Director Nandita Das gets candid with Chahak Mittal about Manto, and how the writing, as an expressive art form, should be given more recognition.
The Partition of 1947 wasn’t just a passing event in the history of India and Pakistan. It is a memory that is still fresh in the conscience of those who had witnessed it. And for those who haven’t, there have been a number of stories and documentaries that tell the tales of that brutal period.
Writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories are among those that remind the people of the two nations about the struggles of those times.
It took Nandita six years to complete Manto, and finally get it on the screens. But what is it that took so long? “Now when I watch it again I feel even more than this could have also been done,” she says. “When you have to dig deep like this, you need time to bring all the fine details to the fore. I wanted to be true and authentic to today’s period. I wrote many drafts and took help from many people,” she says.
She created a Lahore in India and searching for locales that fit the bill was a difficult process. “It has all been very challenging but also enriching. I believe that Manto is not just a film but an ideology. We can see whatever is happening around the world and that we are being divided on the basis of caste, religion, gender and nationality. And Manto through his stories had already depicted such discrimination and issues which we have been increasingly forgetting today. This was my reason for making the film,” says the filmmaker.
Addressing the issues of today through the film, the subject of which is as relevant in the contemporary world as it was in post 1947 India, was the “right thing to do instead of being didactic and polarising about it.”
There were nervousness and second thoughts about making a film on such a controversial character as Manto but Nandita believes, “Controversy is just a term. He wasn’t a ‘controversial’ character, he was just ahead of his time. Today there are journalists and artists like us, who also feel a bit scared about hurting sentiments while expressing themselves. We make sure that we don’t step on someone’s shoes or offend somebody. Various kinds of censorships have emerged today including self-censorship. People have stopped speaking what they feel. But in an era like the 1940s, Manto was a person unafraid and ‘bebaak’ who didn’t think twice to fight for the truth and he wasn’t even a journalist or activist. He was a writer and for him, there was no difference between passion, work and life. What you believe in is what you do.”
Nandita feels that celebrating such people is very important as is bringing them back into people’s minds to make people realise that such an inspirational character existed and that ‘itna darr darr ke jeene ka koi matlab nahi hai’ (no point of living with fear).”
As inspiring as the subject of the film is, it was important to be made by someone who didn’t put him on a pedestal and instead treated him like a human being with flaws and insecurities. A realist himself, he wouldn’t have wanted to be shown in a glorified light, the director believes.
Talking about religion and caste, how do such films bring about a change in people’s mindsets?
“Films don’t create any revolution. We are influenced by all the things we are surrounded by, books we read, films we watch, people we meet, and experiences that we have witnessed. All such things slowly get absorbed in us and then we are able to understand the world around us. Hence, my core values must be the same since the last 30 years but I am not the same person as I was 30 years ago. Why am I changing after all? Because of all these experiences that I’m gaining. I have been impacted by quite a number of films. But this doesn’t mean that it will make the whole world change overnight,” says she.
It was back in 2012 that she felt that a film on Manto has to be made. She says, “I started reading about it in 2012 — Manto’s stories and works. I felt that ‘Wow… what a person he was.’ He hails from such an old era, but through his words it feels like he’s talking about today. His approach was so modern. When I started researching I felt ki iss insaan par toh ek film zaroor bann ni chahiye, (a film should definitely be created on such a person). Co-incidently, I received an invite for some event in 2013 from Lahore and I felt this could be great chance to meet the family of Manto in Pakistan.”
His family has been supporting her since 2013 to make the film. She met them and discovered that his daughters, who were very young then didn’t remember much. It was Razia, Manto’s sister-in-law, who told her a number of things which she felt she “couldn’t have had found in any other book or story even though I read a number of them written by him. I wanted to know more about their relationship and Safia, Manto’s wife’s, as well.”
Despite the support from his family, the director was nervous when screening the film for them. “When this film was shown here for the first time, I really wanted to invite the family and show them what their parents were. I was really nervous because it’s a very personal thing for them as also the movie shows Manto in a very grey character. As a child, it is difficult to understand your parents and their relationship. I had sent them the script because I didn’t want any false factual elements. Also there is a huge problem between both the countries in terms of getting a visa but to my surprise, the authorities have also been very helpful,” she says.
Two of Manto’s daughters, the husband of the youngest daughter, and another person called Saeed Ahmed, who had helped her through the years via emails and calls had come for the screening. When all the four of them came out of the theatre, Nandita was “relieved to see their expressions.” The middle daughter had almost broke down. It was a “moving experience” for her.
In this age of biopics, sports films or even films based on historical events, Bollywood is increasingly shifting towards realism. “Suddenly biographies have become the flavour of the season,” she says. “When in 2012 I started working on the film, it wasn’t the same. Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking of it as a biopic. My mind just had Manto, the idea not the person. We want to spread the Manto revolution through this film. It is not really a biopic. He was a well-known writer and personality. People waited for his columns and essays. It is a journey of a writer through those times and how the world viewed such people. Even today there are many Mantos alive, they just don’t get enough recognition. Some of them might be killed, or in jail or must have been silenced and we don’t even know. This is to remind that there have been people who spoke their minds — fearlessly, unstoppably. For us they have kept that freedom and democracy alive,” she says.
Recreating someone’s story and bringing them alive again involves the efforts of a number of people. Did she also encounter in her journey some people who were not related to Manto in any way but had known him? The answer is yes, she did. She shares, “I met Intezaar Husain, who was a writer at that time. I met him in Lahore. He passed away recently. He told me some fun anecdotes about Manto, which his family hadn’t known about. Meeting people is just a part of gaining knowledge but at the end of the day it is all internalised and it is my subjective interpretation of the way I have imagined his world.”
Indeed, since Manto has penned a number of biographical sketches, poems, more than 300 short stories, and radio commentaries, going through that material and combining it in a 120-minute film was definitely an arduous process.
Celebrities including Rekha, Imtiaz Ali, Deepti Naval, Shabana Azmi and others attended a special screening of the film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the Indo-Pakistani, Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto.
Writer: Chahak Mittal
Courtesy: The Pioneer