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'The spirit of Manto is the spirit of the film'

Last updated on: June 01, 2016 18:33 IST

Nandita Das wears many hats simultaneously. She is a mother and an actress. She has served on several national and international film juries and has chaired The Children's Film Society.

In 2008, Nandita turned director with the hard-hitting Firaaq, based on the 2002 Gujarat riots. She then stayed away from direction for eight years, only to return with a biopic on the legendary Urdu litterateur, Sadat Hassan Manto.

Nandita shares her need to tell Manto's story with Subhash K Jha.

Nandita Das

It's interesting that you return to Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). One of the first films I noticed him in was your Firaaq. And now he's in your second directorial venture. What made you select Nawaz for Manto?

Firaaq was the first feature length film where Nawaz was seen in a substantial role. Since then, I have admired his range and authenticity as an actor. Manto is a challenging role and the nuances required to perform Manto are found in very few actors.

I have full faith in his ability to do justice to a character as complex and as layered as Manto. Nawaz too has expressed his full faith in my doing justice to the subject. I am so glad I have found Nawaz to play this unique character that explores a vast range of emotions and is full of contradictions, a character not easy to pull off.

Who else have you cast in the film?

I am also excited to announce that I have finalised Rasika Dugal for Manto's wife, Safia. I think Nawaz and Rasika will make for a very strong lead cast in a film that is so character driven.

What took you so long to return to direction?

Since Firaaq, there are many things I have been busy with. In addition to being a full time mother to Vihaan, my son, I was the chairperson of The Children's Film Society for three years. I have been writing a monthly column for the magazine, The Week, and been doing a lot of social advocacy through speaking at various forums and educational institutions.

I have also acted in a Spanish film called Traces Of Sandalwood, and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, a conceptual remake of the Saeed Mirza film, slated to release later this year.

I spent a whole semester in 2014 as a World Fellow at Yale University. And then, researching for the Manto project has kept me super busy. Not sure where those eight years went since Firaaq!

Why Manto?

For years, I had nursed the idea of making a film on Manto, even before I made Firaaq. At first, I felt overwhelmed by the large canvas -- a period film, set in Bombay and Lahore. His work, while being personal and nuanced, also explored the big event of the times -- Partition.

I wasn't sure if I could handle the research it would entail and if I had the depth and range of experience that was needed to portray a man like him. But now, I feel equipped, both emotionally, and creatively to tell this story that so needs to be told.

Which aspects of Manto's life and art will you focus on?

What to keep and what to let go has been the most difficult thing thus far. I have narrowed it down to the most interesting seven years in the life of Manto and that of the two cities he inhabits. But his life story cannot be told without giving a glimpse of his work.

It is not based on any one book, or any specific work. It has taken me three years to research and, along with co-conspirator Mir Ali Hussain, write the story that seems most relevant to our times and to me. The spirit of Manto is the spirit of the film.

How much research is going into the project?

As I said earlier, I have nursed the idea of making a film on Manto for over 10 years now, even before my directorial debut, Firaaq. 

It has been a long and intimate journey for me to get to know Saadat Hasan Manto, the man and the writer. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. His essays and polemics about his life, in what was then Bombay and later in Lahore, helped the idea expand beyond his stories.

From visits to Lahore and by interacting closely with his family and friends, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to get to know Manto beyond what one can find in books. I feel fortunate that all three of Manto's daughters and his grandniece, Ayesha Jalal, the historian, are giving me their unconditional support for the project.

Would you want Nawaz to play Manto as a replica of the original? Or would you let him interpret the character as he wants?

As he is a real person, there will of course be an attempt to be as true to Manto as possible, both by Nawaz and me. But every actor brings his/her own input to a character, as does a director to the story, the narrative, the interpretation of the character.

The more I am getting to know Manto, the closer it will be to who he was. But cinema is a subjective medium and it will be my interpretation; hopefully, it will be one that Manto will approve of!

When do you start shooting for the film?

As of now, we intend to shoot late this year or early next year. We are in the process of finalising the schedule.

My main producer, Robin Raina -- it's his first film -- is investing half the budget. A quarter will come from Vivek Kajaria, the producer of Fandry. And then there are European producers who are working towards raising funds.

Once all that is in place, which should be soon, we will finalise the shooting schedule.

What do you think of the current clamour for biopics -- from Azhar to Sarbjit -- in our cinema?

Honestly, I don't think it's a particularly new phenomenon. Biopics have and will always be a fascinating genre as there are so many lives whose stories are worth telling. But, that being said, Manto is not a typical biopic -- a cradle to grave story.

It is also a story of the times, of how cosmopolitan Bombay was, the impact of Partition on people's lives and, of course, what it was for a man to go against the tide in such times. While I have been historically and factually accurate as far as possible, the liberties we have taken in the fictional scenes are all rooted in reality.

I have also woven Manto's short stories into the narrative of his life, much like his own writings, where the lines between his life and work get increasingly blurred.

Would you be acting in Manto?

As of now, no. I am wearing the director's hat and that itself is a huge task, especially in a film that has such a big canvas.

Subhash K Jha in Mumbai