Ten years after making her directorial debut with Firaaq, actor Nandita Das is ready with her next on the life and times of revolutionary Urdu writer Sadaat Hasan Manto. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the titular role with Rasika Dugal as his wife Safia, the biopic is set in India and Pakistan and focuses on the period between 1945 and 1949; it is woven around five of Manto’s stories. In an exclusive piece, she talks about Manto, her fascination with his life and work, her Manto-esque father, and why Manto is still relevant today’s times.
Introduction to 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 humor. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon I realized that it felt like I was reading about my father, an artist. He too is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from my protagonist.
Resonance with Manto:
It is his fearlessness and a deep concern for the human condition that I have always felt most deeply connected to. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him. For him, the only identity that mattered was that of being a human. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world. I feel there is a Mantoiyat, in all of us – the part that wants to be free-spirited and outspoken.
My father is very Manto-esque:
My father Jatin Das is an artist and at a person level I feel he is very Manto-esque. In the sense that though an artist he has never really been part of the artist’s market group, as art has also sadly become a commodity. Like Manto, he has also never really been driven by money. He is very outspoken and somewhat a misfit. I’m very close to my father and when I come across struggles of someone who is so honest and wants to speak up all the time. Somewhere I feel that the film on Manto has the power of making a difference. That’s why I want to do films.
This is something that I feel so passionate about because it is a story that I really want to tell. I feel Manto had this feeling that writing and literature have that power of making a difference. That’s why he continued writing even when he was financially in a bad shape and became an alcoholic, especially when he was in Lahore. But he had a belief that his writing can contribute to some kind of change – not that he has ever said it but at a subconscious level he believed it. I think there is a resonance there as well.
Favourite works and why:
When I first read Manto in college, I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives. As for my favourite Manto work, there are many, so please don’t ask me to choose! To name a few, Dus Rupiya, 100 Watt Bulb, Hatak, Khushiya, Khol Do and many more – each one is powerful in its own way. His essays and sketches about people are equally poignant and sharp.
Manto once said, “Why would I undress a society that is already naked? It is true I make no attempt to cover it, but that’s not my job…my job is to write with a white chalk so that I can draw attention to the blackness of the board.” Manto wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution.
Relevance of Manto today:
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 and 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.
Struggle for freedom of expression:
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 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 somebody. His writing tried to understand and empathize 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?
On Manto being labeled a mainstream or an art film:
I do not like to label films as mainstream or art. And at the end, this film is an artistic expression. Manto was a great writer, and his story will reach out to millions because I think it is very relevant to our times, for multiple reasons. We are still grappling with issues like freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Also we don’t know many of our own writers, artists, scientists, and through them the history of our country and times they lived in. I think people in our country and globally, will connect to the story, as at the end of it all, it is a human story of struggle and courage and the will to speak out and be your own self – something we all struggle with.
(This interview was first published in Air Vistara’s inflight magazine, Vistara, in April 2018)