There’s nothing ordinary about Saadat Hasan Manto’s works, so when it came to making a film based on the prolific author, writer and playwright born in 1912, the team helmed by Nandita Das went all out to cast one of Bollywood’s most prolific and talented actors, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The director and actor duo were in Hyderabad on Friday to promote their film Manto, where they not only spoke about their love for Manto and his works but also saw a play written by the playwright himself and staged by Darpan theatre group. Here are a few excerpts from an interview with them:
How did Manto happen?
Nandita: Manto was on my mind since 2012, but it took time for us to consolidate and think which time frame we would like to show to the audience. I have only focused on the most tumultuous four years of his life and how things unfolded for him during India’s partition. There were a lot of
struggles to get everything in place.
Nawazuddin: We have known each other since our Firaaq days and when Nandita said that she’s making a movie on Manto, I was happy to be a part of it. As an actor you always strive to perform your best and this role made me dig deeper to perform better.
After a gap of 10 years you ventured into films and that too as a director. Was this a self-imposed break?
Nandita: I was involved with many things during these 10 years. I’ve been busy with a Yale fellowship, a monthly column for The Week and my son, who is eight-years-old now. I also wrote and was the Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society of India.
How difficult or easy is it to portray characters with such varied shades?
Nawazuddin: I have been portraying many characters and I do try to take on more challenging roles, which helps me to grow as an actor. For me, every role matters. Maybe all my films can’t do well but I try to learn something from each of them.
You wrote Manto keeping Nawazuddin Siddiqui in mind. What was the similarity?
Nandita: I always had him in mind while writing Manto because it is said that if you get the casting right, 70 per cent of your job is done and with Nawazuddin, that’s exactly what happened. He looks and feels the part. He has an incredible range as an actor, but fundamentally Manto lies somewhere in his eyes — it was an obvious choice for me. Every bit of him looks like Manto. He even charged a nominal fee of Rs 1 which he has still not taken!
The story is set in the 1940s, do you think today’s audience can relate to it?
Nandita: Manto’s story will connect to today’s audience for sure as it is still relevant and highlights all the struggles they face. In the end, it shows a person’s will to speak out and be one’s own self — something we all struggle with. People are getting killed even today for speaking their mind, take the case of Gauri Lankesh. The ability to be free-spirited and honest and the desire to speak up is all that matters to me as an individual, a filmmaker and an actor. After all, don’t we want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic, free-spirited and embrace the spirit of Mantoiyat?
You are at present working on eight projects, which is the maximum work any actor has in Bollywood currently. But there was a time when you were struggling due to lack of work. How does it feel to be one of the most sought after actors in the industry today?
Nawazuddin: It feels good to be appreciated, but as an actor I do have miles to go before I can say that I have achieved everything in life. I want to explore as many shades as I can as an actor. That’s the reason I am doing a Tamil film with Rajinikanth.
Just like you are venturing into different platforms, are you willing to be cast in a Tollywood movie as well?
Nawazuddin: I haven’t been offered anything here yet, but with the Tamil industry opening up for me, I hope I do get called here too. In the end, the role matters, not the language.