For decades, Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories have inspired theatre groups; it’s time they also inspired a film-maker. Nandita Das’s Manto, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, traces the most tumultuous four years in the life of Manto. He faced obscenity charges six times in his career, for writing about sex workers, film actors and refugees with equal candour. Not a traditional biopic, the film is the tale of two emerging nations (India and Pakistan), two faltering cities (Bombay and Lahore), and one man who tried to make sense of it all. Manto has also been selected to be screened in Un Certain Regard section at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival this month.
What is your personal story with Manto — when did you first read his works and where did it go from there?
I first read Manto when I was in college. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives, and the way he insightfully captured the people, politics and times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. For years I thought of making a film based on his short stories, even before I made my directorial debut, Firaaq. In 2012, when I delved deeper into his essays, they helped the idea expand beyond his stories.
What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon I realised that it felt like I was reading about my father, [Jatin Das], an artist. He, too, is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from my protagonist.
Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest [of] times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy. Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world.
Although there are numerous accounts of Manto’s life, how did your own impression of him impact the way you described his life?
We always tend to look at people in black and white. Either they are [so] great that we put them on a pedestal or so dark that we distance ourselves from them. Manto is a man full of contradictions and that’s what makes him so interesting and human. The way the line between his work and life is blurred, so is mine. Even after the film he continues to fascinate me. Society has been unjust to most mavericks. Therefore, for me, the film is a celebration of not just Manto but of all those who have dared to think differently, those who have stood their ground.
From the short clip you’ve uploaded online, it appears as if you’ve used Manto as a medium to comment on censorship. Did your concerns towards censorship dovetail with Manto’s story?
In today’s times, we can see censorship all around — people self-censoring fearing trouble, right-wing groups taking on the role of being the moral police, and the official censoring body in which the rules are getting stricter and the decisions more and more subjective and arbitrary.
Manto was tried for obscenity six times — three times by the British government and three times by the Pakistani government, just because he wrote about the sex workers. There are a lot of interesting essays. We also have scenes in the film showing the way people attacked him saying that what he wrote was obscene and pornographic, and how he defended literature [and that] his writing was not to titillate somebody. His writing tried to understand and empathise with people who are on the margins of society. It was about those people who nobody wants to write about. In fact he also says, “If you can’t bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times.” The stories only reflected what happened in society. So, I think it is relevant not just in our South Asian subcontinent, but also around the world. Artists, writers, free-thinkers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced. Any society grows and develops when you have people speaking up the truth and thinking differently. And, if you silence them, then what hope do we have?
What does this Cannes selection mean to you? When was the first time you went to Cannes, in any capacity?
I first went to Cannes in the main jury in 2005 and then again in 2013 in the short film jury. Other than these two opportunities, I have been there several times as a film lover. Apart from it being the most celebrated festival, it truly manages to combine great cinema and a thriving platform for film-makers and film lovers from all over the world. Sadly in India, we write more about the red carpets and designer outfits, but there is much more to it. In Cannes, I have had some incredible conversations about films and life at cafes, film events and running between films. I am most delighted that Manto will start its journey in Cannes.
Can you describe your experiences in Pakistan? How did they impact your storytelling?
I have been to Pakistan several times, since 1996, mainly on people-to-people peace initiatives. I have also worked on a film called Ramchand Pakistani and participated in their Kara Film Fesitival, which was unique as it was completely organised by film-makers. Whatever the political situation maybe, I have always found great amounts of warmth and hospitality from the people, and they say the same about their experiences here in India.
It is always bittersweet crossing the Wagah border. The insanity of Partition, the lines drawn in the middle of Punjab, these are thoughts that invariably replay in my mind. Recently, I participated in the first Pakistan International Film Festival as part of an Indian delegation. Both Indian and Pakistani film fraternities came together on various panels to explore ways in which we could collaborate, and passionately discussed issues of common interest such as the shrinking space for independent cinema and how to navigate through various genres of films.
I also met the daughters of Manto. They made me feel completely at home. They have been a constant support, both in terms of access to information that one would not find in books and more so in the way they have showered their affection on me. It was an absolute delight to spend time with the Manto family, whom I last visited almost two years ago. Yet, it felt like no time had passed. We also visited the house where they grew up — the famous Lakshmi Mansion.
What particularly impacted me was the crossing at the Wagah border. It was, for me, a visual reminder of Manto’s most celebrated story, ‘Toba Tek Singh.’ It is the story of an old Sikh man who dies in no man’s land because of an absurd decision by the governments of the two countries to exchange mentally-ill persons on the basis of their religions.
Why do you think Manto is relevant today? Hasn’t literature already crossed the barrier of taboo subjects?
There is stark relevance of Manto in current times. Not much has changed. Almost 70 years later, we are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Even today our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class and religion as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. I know he would have had lots to say about the times we live in. It is no surprise that so much is being written about Manto and that many theatre groups are often performing his plays and essays. He was relevant then and will sadly continue to be relevant for a long time to come.