One expects a good coffee-table book to look classy and to be informative, but one doesn’t necessarily hope for very personal writing within its pages. Nandita Das’s Manto & I is a pleasing exception. A single, very particular voice runs through it: the voice of a reader, writer and director who became deeply interested in Saadat Hasan Manto and eventually realised her dream of making a film about him. Much as I had enjoyed Das’s 2018 film Manto, it was only after reading this book that I fully appreciated her role as auteur, carefully maintaining control over every department of the process.
Das places Manto in context, discusses the aspects of his art and life that she was drawn to, as well as his many human contradictions, the searing honesty that brought him much trouble during his short lifetime (and which continues to divide his readers today), and his relevance to our contemporary discourse. She discusses the film’s conceptualisation and the bond she formed with Manto’s three daughters. There are notes on casting, music, production design, the many little decisions and happenstances (some forced by budgetary constraints) that go into making a film what it eventually becomes, and the post-completion frustrations faced by a “small” movie during distribution and promotion.
The many fascinating insights into the creative process include one about the decision to incorporate five of Manto’s short stories into the structure of this biopic, so that they play as short films within the film. Challenging as it was to pull this off (among the things discussed with cinematographer Kartik Vijay was whether a separate colour scheme should be used for each interlude), Das also mentions how satisfying it was when Manto’s most famous story “Toba Tek Singh” – which she had always intended to end the film with – found itself organically in just the right spot when the script was being written. This serendipity (“It is magical when such things happen”) is something many writers will relate to.
Visually, the book is held together by Aditya Varma’s fine photos – including production stills – but the candid writing is what makes it a legitimate addition to our cinema literature. It might have been easier for Das to fully defer to her subject, but she makes it clear that the film was also a reflection of her own personality, beliefs and working methods. “[Manto’s writings] are all deeply political,” she notes, “but the storytelling remains intimate and the lens, humanistic. I have subconsciously found myself doing the same.”