When I sit down to speak with Nandita Das, it is clear that with the happenings and travel related to the Toronto International Film Festival, it has been a long twenty-four hours. But as soon as she begins talking about Manto, it is like her eyes light up and the enthusiasm in her voice is palpable. Manto, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rasika Dugal, alongside many other fantastic actors, is a film that is a journey for the eyes and mind. Here is my conversation with director Nandita Das about the treatment of the film, the weaving storylines, and keeping the true character of Manto, the writer, in mind, when making the film.
Manto is based on somebody who is real and very prolific, so what kind of responsibilities did you have to ensure you balanced that out with the creative liberties you can take?
Well, I have recently gotten to know that you can actually take a lot more creative liberty than I took. I had not seen many biopics and it’s not that I felt that now that I am making a biopic, I should be looking at other biopics. I didn’t even think it was a biopic, to be honest.
In India now, as you know, there are tons of biopics coming out. It has suddenly become the flavour of the season. I keep getting asked the question, “well, how did you think of this biopic?” Well, it was 2012 when I started researching and then, it was not the flavour of the season.
For me, it was just that Manto was so relevant today. Not just his stories, but what he stood for; his strength, his fearlessness, his convictions. That’s something that is so inspiring especially in times when people are cowering down, when we are sort of scared to speak up, when people are being put behind bars when they speak up, so these are troubled times. Not just in our country, but around the world. The right wing politics is increasing and that’s when artists and writers have to be the conscience of our society. So those were the reasons why I thought that this is the film I wanted to do.
And because I’d met the family very early on, I felt very responsible. I felt like they shouldn’t feel that I am doing something that is not respectful to their father, because he has three daughters and sister-in-law…and the whole family that I met. I feel that I have stayed very true to what happened.
I guess it is okay to take a little bit of liberty as long as you capture the spirit and your intention is not to digress for the sake of it or be disrespectful. But Manto is a very grey character. In fact, if there is anyone who is grey in this film or has negative qualities, it is actually Manto. But Manto wouldn’t want to have been shown or seen as perfect. He wouldn’t have wanted to be put on a pedestal. And often, biopics end up glorifying them, in these heroic acts that people do. He himself would have wanted to show all of his blemishes which is what I feel I have done respectfully, and with a lot of love, because obviously, I do think he is so relevant and of course, I have great admiration for the man and the writer. But at the same time, I wanted to show him fallible and full of contradictions which is how we are, which is what makes you relate to the person.
It is beautifully edited. It is one of those stories, initially when you start the first fifteen minutes, you’re trying to figure out what is going on. But then you realize his own stories are being weaved into the narrative. What made you feel like this is the way you wanted to depict his life?
In fact, this thought I had right from the beginning. I felt that if you were to do a film on a musician, and not show his or her music, it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t make sense for me to tell you that he was sensitive to women, partition really impacted him; you want to be able to see glimpses of his work. Right from the beginning, I wanted to weave some of his stories, and right from the beginning of writing, his stories very organically came to mind. I wanted it to be seamless – in his own story, the line between fact and fiction are very blurred. And I wanted to keep that blurring feeling to it.
I think now that the film is screened at different places, I am getting to see the reaction of people. When I am seeing the reaction, it tells me more about them than about the film. A lot of people are actually quite comfortable with that ambiguity. Some people are thrown off when they realize that there were stories within the story; they don’t even realize it but then, by the end of it, they did. Some people want more certainty, but some people are okay with the whole taking you on a journey and realizing that fact and fiction can be blurred in the story of a writer.
There is a beautiful scene by you and Nawazuddin Siddiqui; in court, he is unaffected by his writing being called obscene, but at one point, a witness comes up and says, this is not the greatest piece of literature, but you capture it in such a quick glance…what made you feel that this is the way you wanted to capture his disappointment because you could have made his reaction a lot larger than life?
I mean, there were a lot of moments that could have been pumped up, like we do in Bollywood, you know, or the mainstream cinema. Especially in India, sometimes we almost emotionally manipulate the audience. This is the way you are supposed to feel – the camera gets closer, the music gets louder. But I feel that the kind of cinema and the kind of films and language of cinema that I like is where I am not feeling manipulated. Whether it is the music or the dialogue or the camerawork – it is gently taking you along without sort of making a big deal about it constantly or telling me that I should feel fear, happy, sad.
That scene, because of that scene, you also get to know that he is egoistic and it comes back to him much later when he says “I wish he would have just said obscene writing rather than saying it does not measure up to the highest standard of literature.” The wife says, “is that what you are thinking about?” So it is also about the dilemma of the husband/wife relationship. It is one thing for us to celebrate Manto, but it is another thing to realize what the family goes through.
The stories have such brilliant actors in those small cameos, along with Nawaz and Rasika. What made you approach them? Why did you feel that they were perfect for the role that they were portraying?
Well, one, I didn’t want to make any compromises in the way I wanted to tell the story and yet, I wanted it to be accessible. The kind of noise that Bollywood can make, and make through their marketing, and all of that – often, independent cinema suffers. This is not the typical, small, very low-budget independent but nor is it a song and dance Bollywood. I thought that the one way I can make it exciting for the viewer is to have known faces who are also credible, very good actors. I basically used up all of my good will and basically, called them up and said, would you like to do this really small role in support of the film? I was very pleasantly surprised that almost all of them said yes. It is very overwhelming for me as well. It really lends a sense of credibility that the collective intent of all of these people who just want to be part of this film has also helped us bring on great performances, but also as a piece of work, it brings together the common intent to bring everyone together, and then magic happens.