Writer’s fight for humanity lives on
Director talks about making Manto, a biographical look at a man who challenged convention
Saadat Hasan Manto was a fierce and controversial shortstory author and screenwriter who chronicled the woes of pre- and post-partition India and Pakistan.
His fearlessness and deep concern for the human condition resonated with Bollywood actress and filmmaker Nandita Das.
“No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him, no matter how controversial,” Das told Postmedia News by email.
“For him, the only identity that mattered was that of being a human.”
Das wrote and directed a biopic on four of the most tumultuous years in Manto’s life — from 1946 pre-independence India to his move to Pakistan after independence in 1947, and controversies surrounding his life and writings in that period.
The film premièred at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Un Certain Regard Award.
For Das, Manto is as relevant in the present day as he was in the late 1940s.
“We are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity,” said Das.
“Almost 70 years later, our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class, race and religion, as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. Manto shows us a mirror to our fears, contradictions and prejudices.”
It took Das five years to feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story, “that so needed to be told.”
“Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories,” Das said.
“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.”
For playing Manto, Das said, she always had actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui (of The Lunchbox fame) in mind.
“He looks and feels the part. He has an incredible range as an actor, but intrinsically Manto lies somewhere in his eyes — it was an obvious choice for me.”
Das said Siddiqui has many traits similar to the titular character he played.
“A deep sensitivity and intensity, vulnerability, and a dry, deadpan sense of humour.
“These innate qualities in Nawaz helped him transition into Manto on screen quite effortlessly.”
Making Manto has been the biggest learning curve for her, Das said.
“I am glad that Manto is being screened at VISAFF, as this is a very important film to me,” she said.
“It has helped me find a way to respond to what I was seeing in the world around me — growing violence, intolerance and dislocation.
“I hope to invoke our Mantoiyat (‘Mantoness’) — the desire to be outspoken and free-spirited — that I believe all of us have, whether dormant or awakened. I think people will see themselves more honestly. It will make them uncomfortable in a way that, hopefully, they would want to do something about. After all, don’t we want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited? Manto has deeply inspired me and I hope it will also inspire the audiences in Vancouver.”