Mantostaan – Into the world of Saadat Hasan Manto
There is Hindustan. There is Pakistan. And beyond all these boundaries lies Mantostaan – the no man’s land for Urdu literature. This is the brutal, enigmatic, true, controversial and harrowed world of celebrated writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Rahat Kazmi, director of Mantostaan says that he felt so haunted by Manto’s stories that he could not help but make this film. Mantostaan which marks Rahat’s debut at Cannes will be screened under Le Marche Du category at the festival that starts today. Kazmi who is a self-proclaimed Manto fanboy feels that there is a lot of unexplored possibility in his work.
In the second half of the interview meet model turned actress Raina Bassnet who features in Mantostaan. Raina used to feel shy discussing the Urdu writer’s work and took her Hindi diction lessons in the dubbing room. Pandolin chats up with the two shooting stars of the country representing India in France.
Do you remember your first exposure with Manto’s writings? When was it that you took the decision of making a film on his work?
I belong to Kashmir and have been reading Urdu literature since childhood. While was growing up I explored more and more Urdu writers. There would be a rendezvous with Manto’s work every now and then. So deciding to make a film on his work wasn’t sudden at all. Be it Bombay stories or Toba Tek Singh, Manto has always haunted my mind. At a very early stage I had a thought of making a film on Toba Tek Singh. But when you are a fresher you have lesser choices and have to settle with what is at your disposal. So my first three years in Mumbai went in that. But after spending those three years, I got confidence. It is then that I worked on my first film Identity Card, the story of which was based in Kashmir. Good things happened to that film. Recently, portions from that film were shown in the European parliament while discussing the Kashmir issue. We were awarded at international festivals. And this whole episode gave me confidence and language as a filmmaker.
I have been fortunate enough to learn a lot from Saurabh Shukla ji (Actor and Director). When I was working on Identity Card he was there all throughout, giving a spine to the whole process. His writing and direction experience came handy. For instance, while working on Identity Card I’d made a promotional song for the film. But when Saurabh ji saw it, he counseled me by citing examples of people like Anurag Kashyap who chose to stick with their own grammar and carved their own niche. Tab mujhe samajh aa gaya ki ye nahin sochna hai ki market mein kya bikega aur kya nahin bikega. Ye badi dil se banane waali cheezein hain. Aur aisa karunga toh kahin na kahin dil tak pahunchengi (I realized that you don’t need to think about what will sell and what won’t. Films need to be made from the heart. And if I do so, the films will reach others too.)
And this was precisely the reason why I discussed Manto’s ‘Khol Do’ with Raghubir Yadav (Actor). I had recently read the story and it haunted me everywhere. So that was the first story that we decided to make.
The screenplay of the film is said to be based upon Manto’s shorts ‘Thanda Gosht’,’Khol do’,’Assignment’ and ‘Aakhri Salute’. Tell us about the process of shortlisting these stories.
We chose a backdrop of partition and riots and these four stories felt apt. These four stories are in a linear format and are set against this timeline of riots. Manto’s characters are so complex that it is very tough to explain them.
How did you go about recreating the partition era in terms of the production and costume design?
We all sat down together for the prep and I had an advantage of working with people who I was already friends with. So, it was never like a duty for anyone. Everybody moved forward very passionately. My relationship with Amarjit Singh (Art Director) is very old. So we could understand each other and there was very little noise in the overall communication.
We did refer to the Internet for the costumes. But I had a hang of how I was seeing the film as I myself am a Punjabi from the Poonch region of J & K. I have closely known such characters in my family. Zeba Sajid who did the costumes is the co-producer of the film as well. Laxmi Chand shot the film and he had worked with me on my earlier film Rabbi too. I was blessed to have such a talented and energetic crew.
Manto’s characters are very rustic. How did you cast your actors and what was your process of working with them?
Everybody was cast based on personal contacts. I firmly believe that known devils are better than unknown angels (laughs). The first actor to be cast was Raghubir Yadav. I discussed the basic idea with him even before the bound screenplay. He plays the character of Sakina’s father from ‘Khol do’. It was awe-inspiring to watch him prepare for his role. We were shooting in summer and Raghubir ji insisted on not being provided with an AC nor did he take a bath during the days of the shoot to get into the character. When the shots were rolled all this homework reflected beautifully. He looked absolutely perfect for the part.
So largely, the casting was trust-based. As for the preparation, I had senior experienced actors so there was no workshop for them. But a couple of younger actors wanted a workshop so I conducted one for them.
Tell us about your future plans for the film. Also, what are the other projects on the cards?
We are looking at an India release. I am also working on an episodic web series based on Leo Tolstoy’s stories. It is a comic satire and we have adapted it to suit our cultural setup.
A word of advice for contemporary filmmakers looking at adapting classic text.
Soul is very important. Yes, we can take creative liberty by twitching a bit here and there. But the writer’s story should not be changed. Every text has its own soul and when that is gone nothing remains.
Tell us about your journey so far – your childhood, film influences and the decision to become an actor.
I never wanted to become an actor. I am from Dehradun and my family wanted me to pursue a career in the medical field. I too was okay with the decision till I reached the eight grade. It is then that I watched several Hollywood films. And every time I watched a film I would think, “Oh, I can do this!”. In a very short time I changed my decision of becoming a doctor and I knew that my calling was to become an actor. So, to begin with, I started looking for modelling assignments. From there destiny has been kind.
How did Mantostaan happen?
I had acted in Rahat’s short film Aasma, in which I played a Kashmiri village girl. The film came out really well and I got an award at the Rajasthan International Film Festival last year. Rahat then narrated my part from Mantostaan and asked me if I was interested. I was shocked and thought that he was joking. This is mainly because people always think that I can do only western roles (based on my appearance and my accent). This was a very Indian character. But Rahat was clear that he wanted me for the part.
What is your character in the film? Were you able to relate the character?
There are four stories in the film and I am in ‘Assignment’ where I play a teenager called Sugra. She is a simple girl who is trying to protect her family during riots.
As for finding similarities between Sugra and Raina, I am a completely different person (laughs). I am stylish while Sugra was simplistic. Externally we were two very different people. But yes, at the core there was some sort of connection.
Is the language spoken in the film the same as written in Manto’s books? If yes, then how did you prepare for it. Tell us about the difficulties you faced and how you overcame them.
It is a mixture. Yes we have used the original text as dialogues but also improvised. The diction came as a nightmare. I would struggle with basic words like “Aey kar lo”, “Oo kar lo”. The team gave me confidence that we would dub it later. Barring a few difficult sessions the dubbing was also fun.
I was lucky to have everybody on the set help me. The Hindi diction teacher was great. Virendra Saxena ji plays my father in the film. He was very supportive and helped me a lot. It is their experience that they bring to the sets which is precious.
Are you still pursuing your modelling career or focusing more on working in cinema?
Frankly, I did not expect this project to turn out this big. It was completely unexpected. So there is no plan from hereon.
As for modelling, I started my modelling career in 2011. It still remains as close to the heart. But I do not want to remain a model as it is like remaining a showpiece for the rest of my life. I want to act.