Manto the film was critically acclaimed, not just at Cannes, but at several international films festivals.
Writer-director Nandita Das’ second feature film, Manto, was picked by the Cannes International Film to be screened in the Un Certain Regard section in 2018, an honour that very few Indian films have received. Manto the film was critically acclaimed, not just at Cannes, but at several international films festivals thereafter, even receiving the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2018, around the same time when it had a theatrical release in India. But for Das, her relationship with Saadat Hasan Manto — the subcontinent’s favourite short story writer, an unrelenting truth-teller and chronicler of the Partition of India — wasn’t over yet. She had to record her six-year-long journey researching, writing and recreating Manto in a book. Manto & I is about how Nandita Das made her film, creating characters out of very little information, recreating Bombay of 1940s and finding enough of Lahore in Vaso, Gujarat, to shoot a large part of her film there. But like Das’ film, her coffee-table book tells two intertwined stories — of exploration and a refuge, of the times that were, from the times we are living in.
In an email interview with Suparna Sharma, Das talks about Manto, his life, writing, family and Mantoiyat, and says, reassuringly, “Every era has their Mantos... And I think there are more of us than we know!”
You write in your book, Manto and I, that it chronicles the emotional, political, spiritual experience of living with the writer Saadat Hasan Manto for six years. What propelled you to commit six years to Manto, and how do you think this experience changed you, as a director and a human being?
When I started researching and working on the script, I did not think it would take so long but reading the original text in devanagari, gathering funds, scouting for locations, finding ways to recreate the times, getting the right cast and crew... it couldn’t have been shorter than six years! Every experience impacts us going forward in obvious and, often times, invisible ways. The Manto journey was not just long but also intense and varied. My last film before this was a decade ago, so there was much to learn in terms of new technologies in cameras and visual effects. The learnings have been many, such as it reaffirmed my convictions, helped me observe and understand people more, I learnt to navigate through challenges and, most of all, to let go of what is not in one’s control.
Of all the progressive writers of that time, why Manto?
Manto’s life and work deeply resonated with me at many levels. I took refuge in history as it allowed me to engage with many of my concerns of today without having to worry about polarising the conversation and being didactic. What gripped me was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy and bigotry. His protagonists were often those on the margins of society and he saved his most empathetic gaze for women, especially the sex workers whom nobody was writing about.
Manto’s sociopolitical concerns are deeply embedded in his personal and intimate stories and that too deeply resonated with me. He also seemed very familiar to me as I find my father quite similar to him. Much like Manto, he is instinctively unconventional, fearlessly blunt and often misunderstood.
Was this project, this film, this journey of yours also, somehow, triggered by inquisitiveness about why Manto, who loved Bombay so much and was very much a part of it, left?
I think it was the other way round! We all know enough stories about how in times of communal strife, friends and neighbours have betrayed trust. In my work I have often explored issues of identity, prejudice and fear. One can only infer as to why Manto left his beloved city of Bombay as he never clearly wrote about it, but there is enough to indicate the reasons and that is what I have shown in the film. After all, he wrote about feeling betrayed in his biographical sketch of Shyam, called Murli ki Dhun. The same incident has been fictionalised in the story Sahaay.That incident must have shook him enough to do this although Shyam, till the very end, remained a loyal friend to Manto.
From the book it seems that betrayal was a running theme, a sort of thread through Manto’s life. Could you please talk about that?
Manto was a loner and being blunt had made him controversial. He is undoubtedly one of the most progressive writers of the times and therefore it is sad to know that so many misunderstood him. Being a very sensitive man, he was also touchy and egoistic. I have not put him on a pedestal, but shown him with all his contradictions, his warts and blemishes. I don’t think it is only betrayal, it is about identity, about living in fear... all of these are running themes that are interlinked to each other. I have tried to tell a complex film, simply.
You write of how beauty and ugliness existed together in Manto’s stories and characters. Did you see this in his life too, in his personality?
When I started discovering Manto, I realised that he was a man of contradictions, like most of us. He was deeply sensitive and, yet, blunt to the point of being rude. A man who fought six court cases and was envied for his moral courage, but at the same time, was scared of going to jail. His empathy for women, both in his life and his stories, was unparalleled, yet he was unable to provide emotional and economic security to his wife and daughters. His works are an honest account of his life and observations. There was nothing hidden.
