Nandita Das describes why she always wanted to cast Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manto
Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Saadat Hasan Manto in a biopic on the writer. The film has been directed by Nandita Das.Updated: May 18, 2018 18:24 IST
It was 20 years ago that I first saw Nandita Das. She was sitting by the Arabian Sea in Thiruvananthapuram reading a book. I was there to interview her, and she seemed as calm as the waters of the ocean that afternoon. We had a great interview, spoke about many things, including her role as Sita in Deepa Mehta’s Fire – a movie that literally caused a fire among the radical political elements.
Mehta shouted from the rooftops saying that it was the story of two lonely women (Shabana Azmi, being the other), who had found comfort and peace in the company of each other. “It was about relationships, not homosexuality”, Deepa told me in the course of a chat in Delhi.
In a way, Nandita began in a blaze of fireworks, and when I met her the other day at Cannes – where she was with her latest directorial venture, Manto (part of Un Certain Regard) – she seemed a trifle tired, but the fire in her was still burning bright.
She perked up, her eyes lit up when we began talking about Manto – a writer whose prose disturbed and angered many because of its forthrightness. Manto never shied away from writing what he saw (the cruelty towards prostitutes was one of his themes). But in Pakistan, where he migrated after the partition, people felt uneasy about Manto’s stories.
Manto has been with Nandita since her college days. Talking about Manto, Nandita said she always had Nawazuddin Siddiqui in mind even when she was writing Manto. “He is arrogant and self assured and all that, but then he is also fragile in a certain sense. Towards the end of the film, he becomes very vulnerable”.
She added, “I think Nawaz has this quality. He is more malleable in that sense”.
“They are powerful and reflect the struggles he has gone through,” said Nandita while describing Nawazuddin’s eyes.
Nandita said that much like Nawazuddin, she also had Rasika (Digal, who plays Manto’s wife in the film) in mind. “I saw her in Anup Singh’s Qissa, and she was fantastic in that. She also looks like Safia, she has a gentle quiet strength about her” .
“The costumes must be right, the music must be in place and so on. And a director is like a conductor in an orchestra. Everybody is playing his instrument, but it is the director who keeps the orchestration in place,” added Nandita.
Nandita went to Pakistan and met Manto’s family. “It was so supportive...In fact, Manto’s middle daughter is very close to me. She messages me every day. And the name of all his three daughters begin with N, and so I tell them that I am the fourth daughter”.
Despite the fact that Manto’s family suffered, the daughters carry lovely memories of their father, because he was so nice to them. “I wanted to weave in all this, but I also wanted to borrow from his essays and short stories. After all you cannot write about Mozart without talking about his music. Similarly, I could not write about Manto without peeping into his huge body of writings,” said Nandita.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering the Cannes Film Festival for a long time.)