(Photo |R Satish Babu/EPS)
HYDERABAD: A decade after her debut as a writer-director in Firaaq, Nandita Das is making a comeback with Manto. This time, she’s taken up the formidable task of narrating the story of the legendary and scandalous writer Saadat Hassan Manto, and in doing so, has joined hands with another fine artiste, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Manto who had an eventful life and has seminal writing to his credit, may have seemed like an easy choice for a biopic, save for the lack of any reliable account of his personal life. This film that has already turned heads at the Cannes Film Festival, and here, Nandita gets candid about her Manto journey, and shares what went into the making of this film.
It’s been a decade since you took up direction. What have you been up to?
I haven’t been completely idle. I had work to do... I took up a Yale fellowship, wrote a column in a news magazine. Of course, I was researching Manto, and that took me about five years. In fact when I made Firaaq ten years ago, it was during the pre-social media times. That film didn’t do so well and I thought I’d never make another one again. But a few years ago, when I started reading Manto, I started believing again. It’s a bit like how Manto believes that stories choose him. Something of the sort happened to me as well.
To mount a film on a timeline set over seven decades ago would have warranted extensive research and attention to detail. How did you make the film happen?
Even before we started the film, I went on my own looking for locations. There are Manto walks organised in Mumbai, the place the writer called home. I explored the places he was associated with. In fact he called himself, “Chalta phirtha Bombay” (Walking talking Bombay). It got me acquainted with places that still have the old world charm intact. The next challenge was to find Lahore in India. We finally found a place in Gujarat that brings to mind Lahore during Partition times. The offices there still used old switchboards and doors, and it worked perfectly for the film.
Manto is known mostly for his work alone and there has not been any accounts about his personal life in his writings. How did you trace a personality so long gone from the material world and bring it back in the form of a character?
That was indeed the biggest challenge. Manto wrote as a social observer and his work reflected his environment and was less about himself, his family, and his personal quirks. We didn’t even know how he sounded. He did hundreds of shows on All India Radio then, but they were never recorded. He even acted in a movie called Aat Din, but the reels were burnt in a fire accident.
Our only link was his family. Safiya, Manto’s wife, had a great deal of influence on his life but is never mentioned in his writing. His eldest daughter was nine when he passed away. Their memory of him was hazy as well. But they and his extended family members gave us tidbits about his life including details like how he walked or how, say, he cut his fruit.
You’ve done extensive research on the writer as well as his writings. How did you plan on putting it all in one film and do justice to it?
The first draft of the film was set through a decade. But after many drafts we decided that the film will run through 1946 and 1950. The time included pre, post and Partition period which was a very trying time for Manto and which was when some of his best works saw the light.
His work reflected the reality of the society unabashedly. So goes the line in the film, “Agar aap mere afsao ko bardasht nahi kar sakte, iska matlab zamaana hi bekabil e bardaasht hai” (If you can’t tolerate my stories, then the society itself is intolerable). We tried to incorporate and weave in his writings into the course of his story. But of course, I always think there could have been a little more of Manto that I could fit into the movie.
Themes of sedition, freedom of expression and censorship are running high in the current society as they did during his. Is that a coincidence?
Absolutely not. In the day and age when writers are lynched, jailed and even killed for using their freedom of expression, Manto’s work sounds disturbingly familiar. It would make one wonder is Manto himself was so ahead of his times that he could create stories relevant 70 years later, or has society itself has not progressed in these 70 years.