The stark and often shocking reality of humans that Manto writes of, stripping his characters to their ugliest, most violent selves, can shake one’s faith in humanity. Do you think his writings, stories were born out of disenchantment with people, of not finding humanity?
Manto wanted to show life as is, without frills and embellishments. His characters reflected the reality. He believed that the best of them have flaws and the worst have their moments of redemption. His characters are seldom black or white and it is this grey area that he subtly explores. And that is what makes him unique.
Without any video recording of Manto, how did you ‘create’ him physically, what was your brief to Nawazuddin? And, how is your Manto different from the others we have seen in films and serials.
When I began writing the script, it was Nawaz, more specifically his eyes, that convinced me that he would be able to embody Manto’s spirit and his pain. Manto was somewhere in Nawaz’s eyes that had seen so much of life and reflected an inner struggle, quite like Manto. Manto was prolific and his essays tell us a lot about him. But I had to meet the family in Lahore to get all the trivia that would make him real. Safia’s sister, Zakia Jalal, who had more memories about Manto than anyone else, recounted how he wrote sitting on his haunches, cut fruits for the children, wrote in the midst of a houseful of people and was generous beyond his means. All these important trivia gave Manto a visual particularity. There were many other stories from her that have subtly found their way into the script.
I was intrigued and fascinated by how you shaped the character of Safia out of a skin rash. Could you elaborate on this, about the process of creating that character from a small fact, an idea to a living, breathing person.
Even after probing the family, as very little has been written about Safia, I did not get much beyond the fact that she was very soft-spoken, gentle, simple and a supportive wife and a caring mother. But I wanted to know more about how she coped with a man whose writings invited court cases, who had slid into alcoholism and was broke more often than not. I couldn’t imagine her not ever being upset, angry or frustrated. I took the liberty of making my Safia feistier than she probably was. I told myself that all I was doing was letting her express her feelings. It was a decision triggered by an anecdote that her sister, Zakia khala, shared with me. She told me that in the last couple of years before Manto died, Safia had developed a skin rash all over her body that had no obvious cause. It miraculously vanished a month after Manto died. It is not uncommon for emotional stress to find a physical outlet. I decided to incorporate this in a scene to reflect her anxiety. She became more real and relatable. And when her daughters saw the film, they loved the way their mother was shown. Rasika, who played Safia, embodied the character completely.
You write of the female gaze — how do you think as a woman researcher, writer and director, your female instinct, interest and gaze shaped your characters and film. How is your film different from what a male director would have made.
Neither Firaaq nor Manto are “women-centric”. Given my engagement with issues of women, some were downright disappointed that I chose a male protagonist for my second film. Then there were others who felt that the socio-political context wasn’t feminine enough. But most found the female lens palpable in the way the characters were portrayed in both the films. Though when I direct, I am just the director, not a woman director. But I am sure my life experiences as a woman would impact even my creative choices. For instance, both films are set in violent times, and a man would have been tempted to show a lot more blood and gore, while I have barely shown any violence in the films.
Also, the women characters are defined by more than just their femininity. They are layered and more reflective of the women we actually see in life. In my adoration of Manto, I did not want to forget or undermine the trauma of his wife. My empathy for Safia was no less than it was for Manto, and at times more. Similarly, in the depiction of sexuality, I am told a male director might have taken far more liberties as Manto’s writings are often explicit and graphic. But reading a text leaves more to imagine, whereas seeing it on screen is a definitive interpretation of the filmmaker. My own experiences of being a female actor has played a significant role in my choices of such scenes. We are still a reasonably repressed society and so I didn’t want to distract the audience from the core idea. What he intends has been conveyed and that was my focus.
What would Mantoiyat be in today’s India? Do you see glimpses of it anywhere around you?
Of course. Every era has their Mantos. The students who are protesting against divisive ideas, the journalists who are telling the truth despite the pressures, the activists who are putting their neck on the line, all those who are fighting for freedom, have unwavering courage and are speaking the truth are the Mantos of today. They are our social conscience, fighting against the tide. The least we can do is to stand in solidarity with our Mantos — students, artists, writers, journalists or activists. We do this not just for them, but for our own conscience and for the world we live in. Anybody who is drawn to a Mantoesque person is bound to have Mantoiyat in themselves. And I think there are more of us than we know!