Celebrating the free spirit through Saadat Hassan Manto



Actor-filmmaker Nandita Das is on a new mission, that of portraying the life of famous Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto. Her  movie ‘Manto’ was part of the co-production market projects at NFDC’s Film Bazaar.

For Nandita making a film on her favourite author is not just about making another film. She has wanted to work on the subject even before her first film ‘Firaaq’. “I have read Manto since college and was always fascinated with his writings. Even before making my first film ‘Firaaq’ I wanted to make a short film on one of his stories. Then I started reading his essays and discovered more about him as a person and I found that his life was very interesting. On a personal level I felt my father is also very Mantoish. There are lots of similarities between the two. He, like Manto, is outspoken, super honest, and doesn’t have a good relationship with money. What I find really interesting is that Manto is so relevant today. The way he struggled for freedom of expression is so timely. He was tried for obscenity for his writings six times,” says Nandita.

Nandita’s movie covers the time Manto spent in Bombay, before moving to Lahore. “We are covering his most interesting days in Bombay. He used to write scripts for Bombay Talkies and Filmistaan and had very good friends in Progressive Writers’ Association. He, however, never joined the Association as he never wanted to be part of any formalised group. Manto also had good friends in the film industry like Ashok Kumar, etc. The movie also looks at the reason that led him to shift to Lahore given that he loved Bombay. It is never really explained in any book even though there’s a lot written about him,” says Nandita who adds that it is difficult to understand Manto without reading his works. “Many of his stories realise where the line between fact and fiction blurs. It is like you cannot know his works without knowing the man and you won’t know the man if you don’t read his works,” opines Nandita.

Speaking about the research she put into the film, Nandita shares that she re-read his books and other books based on him. She also got Urdu co-writer Ali Mir on board as some of Manto’s writings are not translated. Even though her movie deals with Manto’s life in Bombay, she went to Pakistan to meet his family.

“I met Manto’s sister-in-law, who was very close to Manto. She has many memories. I also met his daughters and even stayed with one of his daughters. Manto’s grandniece has also written about Manto in her book ‘Pity of Partition: Life of Manto’. She also co-authored another book with Manto’s youngest daughter, which was released during his centenary celebration, in the year 2012. I spent a lot of time with Manto’s family. In that process I got very close to them and I feel morally responsible about making a good film on Manto,” says Nandita, who loves to visit Pakistan because she feels culturally connected with it. “I grew up in Delhi and you cross the border and you reach Lahore. That place is so much like Delhi. The language is the same, food, attire and ‘taur tarike’ are similar and yet we have to tell ourselves it is a different country because somebody decided to draw a line right in through the middle of Punjab”, says Nandita who likes to cross Wagah border on foot.

Nandita also opined that it is sad that we are not allowed to make movies with Pakistan. “We are here at Film Bazaar and we have co-production treaties with Canada, France, Germany, Australia, etc. Forget about treaty we are not allowed to make a film with Pakistan. This is ridiculous. Are we saying the nation is full of terrorism? It defies common sense. At the government level there may be problems, but why are there prejudices among the people?”

Sharing her experiences from Pakistan, she recollects meeting a chanawala in Lahore who he refused to take money from her because she was from India. “It was in Lahore and I was buying chanas from a vendor. Because of my style of speaking he guessed that I am from India and didn’t take money from me because I was his guest. They really look up to India and our democracy and freedom. What are we doing? We are jeopardising the same freedom of expression, which is the main pillar of our democracy.”

Speaking further about freedom of expression and rising intolerance in the country, Nandita opines that making a movie on Manto is the need of the hour. “The movie is very timely because through Manto we may be inspired to have more courage. If Manto cannot bring us culturally close, who else will? He is the right person because he belonged to both countries, equally. He was a free spirited person.”

When asked the reason that forced Manto to leave Bombay for Lahore. Nandita says that there is no clarity on why Manto left Bombay. However, she narrates an incidence that happened between Manto and his friend, actor Sham. “There is no clarity but there is an indicative that his closest friend Sham, in a fit of anger, (Sham’s uncle had escaped massacre during Partition riots in Rawalpindi) said to him that in that moment (of rioting) he could have even killed Manto. This Manto took very personally. He felt his closest friend was treating him as a Muslim and wanted to kill him. This meant anybody is capable of killing anyone, including himself; he was not different from his friend Sham. He was scared about that moment of madness,” says Nandita, who further informed that many of Manto’s friends tried very hard to bring him back.

On a concluding note when asked about her true calling – acting, writing, filmmaking or social activism – Nandita maintained that her true calling is her need to connect with people and all these mediums help her achieve just that.