Article Hindi

Ismat Chughtai is in me: Rajshri Deshpande on playing the fearless feminist in Manto

On the 26th death anniversary of Urdu's foremost feminist writer, actress Rajshri Deshpande, portraying the great 'Ismat' on screen in Nandita Das's upcoming biopic Manto, speaks.

Shriram Iyengar

In a year when the death of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh occupied the headlines, the world is in dire need of an Ismat Chughtai. The writer, who passed away on 24 October 1991, was one of Urdu, and Indian, literature's finest proponents of feminist prose. With stories like Terhi Lakeer, Lihaaf, or even her memoirs Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, she emerged as one of the boldest and clearest voices of progressive writing in the 20th century.

Ismat Chughtai's strongly feminist, blunt, and deliberate prose earned her a posse of enemies, and a series of obscenity cases. This did not deter her. Her defence was simple. As she describes in a conversation with her husband, Shahid Lateef, in her memoirs, "God has made you a man, I had no hand in it, and He has made me a woman, you had no hand in it. You have the freedom to write whatever you want, you don’t need my permission. Similarly, I don’t feel any need to seek your permission for writing the way I want to."

Whether it was her stories, her plays, or film (Garm Hava, 1974), Chughtai personified a voice that was fearless in speaking the truth, no matter how disturbing. In that, she was similar to close friend and collaborator Sa'adat Hassan Manto. A writer of similar temperament, Manto found in Chughtai someone who understood his obsession with bringing up the dirt in society.

They did not always agree, and fought more often than not. This would often irk Manto, who said in his description of their first meeting, "The wretch turned out to be a woman, after all."

But it is impossible for any literary friendship to have been more productive than that of Chughtai and Manto. On the latter's death, a heartbroken Chughtai penned an essay aptly titled, 'My Friend, My Enemy.'

On Ismat Chughtai's 26th death anniversary, we spoke with Rajshri Deshpande, the actress charged with bringing her to life again on screen in Nandita Das's Manto. The actress, who has already become a favourite of critics with her performance in the acclaimed Sexy Durga, will be seen in Manto alongside Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rasika Dugal.

In an elaborate conversation, Deshpande opened up on the other side of Chughtai, the chemistry with Manto, and her own conversations with Siddiqui on the sets of Das's film. Excerpts:

You have a tendency to choose strong characters. From Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) to S Durga to Ismat Chughtai in Manto. What was the challenge in playing Ismat?

I am not in a position where I can choose films. Angry Indian Goddesses just happened, and so did Sexy Durga. It is my fortune that filmmakers have approached me for good films, and for strong characters in these films.

Thankfully, when Ismat happened, I was very happy. When Manto was happening, I called up the casting director to ask what is happening with the casting process. Ismat is definitely my favourite role to play. I have read everything about Ismat.

Somewhere I always wanted to live the way Ismat lived her life. She was not just a writer. She has worked so much for people also. I see myself doing something like that. Or Savitribai Phule, who I am playing in another biopic.

Ismat Chughtai

How difficult is it to make the transition to the fearless rebel that was Ismat Chughtai, after playing vulnerable in a film like Sexy Durga?

It is not difficult for a woman, I guess. She goes through so many things. As an artiste, you have to be strong, vulnerable, and understand which emotion to play where.

Ismat, apart from being a fearless woman, was a normal person. There were times when she was also vulnerable, when she couldn't show the world what she was going through. Despite being such a fearless writer, there were places where she had to give way and compromise. She knew she had to take care of a family as well, and keep it all together.

We have seen the fiery side of Ismat and know it through her works, but she had to go through a lot on the side as well. She was often apprehensive of going to court. She used to take a deep breath before entering the court. She must have had that moment when her heart skips a beat, but she had the courage to do it, no matter what.

Ismat is in me. She is there inside me. I have faced that fear when I go on stage, when you feel you will forget your lines. Ismat would have several moments when she couldn't show the world what was happening behind the curtain, but she would take that step and enter the arena.

As someone who has read Ismat and is playing her as a character, how did you visualize her?

I think she is normal. She is just like you and me. There are some women who go through a lot behind the curtain but are different in front of the world. Ismat was like that. She would be like 'Whatever happens, I will show the world. If I mess up, it's okay.' She will not think a lot about all this, because she wants to show the world the statements she wants to make.

She did that through her stories. Every story was somehow or the other related to her life. She was fearless with her works, be it Lihaaf [The Quilt] or Terhi Lakeer [Crooked Line], she wanted to tell the stories about the people she knew.

It is not just the reality. There is sarcasm involved. Humour involved. There is pain involved. She had everything.

Of course, there is the relationship between Manto and Ismat Chughtai. They were two of the closest friends and collaborators. At one point, Manto even says on the works of Ismat that they are what he would write if he were a woman....

Yes, but then he meets her and describes the meeting as 'Kambakht, ye bhi aurat nikli' [The wretch turned out to be a woman after all]. But it is because she was a woman that she was able to write these stories.

As they say, Manto and Ismat were two sides of the same coin. They could never gel with each other, but they were always there for each other. They would fight bitterly. But when it came to troubles for Ismat or Manto, they were there for each other. That is the kind of bond they shared.

And you have Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing Manto to your Ismat....

I know, and I seriously think Nawaz and I have that kind of rapport because whenever we meet we discuss so many things. I really like it when we discuss not just the industry, but so many other things, about what happens at home, and what happens around the country. We have both struggled so much.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manto

We are still struggling, Nawaz has certainly gone way ahead. He has really, really worked hard, and I respect him for it. But he is still so open. He has read my articles about my village [Deshpande has adopted a village], and often says, "Rajshri, do this because how else are you going to show on screen what happens off screen? You have to gain that much of knowledge off screen as well."

It's nice working with Nawaz where we share that equation discussing not just films, but life. It is really great. It is exactly like Manto and Ismat. We disagree about a lot of things. We fight as well. It is a great friendship. Just like Manto and Ismat, I guess.

You have spoken before about having to withdraw into character for Sexy Durga. Was there any such process for Ismat Chughtai, seeing how Nawazuddin Siddiqui is known for his method style?

Nothing of that sort. In Manto, we were just discussing life. We were discussing stories of Ismat and Manto. He [Siddiqui] had read everything Manto ever wrote. It would be like Antakshari. You say something, and someone picks up the end and continues with that bit. We used to say lines of Manto and Ismat's reply. It was always like that. If Manto has an opinion, Ismat would definitely have a reply to it.

The same thing happened with me and Nawaz. If he said something, I would have something to counter. While I respect him as a senior and a co-actor, I was there as Ismat. So, I behaved like her.

He is an amazing Manto, and an amazing friend to me.

You also have the advantage of Nandita Das directing you.

Absolutely. A person like her, she is emotional, and sensitive about the subject, particularly of Manto. It is a very sensitive character. To show that on screen, you really need a person who understands these areas. In such stories, you don't need technical people but people who are emotional about these stories.

How much of Ismat Chughtai has influenced you?

I started reading very late in my life. It has only been 10 years. I was not brought up with Ismat Chughtai and Manto in my home. We hardly had books, just textbooks. But my major inspirations have been my mother, my sisters, and so many women around me. I have seen them evolve, change, and take on things in life.

I have seen them struggle with the worst, and yet smile, because they want to live life. That's what I want to do.

People often ask me, will you only do strong characters? I tell them, no. I want to do everything.