Recently, Sarmad Khoosat's Pakistani film, Manto created quite a buzz in film circles. Now, Indian actress/film-maker Nandita Das is making her own movie version on the life and work of the iconic writer, Saadat Hasan Manto.
It was back in 2006 when Das first sat in the director's chair for her movie about the 2002 Gujarat riots, Firaaq. She stayed away from direction for nearly eight years but as she shares, she had had nursed the idea of making a film on Manto for over ten years now.
Speaking to Indian Express, the 46-year-old talks about her long and intimate journey getting to know Manto: "What drew me to Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. He wrote with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I realised that it felt like I was reading about my father, an artist. I feel he is most relevant to our time."
She reveals that she first read Manto while she was in college and was immediately struck by his simple yet profound narratives.
Manto had 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 any dilution."**
The movie will follow the most charged seven years of Manto's life (from 1946 to 1952) and that of the two cities he inhabits during those years — Lahore and Mumbai. Nawazuddin Siddiqui has been cast in the role of the writer while Rasika Dugal will be playing Manto’s wife, Safia.
"This narrative is seamlessly interspersed with some of his most powerful short stories, where the line between his work and life gets blurred; The film is not based on any one book or any specific work. It has taken me three years of research, along with my writer Ali Mir, to tell the story that seems most relevant to our times and me," she shares.
Connecting with Manto, in all his controversial glory
Is the writer's work still significant, all these years down the line? Das believes so.
"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, we are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and identity. Even today, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class and religion. Banning things and silencing creative expressions is becoming the order of the day. He would have had a lot to say about these times."
She adds, "Manto was almost synonymous to progressive literature, even though he had a tenuous relationship with the Progressive Writers’ Association. However, if one chooses to label Manto, one cannot argue that he lived on his own terms, with no care for social dogmas. He was irreverent and had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the establishment, often with sharp humour."
"He was tried six times on charges of obscenity, both in India and Pakistan, for his bold stories. The women in his stories were complex and richly developed, but he reserved his most nuanced and sympathetic gaze for sex workers. When questioned on his choice of subject matter. Manto would often retort: ‘If you cannot bear my stories, it is because these are unbearable times’."
"No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him. For him, the only identity that mattered was being human. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. I feel there is a Mantoiyat, in all of us — the part that wants to be free-spirited and outspoken."
She was recently in Pakistan for the Khayaal festival where she held a conversation with Sarmad Khoosat. Manto's three daughters — Nighat, Nuzhat and Nusrat — also came for the talk. “I feel like the fourth one,” says Nandita, "And the name also starts with N!"