Nandita Das during the interview of Manto Movie at Kempinski Hotel & Residences, Palm Jumeirah Photo Arshad Ali Image Credit:

Indian filmmaker and actress Nandita Das seems determined not to rest on her laurels and is in no hurry to find closure.

Her second directorial Manto — a warts-and-all biopic starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the celebrated and controversial short story writer, opened to glorious reviews in India cinemas last month after its successful screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. But her fascination with her notorious subject isn’t over and we can enjoy the fruits of her labour.

On Friday, Das — a Yale World Fellow 2014 — will attend the Sharjah International Book Fair and spearhead the session Discovering Manto: A Talk.

“He fought against censorship — something that we are also grappling with now ourselves. He talked about identities which were beyond national, religious and caste. That is what is dividing us today, not just in India but the world over. He’s so relevant,” said Das in an interview in August when she was in Dubai to attend Mehfil-e-Urdu 2018.

According to her lead actor Siddiqui, Das has become an expert of sorts on all things Manto.

Born in 1912, Manto was one of the most progressive writers during his time and was known for his short stories about those who lived on the fringes of society. His tales of partition such as Toba Tek Singh delved into the seedier side of Mumbai and the author has faced trial six times on charges of obscenity for his short stories.

“There was a lot of research involved since we didn’t know much about the author’s life. As a part of research, she [Das] spoke to his daughter and those who knew him closely. Her deep research helped me understand his characteristics and qualities,” said Siddiqui in a separate interview. The award-winning actor, who worked with Das in Firaaq, describes her as a director who knows her craft especially when it came to making a biopic.

“Making biopics is not easy… You can’t just glorify Manto… His negatives have also been explored,” said Siddiqui.

This weekend, you are likely to be wiser about Manto if you attend her talk.

Das, who has acted in over 30 feature films with directors including Mani Ratnam, Deepa Mehta, Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan and made her directorial debut with the award-winning Firaaq, speaks about Manto, her passion and more…

Tell us more about your film Manto and should we be familiar with his works to enjoy your film?

I have made it thinking that you know nothing about Manto. There are two kinds of groups here: those who don’t know much about him and then there are Manto experts who definitely know more than me. But my film is not just a way of introducing Manto to the world, it’s to invoke the ‘Manto-ness’ or Manto-yat’ in you. ‘Manto-ness’ is all about our desire to be truthful and it’s all about your conviction or courage to follow that truth. Manto came from a place of conviction and arrogance. You feel he’s arrogant, but in reality it’s his strength about speaking the truth. It’s not just speaking your mind, but fighting for something that is true. Often, you may have the conviction, but you may not have the courage to follow it through. Mantoness is your will or desire to be more truthful.

Manto was one of the most provocative novelists of his time …

Manto was tried for obscenity six times and every single time he fought it because he believed in true literature and what art is. He knew why art cannot be deemed as obscene just because you take a word or sentence out of context. He fought against censorship — something that we are also grappling with now ourselves. He talked about identities which were beyond national, religious and caste. That is what is dividing us today, not just in India but the world over. He’s so relevant. This film was my way of responding to what’s happening around me. I took refuge in Manto. I am not trying to appease anybody here. I told a story that moved me.

Biopics in Bollywood are notorious for glorifying their subjects and their film blemish-free existence. Have you explored his dark side too?

We are not putting Manto on a pedestal in my film, where’s he’s all good and not bad. I am not saying that everything was great about him. I am showing him with all his warts and blemishes — just the way Manto would have liked to see himself shown because that’s the way he saw life and people. He felt the worst of people were redeemable and that the best of people have their shadows. That is our reality too. I am just putting out a story and just take from it what touches you and what you care for. And, for those who feel you have the conviction but not the courage, then just draw from it. If you want to know what it is to really feel passionate about something, then just get inspired by Manto.

What was your brief to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays Manto and was he your first choice?

Nawaz was on my mind from the time I wrote my script. I had met him in Cannes [Film Festival] in 2013. At that time, I was just weaving the story and researching for it. I told him on the steps of Cannes and I told him that I have this amazing role, but can’t tell him the details. But he got it out of me and said that he had done plays based on Manto’s work during his National School Of Drama days. He brought in so much range into his character. There’s something about his eyes, they are compelling. His eyes look as if he has lived life. So had Manto, he died at 42 and took the partition so personally. He was so sensitive and I felt we needed a sensitive actor to portray that. I had worked with Nawazuddin in Firaaq and now he plays a pivotal part in Manto.

Did you exercise self-censorship as a director so that this film would fly with everyone?

Artists self-censoring themselves today is sad. Art cannot flourish if we create our own boundaries. We need to be responsible and we need to come from a place of our own truth. The idea that you need to be careful because someone is going to think that I am stepping on their toes is sad. We don’t have to do things out of fear. In fact, we have to do things out of conviction.

What to keep and what not to keep was a challenge for me. Manto was prolific as he had written close to 300 stories. At first, I thought I will capture 10 years of his life from 1942 to 1952. But it kept getting narrower and narrower, finally it’s now only four tumultuous years of his life that has been captured. Partition happened right in the middle of that phase. Manto was so much in love with Bombay and had to leave for Lahore and the reasons why he didn’t come back. My film also deals with an intimate, personal journey of a writer and what is it that pains a writer.

Why does he write and why was Manto special, all those truths have been addressed. It’s also the decay of the man that has been looked into.

Making a movie like Manto may not have been easy as it isn’t a typical commercial Hindi film…

The whole film was a challenge and made my Firaaq in 2008 look like a cakewalk. To create the forties period was tough. However, many people extended their support. Actors like Rishi Kapoor and Gurdas Mann are in it and I used my goodwill shamelessly. I even made Javed Akhtar actor and I used to joke that he is a closet actor because he’s amazing at it. Actor Paresh Rawal and Ranvir Shorey also helped. It was also tough to raise money for a film that is not your typically independent feature or a Bollywood formulaic film. I didn’t want to label Manto or peg it as an art film or a commercial film. I was just wanted to create a film that I cared for.

Don’t miss it!

What: Discovering Manto: A Talk by Nandita Das
When: November 2, Friday
Where: Intellectual Hall, Sharjah International Book Fair
Time: 6pm to 7pm
Entry: Free.