Nandita Das on her directorial venture Manto: 'Made this film to respond to what is happening today'
In her latest directorial effort, Nandita Das tackles the problematic figure of Manto through Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s outstanding performance as the Urdu writer.
It’s undeniable that Saadat Hasan Manto was a man of contradictions. Born in British India, he lived as a Muslim in Partition-era Mumbai and died exiled in Pakistan. His short stories, such as Cold Meat and Ten Rupees, seem to have been written by someone flamboyant and bigger than life, while in reality Manto’s strength came from within. His most famous line, the one he directed at his critics, goes “If you cannot bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times.”
Manto's existence would make a lot more sense today, since he appeared way too modern, visionary and avant-garde for his times.
In her latest directorial effort, Nandita Das tackles the problematic figure of Manto. Through Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s outstanding performance as the Urdu writer, Das comes up with a masterpiece of contemporary Indian cinema.
Manto premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section. For those few precious hours, the Salle Debussy, the theater where Manto screened, turned into a celebration of desi culture complete with classic Indian music accompanying the audience up the steps of the red carpet.
Firstpost caught up with both Das and Siddiqui to chat about the subject of their film; an artist who was prophetic in his views of the world and understood his country better than most politicians of his times.
What has been your experience about screening the film here in Cannes, in Un Certain Regard?
Nandita Das: I’ve been here before, as a juror twice and since 2005 I’ve come many times. Nawaz has been here repeatedly too. Nawaz, how many films have you had here?
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: Eight films.
Nandita Das: Eight films! That’s a lot of films. He’s come here many times but I think I can say this for you as well Nawaz, Manto is a special film. And, for me, of course, this is my second film as a director and it’s my first film as a maker in Cannes — it’s a huge honor and a delight. I mean, Cannes is Cannes, there is a certain grandness to everything that happens here. And it was very heartwarming, we had almost 25 people on stage, because all my cast, crew and producers, a lot of people had come [from India], so it was a very warm beginning to that journey.
How difficult was it for you both to crack the character of Manto? Because in some ways he’s very different from his writing. You expect a certain type of man to be writing stories like Cold Meat, someone flamboyant and in your face, and he’s not like that at all.
Nandita Das: Yes but his writing is not just those short stories, which is also what I thought. We all had read his short stories in college and growing up but it was only in 2012 for his centennial celebration that there were a lot of articles that came out on him. And also his essays were published and I read them and that’s when I thought “wow”, he’s just as interesting as his stories. You can see in his stories that he’s not sentimental, even though he talks about very hard emotions. There is a sort of feeling of someone just watching and laying things as they are. He had many threads and it was a difficult decision how to weave in all those threads and to make sure that even someone who doesn’t know anything about Manto gets the story and feels it. And, at the same time, someone who may know a lot about Manto, and there are people especially in India and Pakistan who are Manto experts and Manto fans — you are trying to give a nugget to them as well. They should have some surprises to take home.
Nawaz, what was the challenge for you in playing this great character but also this quite troubled man?
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: It was difficult because I didn’t want to make it emotional, yet at the same time we are dealing with a lot of emotions. I learned in the theory of acting that you create the emotion but the audience must decide for themselves how much they want of it — do they want to swim through it, drown in it or how they want to wade through it. You lay it out, in the way it is, but don’t decide for them to what extent they should feel it. This character has such a big range, and usually if a character is strong and confident then you don’t have to show him as vulnerable and fearful. If someone is sensitive you don’t show him as being rude. So because he has so many layers, to make it a credible character the challenge was to make him believable with all these contradictory traits.
Nandita, how did you manage to cast all of these icons like Javed Akhtar, Ranvir Shorey and the who’s-who of modern Indian cinema in cameo roles?
Nandita Das: I have worked with a lot of them, and in these twenty years I guess I have some goodwill and credibility which I’ve completely used up. I’ve called up whoever I could think of and said “Please could you do this?” I’ve begged, I’ve charmed, whatever you call it. A lot of people who have helped, have done work for free. I think they have all come to the project largely for Manto, and partly for me.
If audiences could only take away one idea, one feeling from Manto, what would you want that to be?
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: Manto’s way of thinking.
Nandita Das: His progressiveness in a way. His open-mindedness and his desire to be open and honest and therefore courageous. If you have strong convictions, courage just follows. I’ve seen that in my life as well.
What are you plans with the film next?
Nandita Das: Of course this is a great beginning but the final fruition for me. and Nawaz as well, would be a really good release. Because we want to reach audiences in our own country and, of course, South Asia at large because there is a certain concept to it while the emotions are universal. I made this film to be able to respond to what is happening today.
Nawaz, a final word to describe your experience in Cannes?
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: Absolutely wonderful.
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