The life story of Saadat Hasan Manto, the playwright andauthor known for his incendiary writing in British India, forms the basis of the new directorial venture by Nandita Das, titled Manto. In discussions leading upto its release, Nandita has dedicated the film to youngsters, and in particular, the ‘Facebook generation’.
Weaving together a narrative around five of Manto’s stories, the film stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead role, with Rasika Dugal as his wife Safiyah, as well as Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta, Paresh Rawal and Rishi Kapoor, while Rajshri Deshpande plays the writer Ismat Chughtai. One of the stories strung into the film is Toba Tek Singh, in which Bishan Singh (played by Vinod Nagpal) an inmate at a mental asylum, offers a viewpoint of the Partition.
For Nandita, who debuted as a director with Firaaq (2008), the story of Manto resonates with present-day struggles and concerns over matters of personal freedom and expression — something the youth ought to relate to. That said, it is saddening to realise that the ‘unbearable times’ Manto lived in are relevant
to society even today, admits Nandita, in an exclusive interview.
What drew you to the stories of Manto?
I first read Manto when I was in college. A few years later, I bought the complete original works in a collection called Dastavez, in Devanagari. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives and the way he insightfully captured the people, politics and times he lived in.
He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters.
For years I thought of making a film based on his short stories, even before I made my directorial debut, Firaaq. In 2012, when I delved deeper into his essays, they helped the idea expand beyond his stories. Today I feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story that so needs to be told.
What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. He was irreverent and had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the establishment, often with sharp humour. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon, I realised that it felt like I was reading about my father (the artist Jatin Das). He too is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from my protagonist.
How does the film speak for the struggle of freedom of expression in India?
Manto never perceived himself to be an activist. He in fact says that ‘as much as Gandhi has to do with films, I had to do with politics’. He didn’t feel that he was political and yet he was actually extremely political in all his writings. According to him, what being ‘political’ meant was to understand why things happen the way they happen. In today’s times, we can see this all around — censorship, people who are self–censoring to avoid trouble or moral policing, where some group decides that something is hurting their sentiments.
And, that is what Manto fought against. He was tried for obscenity six times — three times by the British government, and three times by the Pakistani government — just because he wrote about the sex workers. There are a lot of interesting essays. We also have scenes in the film showing the way people attacked him saying that what he wrote was obscene and pornographic, and how he defended literature, as his writing was not meant to titillate anybody. His writing tried to understand and empathise with people who are on the margins of society.
It was about those people who nobody wants to write about.
In fact, he also says that if you can’t bear my stories, it is only because we live in unbearable times. The stories only reflected what happened in society. So I think it is relevant not just in our South Asian sub-continent, but also around the world. Artists, writers, freethinkers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced. Any society grows and develops when you have people speaking up the truth and thinking differently. And if you silence them then what hope do we have?
How do you think the youth will connect with Manto as a protagonist?
The deeper I delve into this project, the more convinced I am about the relevance of Manto in these times. Not much has changed... almost 70 years later, we are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression, and struggles of identity. Even today, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class and religion as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. I know he would have had lots to say about the times we live in. It is no surprise that so much is being written about Manto and that many
theatre groups are often performing his plays and essays. He was relevant then and will sadly continue to be relevant for a long time to come.
Tell us a little about working with an unfamiliar tongue — you’ve worked in a few different languages over the years.
I have acted in 12 different languages. At times, doing a film in a language unfamiliar to me was not easy, especially the South Indian languages. At times, it was the shooting conditions that were daunting, like that of Bawander (2000) or Maati Maay (2006). And at times, emotionally, they pushed my boundaries and became insightful experiences. The exciting part was to overcome the challenges and do justice to the characters.