Manto was inspirational without being heroic. His flawed self made him real, attainable. His unflinching honesty, courage, free-spiritedness—is what we need today. I instinctively felt a film on Manto would allow me to respond to our present situation without being didactic. If Manto was relevant then, he’s even more so now. We are still grappling with issues of freedom of speech and struggles of identity. Seven decades later, we remain inextricably mired in caste, class, race and religion. Manto rose above those and understood the universality of human experience.
At a personal level, when I began reading Manto, I realised why he seemed so familiar. I grew up with a Mantoesque father who’s just as blunt, free-spirited, misunderstood and a misfit. I felt I knew the man behind the writer. Manto is an ode to all such mavericks who tell the truth through their art, through their life. I wanted to invoke that ‘Mantoiyat’—the desire to be honest, fearless and free-spirited—that exists in all of us.
From the beginning, I saw Nawazuddin as Manto...his lived-life eyes were perfect to portray Manto’s many contradictions. Rasika was also my first and only choice for Safia, Manto’s wife. To find Shyam, his best friend, took the longest: most actors saw it as a “second lead”! My casting director, Honey Trehan, had the unenviable task of finding people to bring alive real-life characters like Ashok Kumar, K. Asif , Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Naushad sahab and many more. He has found such amazing actors—thanks to him, we have a fantastic ensemble cast. And I’m overwhelmed that so many actors did small cameos for free, simply to support the film and for their admiration of Manto. Rishi Kapoor as a sleazy producer or Paresh Rawal who, despite our political differences, supported both Firaaq and Manto. Or Gurdas Maan, as a distraught father (not easy to imagine him as that!), or Javed Akhtar, making his debut as a witness defending Manto in court!
It took four long years of research, and several drafts, for me to finally tell this story that I so wanted to tell. I began with 10 years of Manto’s life, but with every draft the focus got sharpened. I ended up depicting four years of his life—1946-50, the most tumultuous and significant in his life and that of the two countries he inhabited, India and Pakistan. What to include and what to let go was a monumental and arduous task of editing. Urdu isn’t really my language—growing up in Delhi, we all spoke Hindustani, an amalgam of Urdu and Hindi—so I had to reach out for help, especially to hear writings not available even in Devnagari. My Urdu has improved, thanks to this film! Also, many Mantoesque people drifted into the frame during my journey, contributing to the script, adding facets to my exploration—that was the best part. How could I tell a story about a writer without giving a glimpse of his writings? Manto’s stories had to be there. In his works, the line between fact and fiction is blurred. And that’s the form I’ve chosen for the film—the main narrative weaving in and out of his stories, even if selecting five from some 300 stories wasn’t easy.
The next challenge was to recreate 1940s Bombay and Lahore amidst our modern-day clutter. That too on a budget that didn’t allow the luxury of extensive visual effects or of too many sets. Even before the film was funded, I did several recces. I found some incredible locations hidden in narrow gallis, Irani cafes in the most unexpected places and homes frozen in time. Of course, we couldn’t get all we sought. Some locations were too expensive, or were being repainted, or people just shunned the idea of a shoot. The other challenge was to find Lahore in India. We couldn’t shoot in Lahore as we had initially hoped due to the political tensions between the two countries. After an extensive five-city recce, we finally found our Lahore in a small town called Vaso, in Gujarat. In retrospect, it was a special journey to discover so many hidden gems.
Like all women, I multi-task! Now, as a hands-on working mother, I had to take this art to a new level. My son’s growing up has been almost parallel to my Manto journey. In Vaso, the whole team stayed in a hotel, an hour away. But I chose to stay in the village to be close to my son: he could walk over to the set anytime he wanted, or I could check on him during breaks. I’m so happy it gave him that special experience of running barefoot and playing with village children. Many nights, he fell asleep on my shoulder as I worked. All the juggling has been exhausting, but when your child comes and hugs you, all the stress of working in 45 degrees heat and with 250 villagers doubling up as junior artists, vanishes in a second.
(The author is an actress and filmmaker)