Q.What appealed to you most about Saadat Hasan Manto’s life, and what inspired you to take up this project?
A. What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to speak to power. He had a way of poking finger in the eye of orthodoxy of all kinds. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon I realised that it felt like I was reading about my father, an artist. My father, too, is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from the protagonist of my film.
Q. What, according to you, makes Manto relevant today ?
A. Manto is most relevant to our times, for multiple reasons. We are still grappling with issues like freedom of expression and struggles of identity. I feel a film on Manto can also bring India and Pakistan closer, as this perceived animosity has cost us many a live and much of our financial resources. After all, less than 70 years ago we had a shared history.
Q. As a director, how do you go about shaping the structure of an ambitious project such as this?
A. There is so much that Manto himself has written, both in his stories and essays. So there was no dearth of material. Also, there is a lot written about him, especially since 2012, his centenary year. So the real challenge was to find the period that would be the most interesting and relevant. I have chosen some of his Bombay and Lahore days with the partition in the middle. These are significant years in his life and the lives of the two nations.
Q. What were some of your reference points for this film, apart from Manto’s oeuvre?
A. Even when I did Firaaq I never looked at other films. I personally don’t believe in looking at creative references, at least not while writing the script. Film is a subjective medium and finally it will be my take on the “Manto” I know and want to share with the world. But I did go and meet his family a couple of times, as the gems they had cannot be found in any of the books. His wife’s sister, who knew him well, has shared many precious anecdotes.
Q. Can you talk about the script writing process for the film? You have co written the script with Mir Ali Husain. So how did you go about the business: you wrote some scenes individually and then some pieces and scenes together?
A. I started researching and some bit of writing at the end of 2012, and then in mid -2014, got Ali on board. Since then we have been working on the script. I feel the script is the backbone of a film, and so I am not afraid of having many drafts. We sometimes write scenes individually, and sometimes we discuss and one of us writes.
“As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon I realised that it felt like I was reading about my father, an artist. My father, too, is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from the protagonist of my film.”
Q. What I admire most about Manto is his honest portrayal of human suffering. In his eyes what really matters is what men do, not what rituals or religions they follow. So with this project, will you try and convey Manto’s take on humanity to the world?
A. I feel deeply connected to Manto’s concern for the human condition, and to his empathy for those who have been forced to live on the margins of society. For him, the only identity that mattered was that of being a human. By telling his story I hope that the film will reflect our shared concerns and humanity that exists despite all divisions and prejudices.
Q. And have you already decided on the cast?
A. I’m working on it! Till I don’t have firm commitments, I cannot say anything.
Q. Manto wrote somewhere after the partition, “Who owned the literature that has been written in undivided India?” A Manto reader would know that he yearned for Bombay and the country he left behind. So will partition be an important theme in your movie?
A. Yes. Partition is extremely central to his journey and even to the current times. Sadly, religion continues to be misused to divide us further. But in this film partition is not being seen as an epic event, but from the eyes of Manto, and therefore it is an intimate retelling of those times.
Q. What are the challenges you see as a director in executing the script into action, considering that it would be a historical/ period film?
A. Filmmaking is challenging but it becomes more so when one is making a historical film as so much has changed in terms of location and skyline. This also increases the budget. But I am trying my best to do it in a way that there are no creative compromises and yet it is feasible for the producers.
Q. Lately there has been a renewal of interest in Manto’s work. A lot of new translations have come up and today's generation is interested in his stories, essays and sketches. With the tensions between India and Pakistan further drifting the two nations apart, can we expect your film to deliver a message of togetherness in these times of crisis?
A. I think that the tension between India and Pakistan is much more at the government level than the perceptions sometimes portrayed in the media. There are many people-to-people initiatives that constantly reaffirm that at this level there is great amount of understanding and empathy. I have been part of many such initiatives in the last 20 years. And I feel the yearning for togetherness has only grown. In fact I am going to Karachi next month for the Karachi Literature Festival where one of the sessions is on “No Borders between Performers”, where I am in conversation with Sarmad Khoosat who directed and acted in the Pakistani film on Manto.
Q. How would you rate Nandita Das, the actor against Nandita Das, the director?
A. I don’t really rate myself, that is for others to do. I do things that speak to me and give me a sense of joy and purpose. While I have enjoyed some of the acting projects, as I could be part of many different stories across India, direction is something else! It is far more challenging than acting. But the excitement and satisfaction of starting from a seed of an idea to the fruition of the project is a completely different journey.