemishes. Sometimes, Safia came out a better person.
A film has already been made on Manto in Pakistan. Did you see that before you began work on your film?
I saw the trailer. The treatment is different in that film. It also deals with the last three years of his life and starts much after my film finishes. My film spans 1946-1950 and explores the reasons he left Bombay. Manto was a sensitive man and something must have hurt him so much that he decided to leave the city. He was a prolific writer. But he could not write anything during Partition. His great stories on Partition were written much later. He was so deeply affected that he left Bombay. Compare that to today’s time. Itna kuch ho jaata hain, but we go about our lives. We have become insensitive and numb. A film like this also reminds us about how these people have changed the world.