The wonder that is Indian filmmaker and actress Nandita Das first appeared on my radar through her performance in the film ‘Fire’ by Deepa Mehta. The story of two women trapped in respectively loveless marriages with brothers, who discover within each other the companion they crave, it was a film that created as much sizzle on as it did off the screen. It was passed uncut by India’s censor board which then gave into (sort of, then retracted it) religious zealots who started to burn down cinemas and attack audiences to protest its release.
Fast forward twenty years and Das once again flirted with controversy with her feature directorial debut ‘Firaaq’, an unsentimental account of the impact of the Gujarat riots on the Indian Muslim population. The film left such an impact on me, I could hardly think about anything else for weeks after viewing it. I remember researching articles about the riots and I craved to go back to Ahmedabad, which I’d visited the year before I watched the film, to revisit the city with Das’ haunting vision in mind.
These days, the beautiful, smart, and wonderfully strong Das is working on a film about Saadat Hasan Manto, an Indian-Pakistani writer and playwright who once wrote this hauntingly true phrase “If you cannot bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times.” Prophetic, wasn’t he.
During the Festival de Cannes, I sat down with Das — as a personal aside, this woman does not seem to age! — along with her film’s star Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the actress Rasika Dugal who plays Manto’s wife, Safia. Present with us were also Jean-Pierre Le Calvez, VP of marketing at HP, and Ajit Andhare, COO at Viacom 18, both producers on ‘Manto’.
Because this is a film based on a man who really existed, was it difficult for you as the writer and director of the film to come up with a multidimensional, believable character?
Nandita Das: When it’s a real life story in a way it’s more interesting because it brings in an immediate credibility, so even the contradictions of the man — which is how we all are but in cinema we tend not to show them enough — here we could talk about them and say “hey, this is real!” I don’t think this was the more challenging part. The challenging part is that there is so much that he has written and so much available about him that makes you wonder, “what aspect do you take?” In a way, everything is interesting. The struggle has been with every draft to remove things, with a heavy heart. But what has remained hopefully is very precious and that’s what you really want to show.
You’ve made Manto quite raw and truthful as a character, from what I see in your press notes. Why?
Das: By putting someone great on a pedestal you do a disservice to them. You want people to be human and obtainable so you can think “wow, these are my dilemmas, this is whom I aspire to be.” We have tried to make him very human and I think that’s how he would have liked it. I don’t think he was someone who embellished to show the beautiful side of everything. He wanted to show the world’s ugliness and its beauty. It was about the truth.
How difficult was it for you to get into this character? I mean, you had to do justice to his having existed in real life, couldn’t really make him up.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: There are two ways of entering a character, either physically or emotionally. And I felt like Nandita provided me with enough research and things to hold on to that I could enter more physically. And then it becomes easier to get into it emotionally. My own desire to speak the truth is so strong, and sometimes you are not able to, and Manto provided me with that opportunity to speak the truth, so I felt empowered both on the physical and emotional level to do this role.
And how did you come to your character, I mean there isn’t much written about Safia Manto?
Rasika Dugal: As you said, there isn’t much written about her. There has been a little bit and Nandita found quite a bit from the family and incorporated it very beautifully into the script. So much of my work was also done by her!
Das: They are both excellent in the film and not because they are here now, they are wonderful human beings. When you play a role, you naturally bring in a lot of your own self to the part, and they have done that, of course. They put their own thoughts, their own emotions into it, and I’m fortunate to get to work with two such wonderful actors whom I thought of even while writing the script.
How did Viacom 18 become involved as producers on ‘Manto’?
Ajit Andhare: Nandita came to us with the script and we had the good fortune of having HP support the project. I think the reason you have people collaborating here is it’s the sort of film where you don’t want to hold back. You don’t want to do this kind of film with a small budget and make it only exciting for festivals. We wanted to make a mainstream film, if I’m to use that label, because the primary motivation is to take ‘Manto’ and break out to the mainstream audiences with the character. It’s a period film and to create Partition and create the nostalgia it needed a certain scale and quality. Also Nandita had spoken to HP and that collaboration is something that organically came together, more than a grand design.
And how did HP, not traditionally a cinematic studio company, come onboard as producers on ‘Manto’?
Jean-Pierre Le Calvez: We decided to be one of the main producers of the film for two reasons. One is because Manto’s story is important in today’s world, it was important when he lived, you were talking about how in Cannes people are talking about the truth today, vs. alternative facts and fake news and Manto was all about the truth. And as a company and as individuals those were values we at HP espouse and want to get across. The second reason is that filmmaking for us is a way to push state-of-the-art technology. Filmmaking requires a lot of computing power, we take some of those technologies and transcend them to bring them to consumer products later on… And Manto was a man of the printed word, a man of the books. HP as a printing company has a responsibility to bring that word, the power of print to the people who are going to continue reading Manto and those who will see the film and discover him.
It is groundbreaking for us, here you have a technology company investing in content that is relevant in today’s world.
All images used with permission.