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Interview Hindi

Like Manto, I am more interested in the emotional and psychological impact of violence: Nandita Das

The Manto director spoke about the long period of research into the writer's life and works as well as her reason to pick Nawazuddin Siddiqui for the role.

Shriram Iyengar

Nandita Das's latest film focuses on the life and times of the fiery writer Sa'adat Hasan Manto. The film, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the controversial writer, explores his life by situating it in the context provided by his own stories.

In an e-mail conversation with Cinestaan.com, the director described the process of finding Manto over a period of six years before she finally put the script together.

Das, who made her directorial debut with Firaaq (2009), admitted that Manto has similarities with her first film, which also revolved around the bloody repercussions of communal violence.

"Any kind of discrimination and 'othering' disturbs me," the actress-turned-filmmaker said. "The connection between the two films hit me only recently, as they both deal with the universal human experience."

Manto is an immersive experience that delves deeply into the psychological mindset of a writer unravelling after the Partition of India. Describing her hope for the fim, Das said, "I want to believe exists inside all of us the ability to be free-spirited and honest and the desire to speak up.''

Excerpts from the interview:

The film is a product of years of extensive research on Manto and his life. Though you have spoken about how you have read and were familiar with Manto, was there any particularly new facet that emerged in the course of your research that surprised you? 

Through my six years of engagement with Manto, I discovered many things about him and the times he lived in. I got to know a lot about Safia, his wife, from his family, and that I would have not found In any book. How Manto was in his personal space and with the women in his life was particularly interesting. He was surrounded by women he loved and cared for — his mother, sister, wife and three daughters. He ironed his wife’s sari, made pickle, fed his children, read out his stories to his wife and sister. He was a hands-on father and that was rare for those times. And even now it is a rarity.

Was there a worry about the film's reach being restricted owing to its character? Manto is not, after all, well known across generations and ideological faultlines. How do you think a new Instagram generation would take to this writer who was critical of any hypocrisy?

Not at all! In fact, my assumption was that for these very reasons Manto’s work and life would connect with the young generation. He had the kind of irreverence and free spirit that the young can relate to and desire to emulate. And this is true of every era.

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I have travelled to some campuses and read the reactions on social media by young people, and they are fully connecting with the story. Their spontaneous receptivity has only strengthened my faith in the fact that the idealism and rebel nature of Manto is resonating with a generation that we tend to misunderstand.

The film does capture the life and experiences of the writer, and the genesis of his stories through his own eyes. What led to the decision to enmesh the author with his characters in the film? 

The idea was to intersperse seamlessly some of his most powerful stories that reflected his wide-ranging concerns. Some of them happened to also be the subject of the cases he got mired in, but that was incidental. In Manto’s own works the line between fact and fiction blurred and I wanted to use the same form as it allows the audience to enter his state of mind, both as a person and a writer. We will get to see, through his work, what makes him so uniquely empathetic and truthful. This was not easy to do, as selecting five stories from close to 300 was a mammoth task.

Did you ever consider the idea of focusing entirely on Manto, his life and struggles, without his stories?

No, this was an idea I had right from the beginning of the project, even before I wrote a word of the script, and I am glad that almost everyone has loved this structure of the film. For me, without his stories, I would not be able to do full justice to the man and the writer. Imagine a film about a musician and not being able to hear her or his music!

One of the key elements of the film is Manto's astonishment and heartbreak at the spread of communal violence caused by Partition. It is also a topic you delved into in your debut Firaaq. Was that something you identified with Manto? 

Any kind of discrimination and 'othering' disturbs me. The connection between the two films hit me only recently, as they both deal with the universal human experience. Many have said that despite the fact that both my films cover periods of great violence, they do not show any. I am more interested in the emotional and psychological impact that violence leaves in its wake and that is something Manto, too, explored in his stories. 

You have repeatedly spoken about having had Nawazuddin Siddiqui in mind for Manto's role. What convinced you about him?

I always had Nawaz in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut, was Nawaz’s first significant role in a feature film. He looks and feels the part. He has an incredible range as an actor, but, intrinsically, Manto lies somewhere in his eyes. It was an obvious choice for me. I brought in my research and script and Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent. Together, I think we managed to bring many subtleties and nuances to the character of Manto. Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto — a deep sensitivity and intensity, vulnerability, and a dry, deadpan sense of humour. 

The film captures the era perfectly with its production design. How difficult was it to recreate the era? 

One of the toughest challenges for me was to recreate 1940s Bombay and Lahore in the midst of modern-day clutter on a budget that did not allow the luxury of extensive visual effects or too many sets. Before I had even found money for the project, I had done several recces to find the right locations. I found some incredible locations hidden in narrow gullies, Irani cafes in the most unexpected places, and homes that have been frozen in time.

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Of course, there were many that we loved and could not shoot in because they were too expensive or were being repainted or people were too scared to give them for a shoot.

One noticed at a special screening that several words were muted. Were there any cuts made to the film? Any parts you would have liked to retain and had to leave out? 

We were fortunate that we had no visual cuts and only a few audio cuts were made out of the long list that was first proposed. I chose to mute it instead of replacing it so people are aware as to what has been cut. Anyhow, nothing that was cut changed the essence or spirit of the film. I am glad we could get a U/A certificate as that is important for TV viewing. 

You have, through the promotions, repeatedly used the word 'Mantoiyat', the essence of Manto's philosophy of life. In the world today, does it exist? Can it exist?

For me, the one thing I really want this film to do is to invoke our Mantoiyat [Mantoness] that I want to believe exists inside all of us — the ability to be free-spirited and honest and the desire to speak up. I hope watching Manto will make audiences think and inspire them to invoke their own Mantoiyat, however dormant it may be.

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Where did Nandita Das end and Manto begin, or vice-versa? Was there ever a conflict between yourself as a writer-director and what Manto was as a writer?

Now when I look back, I do feel our thoughts have fused! While many of the dialogues are from Manto’s writings, my own thoughts have found their way into the script and the lines have blurred. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, also resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy.