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Interview Hindi

Was disappointed that Manto did not mention Safia often in his writings: Rasika Dugal

Dugal speaks about preparing for the role, the 'mutual joke appreciation club' on the sets of Manto, and the stories of Partition.

Shriram Iyengar

Speaking to Rasika Dugal is easy. The actress has a vibrant sense of joy that is infectious. This disarming joy sometimes shifts focus from the fact that Dugal has been building a reputation as an actress on the basis of impeccable and consistent performances.

After making her debut in Manish Jha's Anwar (2007), the actress truly arrived with the fantastic festival favourite, Kshay (2012), directed by Karan Gour. Since then, she has been on a roll with her work in theatre, short films and features. Her filmography includes some very interesting titles like Aurangzeb (2013) and the fantastic and critically acclaimed Qissa (2015), and leads up to Nandita Das's much-awaited film, Manto (2018).

In Das's film about the controversial, honest-to-a-fault writer Sa'adat Hasan Manto (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Dugal takes on the role of the proverbial woman behind the man, Safia Manto.

"Interestingly, in all his writings, he never mentions Safia," says Dugal with a tinge of disappointment in her voice, like a fan discovering her writer's flaws. But it was these flaws that made Manto an interesting character. The film will be screened in the prestigious Un Certain Regard category of the Cannes film festival on 13 May.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rasika Dugal on the sets of Manto

A day before her departure to Cannes, Dugal spoke with Cinestaan.com about playing wife to a man who never shied away from fighting the world, armed with only his pen. This came at disastrous consequences sometimes. Manto was tried six times for obscenity [thrice in India, and thrice in independent Pakistan], and battled alcoholism brought on by the tragedy of Partition.

Behind it all, Safia Manto held the family together. "At one point, I felt that I had to stop idealising Manto as Rasika... I am sure Safia didn't wake up every day thinking my husband is such a great writer. I am sure it was about my children not getting enough to eat, somebody is sick, those things," Dugal said, adding, "You never imagine people who are heroes for you doing mundane activities."

With the film set to be premiered at Cannes, the actress has the tough job of making the mundane seem extraordinary. Excerpts from the interview:

So, Manto is off to Cannes? 

Yes, and I am very excited about it. I am thrilled, and I was hoping, it was at the back of my mind, that it should be in Cannes. It is also a very prestigious section. Un Certain Regard is a very good section. Not many films get there easily. I am very happy about that. 

There is a lot of pressure about being on the red carpet in Cannes. This being your first trip, have you picked out an ensemble to go for? 

I would rather not be spending my time doing this. It's not my area of work. There are stylists and designers helping me, and they have all been very kind. I am sure they will pick something that is aesthetically right, and suitable for the movie as well. 

I have been waiting for Manto for a long time, and it is nice to see a space for Safia, the woman who held fort while Manto was out fighting with the world. Tell us how you approached the character.

You are right. When I was in college, I read a lot of Manto. Therefore, when the film was offered to me, I was very, very excited. He was one of the writers I had read avidly, among others from the Progressive Writers' Association. Interestingly, in all his writings, he never mentions Safia. 

I didn't know anything about Safia except through one article that Nandita [Das] had written about Manto, before she had even offered me the film. It was very intriguing to me the information that came through Nandita during the research, and through the film. 

The film actually shows a side of Manto which I was not very familiar with, the domestic side of him, and the relationship that he and Safia seemed to have. They seemed to have a good camaraderie. She would read a lot of his first drafts. They say she was his first editor, but we don't know how much of it is true. 

I was actually disappointed that he had not mentioned her as often as I expected him to. In fact, there is this book, Stars from Another Sky, essays on people he met in Mumbai like [actors] Ashok Kumar and Shyam Chadha. There is one chapter on the actress Nargis, and in that chapter, he mentions Safia and her sisters. How they used to crank-call her [Nargis], and later became friends. 

That was one of the few times I had read about him talking about his wife. But Nandita's research, and my conversations with his daughters [in Pakistan], they used to say that they [Manto and Safia] had a beautiful and friendly relationship. Manto was also a very doting husband, and ironed her clothes. 

It is hard to imagine Manto doing something like that. He was feared for his ability to speak the truth...

People you have a lot of adulation for, especially those you don't have access to, you never imagine them doing daily things. You never imagine people who are heroes for you doing mundane activities. 

They had a very tough life. Moving to Pakistan really changed Manto. Nobody can say how the relationship went, but the film does acquire a strong emotional connection. He was a great writer, but the film also tells the story of a man who was shattered because of Partition. 

That story only comes across and connects well because it is a story of him and his family. You really can see what he went through because you see them standing by the people they love. 

What was the process of preparation like? How long did you prep for the character? 

Between the time I had spoken to Nandita and the time we started filming was a long, long time. There is a collection of Manto's work called Dastaavez, a five-volume collection consisting of his short stories, his plays, and his essays. I read any material I could have access to. One particular was the essays Ismat Aapa [Chughtai] had written about him. It is not fictionalized and, therefore, is one step closer. Reading his [Manto's] essays literally felt like I am talking to the person. 

