I met Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui a day after Manto premiered in the Un Certain Regard section. Nandita spoke about reviews. "There was this lady who knows nothing about Manto and she was gushing about the film. She wasn't analysing it — just feeling it. She remembered so many little things from the movie. Different people come with different levels of experiences, sensitivities and perspectives, and we have to respect them all." Nawazuddin's performance has been uniformly appreciated, and she said the actor was on her mind right from the point she started researching the film. "We all are admirers of Manto. He's not new to us. As an actor, of course, it's a dream role for him and philosophically also I think we were very aligned."
India Today had approached Nandita to make a short film. At first she declined, because she was busy with pre-production. But when they persisted, she felt she could use the opportunity as a sort of dress rehearsal for Manto. "Nawaz would also get into it. It would be a nice way to get the crew together. So we picked a few dialogues and scenes from the script and made a six-minute short film. And when Nawaz was speaking, I suddenly felt that… I could see that… Anyway there wasn't any doubt about him. I wasn't waiting for a scene." The hotel episode from the film — where Manto, now in Pakistan, meets his old friend from Bombay — is one of her favourites. "A man who was so arrogant, so self-assured, was also so vulnerable. He looks at his friend and says, 'Tum, tum kaise ho?' [How are you?] 'Aur mera Bambai?' [ And my Bombay?] And with all that vulnerability, when the friend's trying to give him money, there's that flash of anger that says, 'I don't want it. Don't show me that pity.' You can write those ups and downs in a scene, but we need to find a performer who can make it believable for the audience. I think, in that moment, I felt Nawaz nailed Manto."
Nawazuddin has been fantastic in almost all his films, but while he keeps getting parts, he also feels there is some stereotyping. "A lot of times in our industry, there's a very clichéd way of offering roles." He is referring to the colourful-local parts we so often see him in. "This was the first role that fits my sensibility, actually. When I talk to people, they can't believe that I have this much sensibility. This is the first time I felt good that someone has offered me such a role. Slowly the new directors are trying out new things." He points to the micro-shifts in emotional register in his scenes in Manto. "The shift used to take me to an unknown zone. The small reactions are very difficult. In the industry, we play the dominant mood. If there's something like a disturbed role, then the character will be disturbed throughout the movie." He speaks of an actor — he won't name him — "who used to act the same with everyone. If you keep the camera in front of him and tell him the mother is here, the sister is here, the friend is here, the father is here, and you ask him to say the same thing to each one of them, he will say it the same way every time. But here, for instance in the dinner-table scene, my relationship with each person is different. This is my daughter. This is my wife… My behaviour with everyone cannot be the same."
"Manto was born because of whatever is going on in our country, and even in the world. The way people are being excluded on the basis of national identities, religious identity — this has always been my concern" – Nandita Das
Nawazuddin worked with Nandita in her earlier (and first) film, Firaaq, which was also set during troubled times. If Manto plays out during the Partition, Firaaq unfolded amidst the Gujarat riots. Nandita says this wasn't a conscious decision. "But now, I feel that there's a link between Firaaq and this one. Both films are very personal and intimate. They are about human psychology and relationships, but they both have a social- political context. They both deal with fear." Nandita was troubled by what happened in Gujarat, and that gave birth to Firaaq. "And Manto was born because of whatever is going on in our country, and even in the world. The way people are being excluded on the basis of national identities, religious identity — this has always been my concern. As journalists, as artists, you know that freedom of expression has become like a theme in our country and elsewhere as well. And reading Manto's essays I felt, 'Oh my God! You can actually talk about Manto and it's the best way to respond to everything that's happening today.' This was not an easy film to make."
Nandita says it is perhaps possible to make a film about something she doesn't feel strongly about, with somebody else's script, but it should match her sensibility. "I'm not a trained filmmaker nor a trained actor. I've never assisted anyone. Film was never my burning passion or ambition. By mistake, somehow, I landed here and I just see it as a great means to an end, whether I am sitting and talking to you or giving a talk or writing a column or acting. All of these for me are means to an end. So, of course, you want to make the best story you can. If tomorrow I get to do a comedy, there'll be layers in that comedy. You can be funny and still talk about the things that are of interest and of concern. I think that will remain because that's just the person that I am. I am not asking someone who's making a pure entertainment film as to why you're doing that!"
There may be some conflation, after all, between director and character. "Like Manto himself says, 'I don't find stories. The stories find me.' If I try to find a script, I promise I would have have found a much easier script to work on. It kind of almost felt like, 'Wow! This is a story that'll help me trigger those conversations that I'm dying to have.' It's becoming too didactic just saying the same thing, and you know there's too much noise out there and maybe the film will help." In Firaaq, Nandita saw the situation through her own eyes, while in Manto, she sees it through Manto's eyes — but she doesn't think it made a difference. "You will be surprised how much of me is in it. In a fiction film, you cannot give a lecture. You're always using your characters to tell what you want to tell. In Firaaq, there were more characters and here, of course, Manto is driving it but there are all these other people as well — even Manto's wife for instance. Safia was very supportive and gentle sort of a person — Manto's family kept telling me that. But they also did say that she suffered a lot, and I had to imagine what would she have said. So, a lot of her scenes are actually fiction scenes where I may have empowered her more than maybe she was. Having written it and researched it for so long, the lines between my thoughts and Manto's thoughts have almost blurred."
Nawazuddin considers a question about whether it helps, after such an intense role, to do something lighter. "But even comedy requires timing." Nandita hasn't decided what's next. "It's a great start for this journey in Cannes, but the final reactions will come when it's released in India, because that's what I've directed the film for." The film will be released in Pakistan as well. "Manto belongs to both countries." Nandita is also thinking of a book on the journey of making Manto. "It's at many levels. It's at a spiritual level. It's about my engagement with social-political issues. And it's a creative journey. So the book is going to be cathartic, I think." She's received a few scripts, both as a director and as an actor. She hasn't begun reading them. "I was just waiting for Cannes to finish and I'll have a bit of a gap, and once the film is released, I'll look at something else. There are so many films that are very difficult to make now, like the Guru Dutt films or Do Bigha Zamin. People are not interested to know what's going on in a farmer's life. And if you make it glamorous by casting some big actor, then it becomes a different thing. I want to see films that are real, yet very engaging and entertaining. I don't know…"