Presented in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, Nandita Das’ biopic, Manto, follows the most tumultuous years in the life of Saadat Hasan Manto, an iconoclastic writer and those of the countries—India and Pakistan—Manto inhabited and chronicled.

MovieMaker spoke with Das at this past Cannes Film Festival about the nature of biopics, making a film personal, straying from traditional Bollywood music, and the importance of an actor’s eyes.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as tormented, maverick writer, Saadat Hasan Manto in Manto. Image Courtesy of Viacom18 Motion Pictures

Amir Ganjavie, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why did you decide to make a film about Manto?

Nandita Das (ND): I wanted to respond to things that are happening today both in India and in the world at large, where people are being divided because of their identities. Manto really looked at human identity as being at the core of things. He also had an empathetic gaze toward those who are on the margins of society. We are also grappling with censorship in our country. Even today, when you go to a festival, there are many films being shown which have been banned in their own countries. This was also an issue for Manto, who was tried for obscenity six times.

MM: You clearly had to decide upon which period of Manto’s life to represent. Can you explain the reasons behind your decision?

ND: Manto died young at the age of 42 so all of the material on him is primarily in books. There are very few people alive who actually met Manto or have memories of him. I met a few of them but they were difficult to find. However, there is a lot of material that he wrote himself since he was a prolific writer, as well as things others wrote about him. I began the story with the 10 years (1942 to 1952) but it was just getting to be too large. Now the story is down to four years which I know were the most interesting years in both Manto’s life and in the lives of India and Pakistan since it was just before and after the partitioning of the two countries. So we see the time of Manto’s own turmoil and that of the countries.

MM: Filmmakers usually bring something from their own lives or personalities into their work in order to make it more intimate or personal. How has this has impacted your interpretation of Manto’s life?

ND: For me, the personal and the political must always be aligned. In fact, my father, who is a painter and quite a maverick, is very Manto-esque. Like Manto, he was never into money and never cared about all of that. He’s very blunt and simply speaks his mind. I saw a lot of parallels between Manto and my father when I was reading Manto’s essays. I felt like I could understand what it is like to live with a person like that, which was also important for me to understand, not just Manto, but also his world. For example, what did his wife go through? It’s easy for me to love Manto and his work now, but it must not have been easy to be the wife of someone who has the court cases, who doesn’t really care about money, who drinks, or is always poking a finger in the eye of the authorities. In many ways for me, this also felt very personal, and the reason for my doing it was more my own need to almost use the film to be able to trigger conversations that I feel we should have.

MM: Can you say a little bit about the casting process and why you chose Nawazuddin Siddiqui to play the role of Manto?

ND: I worked with Nawazuddin in 2007 on my film Firaaq, which came out in 2008. I’ve always had him in mind, even as I was writing the script. The same goes for Manto’s wife, Safia, who is played by Rasika Dugal. For me, Nawaz’s eyes are very much like Manto’s eyes, which was important because even though Manto died at 42, you can feel that he was somebody who had really experienced life. I needed that kind of sensitivity and range to be able to portray somebody who is very arrogant and egotistical but also fragile, scared, and sensitive. It’s not just about performance. It has to be in your being. It has to be in your eyes. So for me, that was present with both Nawaz and Rasika. She has a quiet, gentle feeling but at the same time, there’s a very quiet strength about her.

Saadat Hasan Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) sits alongside his wife Safia (Rasika Dugal)

MM: How did you prepare the cast for their specific roles?

ND: Well, because I’ve also been an actor, I have a good rapport and good communication because sometimes there are directors who have good ideas in their heads but they are not able to explain themselves. I think that being an actor really helps in how you deal with different actors because you’re able to explain what you really want well. This is not always psychological. It’s sometimes very physical and direct, such as how one’s body language expresses a certain emotion.

MM: Did you shoot the film in both India and Pakistan?

ND: We couldn’t actually shoot in Lahore because our producers wouldn’t allow us to shoot anywhere in Pakistan. It was difficult because there was a lot of tension going on at that time, and insurance and all of that was very difficult. We had to recreate Lahore in a place called Bujat as well as shoot in Bombay and Pune. When I saw the locations, I sent them to some senior architects I know in Lahore, and they matched them up with places in Lahore in the 1940s. Eventually, we showed it to people in Lahore who saw it said that it looked exactly like their city. I’m hoping Manto will in some way bring more understanding and build bridges between the countries, because that is something we are lacking.

MM: I’m not very familiar with Indian literature, so can you tell me more about the scene where Manto becomes very angry because an apparently very famous literary person told him that he is not at the highest standards of literature?

ND: The person who says that, Sofez, is actually a great poet. He was a progressive poet of that time, but he isolated Manto so much that even the people who supported him were finding fault with him. It added to Manto’s feelings of loneliness and that he was perhaps too much of a maverick. Even though he was also a progressive writer, the other progressive writers were writing more about the country, freedom, and perceivable larger issues. Manto was still writing about sex workers, women, local people, including the nameless and faceless people, so it was different. As an egoistic writer, he felt offended by Sofez and said that he wished he had told him that his story was obscene rather than saying that it did not measure up to the highest standards of literature.

“When I Plunged Into the Sea of Blood”: Manto reads from his newest book while discussing tensions between India and Pakistan

MM: I’m also interested in the roles of music and sound in your film. Can you tell me a bit about that?

ND: The background score was composed by famous Indian musician Zakir Hussain. He’s rooted in Indian classical music but his universal exposure makes his work a good mix for a film like this. My music composer is Nihash, who composed the three songs featured in the film. I worked closely with her on those songs, all of which use elements from the 1940s so they don’t have any of today’s lyrics. Music has always been a intrinsic part of Indian cinema. Of course, Bollywood takes it to another level, and there the cinema is a little more manipulative since the music tells you what you should feel—I definitely didn’t want to do that. The soundtrack in this film is very minimalistic, at least by Indian standards. The music is there to tell you what the character is feeling and assists the character and what he or she is saying. MM

Manto premiered on May 13, 2018 at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. All images courtesy of Viacom18 Motion Pictures.