Nandita had done a lot of research herself and spent a lot of time with his daughters before she wrote the script. So a lot of that anecdotal information which is not documented anywhere, stories that the family has, much of those has been incorporated in the script. 

Besides that, I felt that I had to familiarize myself with how people functioned in the 1940s and 1950s. That has changed drastically, the way we communicate has changed radically in the last 50 years because of technology. 

But I already feel like a misfit in these times. I already feel things are much more pacier than I can handle. I was probably meant to be born in that era, and not in this one. 

I remember Kate Winslet's interview at Actor's Studio where she said, 'Any kind of research is to assuage your guilt as an actor.' What finally you accomplish is the moment between two actors on the set. Everything else is support, and keeps you at ease. Maybe a subconscious support, but it is how you respond to your co-actor on the set as a human being as well. You have to be present at that moment to be able to make a character work. 

Rasika Dugal and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a still from Manto

I kind of improvise along the way. I don't have a set pattern for working. I start with things I am genuinely interested in. Since I used to [occasionally] read in Urdu earlier, before Manto, I decided to hire an Urdu tutor, to learn the language better. To be able to understand their [Urdu progressive writers'] sense of humour, which was very clever and very wry. 

At one point,I felt that I had to stop idealizing Manto as Rasika. I had to start looking at him as somebody who is my life partner, who lives in my house. I am sure Safia didn't wake up every day thinking my husband is such a great writer. I am sure it was about my children are not getting enough to eat, somebody is sick, those things. 

Manto, for instance, was always surrounded by people. As you mention, it is the camaraderie for an actor that defines the role eventually. So how did these elements come together on the set? 

Nandita, Nawaz [Nawazuddin Siddiqui] and I got along really, really well. In fact, you know how Nandita and Nawaz come across as serious people. I was totally thrown off when I realized they had a great sense of humour. Going deeper into the subject only sucks away the energy, and the release came in the form of the jokes we cracked, and appreciated ourselves (laughs). We were quite the mutual appreciation society (laughs). 

I was very relieved, and very charmed that Nandita and Nawaz share the same sense of humour as me. Which not many people share, by the way.

All the other smaller parts were also important because of the reason you just said. Manto had close relationships, and was always surrounded by friends. Back then, mahoul bhi aisa hota tha, ki har din sab mil baith ke baat kar rahe hain [The environment was such that people would gather every day and converse]. The substitute for that is the WhatsApp groups these days. 

Sa'adat Hasan Manto

The credit goes to the casting director, Honey Trehan, and Nandita that the casting was done so well. Every part in the film was played by an experienced actor. I have to say that a lot of actors came to support the film because of Manto, and Nandita. Javed Akhtar is playing a small part, Rishi Kapoor is playing a part, Divya Dutta and Ranvir Shorey are playing parts. 

There is this one courtroom scene in the film where there are lots of actors. Javed saheb is also present in that one. I would look and there would be one great actor, and then I would look the other way, there would be another great actor. I was like, 'Is there nobody here who has not been in the industry for 20 years?'

All these people would normally never do smaller parts, but they lent their support to a film like this. 

The film also arrives at a time when fake news and post-truth are in vogue. Manto was a writer who spoke the truth, as uncomfortable, bitter, and often harmful to himself as it was. 

Unfortunately, it is more relevant today than ever. I think, at least in my life, I have not seen freedom of speech threatened more than it is today. I guess it is around the world. It is worrying, and I think, the film is most relevant today. I would rather not be living in an age where freedom of speech is curbed. 

The film, as you mentioned, will focus on Manto as a man destroyed by Partition. It is a subject that was also dealt with in Qissa. As Safia, did you have to delve into similar emotions? Did it help having portrayed them before on screen?

The grief of Partition and displacement is something that I find very easy to relate to. Maybe it's somewhere in my blood. My family was living in Burma many years ago. When Japan bombed Burma in World War II, they moved to Rawalpindi and, later, Lahore. They moved back to Jamshedpur, via Burma, in the 1960s. 

Rasika Dugal and Tillotama Shome in a still from Qissa (2015)

People who have been through this tragedy, they talk about it very differently. They speak about the incident very matter-of-factly, which is very scary. The way my grandparents would tell me stories about how they came as refugees from Rawalpindi, Burma, was.... My grandparents would talk about the same event, but their memory of the same event was totally skewed. 

A lot of these themes, Qissa dealt with as well. It was primarily a film about a person who had gone through this, and his need to cling to his land and sense of ownership. Manto is about how Partition destroyed a man. I feel like I understand this somewhere, in a more primary way than intellectual.

It sounds like a very long journey, and you have already spent 10 years in the film industry. It must feel fulfilling to arrive at this particular milestone with Manto.

I didn't even realize it has been 10 years. I have just been so busy. But I couldn't think of a better way of arriving at this point than with a film like Manto, in every way. In the way for Nandita, for Nawaz, for Safia and for Manto, and for the beautifully aesthetic things that Nandita has put in the film.

The way the music is in the film, and the way it has been shot by [cinematographer] Kartik Vijay. There are very few opportunities when actors get to be part of a project like this; sometimes actors don't get a chance through their entire career. But I have been fortunate with both Qissa and Manto, and I hope there will be many more.