Actress Rasika Dugal, who made her mark in Bollywood with director Anup Singh’s Qissa in 2013, will now be seen opposite Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manto, the much-awaited biopic of the legendary writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Directed by Nandita Das, the film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Dugal speaks to Guardian 20 about her latest film and her experience at Cannes.
Q. Tell us about your role in Manto. How did you prepare for it?
A. I play Safia Manto, Manto’s wife. Unlike Manto, very little is known about Safia. However, Nandita [Das] had spent enough time with Manto and Safia’s daughters, and with Safia’s sister Zakia, at the scripting stage. So the script was already rich with a lot of anecdotal information. It was a very good base to start with. Besides this, I also tried to familiarise myself with as much of Manto’s work as possible. It was a delight going through five volumes of Dastavez (a collection of Manto’s works). My favourite volume was that of his essays. It almost felt like I was talking to Manto rather than reading his stories. Stars from Another Sky, a compilation of Manto’s columns about the film industry helped me understand what Manto and Safia’s life must have been like in 1940s Bombay. I also tried to gather as much information as I could from what other Progressive writers had written about them. But all this work is just to aid your subconscious, to help you create an environment for yourself. What makes a film is really what happens between two actors in the time between action and cut.
Q. How was your experience shooting for the film alongside Nawazuddin Siddiqui?
A. I have always had a lot of respect for Nawaz as an actor. He has pulled off a variety of roles with such aplomb that one can only be in awe. He is also very good to work with. He is always responsive and present as a co-actor. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing some scenes with him. I also really enjoyed observing him prepare for Manto. I am always fascinated by watching other actors at work, especially the ones who I have so much regard for. Also, unlike his usually intense roles, Nawaz has a funny side. So there were many laughs and many lighthearted moments on the set.
Q. Do you feel that there is more pressure on an actor when he or she is playing a key role in a biopic?
A. If the person on whose life the film is based is well-known, then yes there is more pressure. Because people usually come with a preconceived image of the person and what you give them has to, in some way, match up to that. With Safia, there wasn’t that pressure because not much was known about her anyway. I think that pressure was more on Nawaz as there are so many Manto fans.
Q. This was your second year at the Cannes Film Festival. How did it go?
A. I had been there last year. But this was my first time with a film in the official selection at the festival and that too in the “Uncertain Regard” category. It was an honour to have the world premiere of my film at such a prestigious festival. Cannes has the energy of a small town buzzing with cinema at this time of year. This year, since I was there with a film in the official selection, most of our time was spent rushing from one event to the other… I think I am only soaking in all of it now. It was also really special that so many members of the cast and crew of Manto made the effort to join us.
Q. How was the audience response after the screening of Manto at Cannes 2018?
A. I think that people genuinely connected to the film. I think I felt that the audience, while watching the film, were with the story. The standing ovation at the end of the screening was an honour. It is hard to have any objectivity about one’s own film, especially in the first few screenings. So I am waiting to watch it a few more times before I decide what I feel about it. But when the end credits rolled to Sneha Khanwalkars beautiful music—based on a nazm by Faiz Ahmed Faiz—I felt a lot of pride.
Q. You were seen supporting the #MeToo protest led by Kristen Stewart and Cate Blanchett at Cannes. What made you join it?
A. Nandita was asked to be a part of it and she was sensitive and gracious enough to want to share the moment with me. And for that I will be very grateful. Being a part of the walk on the red carpet was very powerful.
Q. You have done theatre, cinema and TV. Which medium do you enjoy the most?
A. I have enjoyed all. But cinema will always be my first love.
Q. You recently completed 10 years in the entertainment industry. What according to you was the turning point of your career?
A. Getting an opportunity to act in Anup Singh’s Qissa, along with Irrfan [Khan], Tillotama [Shome] and Tisca [Chopra], continues to be one of the most special filming experiences I have had and a turning point in my career as an actor.
Q. You are also starring in Mirzapur, an Amazon Prime original. Do you feel the digital medium holds any real potential for filmmakers?
A. I think there is a lot of interesting work happening in the online space. Content that is really pushing the boundaries in every way. Mirzapur was one such script and another show I did after that, tentatively titled Delhi police, was also another example. I am very excited to see how these turn out and how the audience responds to them. There are several web shows under production and there will be a lot that will be vying for the audience’s attention in the next year or so. But I do believe that good content will truimph. I think the audience in the digital space is not only ready, but craving for that. It is going to be a tough game for the digital platforms but the game-changers will definitely survive.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming projects.
A. After Manto, I have shot for two films. Hamid, set in Kashmir, is a simple and personal story of a mother and son as they deal with their grief in a conflict situation. Mahatma, with Sanjay Mishra and Akshay Oberoi, a story about a man who thinks he is a reincarnation of Mahatama Gandhi. Mirzapur, opposite Pankaj Tripathi, is a film in which I have a very different role from what I get normally cast in. In Delhi Police, with Shefali Shah, I play an IPS officer. Then there’s Season 2 of Humorously Yours, a web show on TVF, which is a lighthearted take on the life of a standup comic.