For close to a decade, actor and director Nandita Das has been obsessed with the writer, playwright and author Sadat Hasan Manto’s life. After releasing a movie on his life starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in 2018 which Das not only directed but also wrote, her journey with Manto has now culminated in a book called Manto and I. In this book, she details her journey into making the film and the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of making it.

In a conversation with SheThePeople’s Ideas Editor, Kiran Manral at the Women Writers’ Fest in Mumbai on February 29, Das shares her knowledge and observations about the women in Manto’s life. She talks about portraying the character of his wife in the film with such distinctness along with his friendship with novelist, Ismat Chughtai among many other things.

Manto as a Feminist

Das says Manto was truly a feminist. “He was ahead of his times then and ahead of his times even now, 70 years later. He would iron his wife’s saree, braid her hair when she was unwell, both which he learnt from his mother. His biggest dilemma was that he deeply cared for his family – his wife and three daughters – and at the same time, he was so compelled to tell the truth that every time he did that, a lawsuit was slapped on him and that would jeopardize the well-being of his family.”

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“One can feel his dilemma and I tried to show that through my film that the empathy for his wife was greater than my empathy for Manto. She was having to suffer because of the choices he made, but she did not really have a choice in it,” she added.

Safiyah Manto

Manto’s wife, Safiyah Manto stood by the writer both in good time and bad. Manto went through some of the roughest times in his last years. While much isn’t known about her and yet she comes across as a person who was mentally, maybe, more powerful than Manto himself, Das chose Rasika Dugal to play her character in the film. Talking about choosing Dugal for Manto’s wife’s role she says, “Very early on, I told Rasika that I will come back to you. And I never had a second option and at that time Rasika hadn’t done a lot of work like Mirzapur, etc which happened much later.”

Challenges of making the film

Das delves into the challenges of making the film on a person’s life who died at the age of 42 in 1955 and not many people close to him and his contemporaries are around to tell his story. “His sister-in-law was probably the only person who gave me insight into the person that he was apart from what was written about him. He was a prolific writer, so a lot was written about him,” she said.

“Since so little was written about Safiyah’s character, it was so difficult to build her character and everyone even in her family kept saying that she was very sweet, supportive, soft-spoken, gentle, etc. Then I would say okay but that doesn’t make for an interesting character and also that she couldn’t have been all of that because of what she went through. Maybe she didn’t express it but she sure felt it,” she reflects on her journey into making the film on Manto.

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Since so little was written about Safiyah’s character, it was so difficult to build her character and everyone even in her family kept saying that she was very sweet, supportive, soft-spoken, gentle etc. Then I would say okay but that doesn’t make for an interesting character and also that she couldn’t have been all of that because of what she went through.

Writing on a man from a woman’s perspective

Finally, on being asked about making a film and writing a book on a man from a woman’s perspective, Das says that she wasn’t constantly aware of her gender while writing for the film or the book or directing the film. However, lots of people told her about how they could realize that the film was made by a woman. She says, “The fact that I am a woman is going to inform my choices. There have been people at festivals who have come up to me and said we could clearly see that it was a film made by a woman. And I would ask them how because I am not doing it consciously.”

“They would say that a film on someone like Manto, could easily be sexualized much more had a man made it. He would have said that, it gives me the liberty because Manto himself talked about sexuality in much more graphic terms than what you have shown. Or a male filmmaker would have been tempted to show a lot more blood and gore because it was set in the times of partition,” she adds.

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