Nawazuddin Siddiqui on Manto: Surprising there aren't more biopics on India's great writers

Abhishek Srivastava

September 22, 2018 09:48:06 IST

It is difficult to imagine anyone but Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing the titlular role in Manto - Nandita Das’ biopic on the controversial writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The reasons are many. Apart from a facial resemblance, he was not only familiar with Manto’s work but had also watched several plays based on his stories and acted in one of those.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a still from Manto. YouTube

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a still from Manto. YouTube

“I was part of a play based on Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh before I had enrolled at the National School of Drama. It was just a small role in that play. Maya Rao used to be my teacher in Delhi and she had directed Manto’s Khol Do and then I also watched Kaali Salwar while in Delhi. I was familiar with his work but was clueless about his personal life," says Nawaz.

He reveals that it was during the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, which had Nandita as one of its jury members, that he was extended an opportunity to be a part of the film. “In 2013, while attending the Cannes Film Festival, I coincidentally met Nandita at the red carpet and then had a small chat with her. On the red carpet only, she shared with me her thoughts of making a film on Saadat Hasan Manto. My only reply was if I could be of any help, I will be more than happy. Later, after almost four years, when she was done with her research on the writer, she called and informed that she is ready for the film.”

It is also a first for Bollywood that audiences will get to see a film with a writer in the thick of things. Dacoits, sportsmen, actors and people from the underworld have all been dealt before but never a writer. “It’s very strange that the film industry has never dabbled in biopics of writers. It’s bizarre that our country has produced some great writers but no one from the industry took the initiative to bring their story on celluloid. It could only be possible once they get time from their staple formula films. It’s a great thing and I feel very proud that Nandita took the first step and made a film on a celebrated writer,” says Nawaz.

Manto revolves around the last five years of Manto’s life and delves with the period when he moved from Mumbai (then Bombay) to Lahore after Partition and his eventual death because of alcohol addiction. Nawaz reveals that now that the film is on the verge of its release, he has only learnt more about the man. “Manto had a personality and wrote only what he saw in society. He was someone who exposed the hypocrisy of society. He was a confident man and that’s why he often said that mai kaali takhti par safed chalk se likhta hu taaki kali takhti aur numaya ho jaaye, which means that I write real stories about society so that one gets to know what’s happening all around society and how hypocritical it is.”

The actor laments at the fact that there are no recordings, neither audio nor video, available of the writer. He says that much of Nandita’s research is based on the information she gathered after she met Manto’s daughter. Ask him about the biggest challenge he faced while stepping into the shoes of the man, and he says that it was convincing people about his honest intention. “The biggest challenge which I encountered while playing Manto was the fact that nothing could have worked except my honesty in my approach. If you are bringing alive Manto on the screen, then the audience should know that the person playing his role is doing it with all his honesty. Unless and until they see Manto’s thoughts in your eyes, they simply won’t get convinced, and neither will you come out with a great performance.”

Nawaz has only praise for Nandita and believes that full marks should be given to the director for bringing alive a personality on screen who, apart from being controversial, was also someone who was way ahead of his times. “When you will see the film, you will realise that it’s difficult to catch Nandita in a compromised situation. She has not compromised even a single bit for the film. She has made the film as per her comfort, and nowhere was she influenced by the glitz and glamour of Bollywood. She has made a film which was there in her head," he says.

So influenced was the actor by the persona of Manto and Nandita’s intention of making a film on him that he even waived his remuneration, which allegedly is Rs 7 crore, for the film. Nawaz charged a token amount of one rupee for acting in Manto. “My biggest concern was Manto, the writer. There won’t be a more corrupt person than me if were to charge any money to portray Manto’s sensibility. I really feel very strong about this. I only thought that here is a person who is more like me and I believe in his thoughts. His writing is such that it evokes such feeling in you. I never wanted any money for this.”

Finally, one has to ask him the reasons which forced him to sign a film like Genius, a total washout at the box office. “My reason for doing Genius was based on Anil Sharma, who has an impressive track record. Whenever a film becomes a flop it hurts everyone, whereas when it becomes a hit, no one notices even the continuity jerks of the film.” Prod him further and he does mention the money factor. “Apart from Anil Sharma, I signed the film because I was getting money for it. I can afford one rupee as my remuneration for Manto only if I am getting a substantial amount from Genius.” Well said, Nawaz.

(Also read: Revisiting Manto's Bombay, in words and pictures)

Updated Date: Sep 22, 2018 09:48 AM