Illustration by The Print Team.
A still from Nandita Das' Manto
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Not just Nawazuddin Siddiqui, artistes like Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Rasika Dugal too acted in Manto just for the poet.  

In Nandita Das’ new movie Manto, I play a small role of a writer who deposes against the great littérateur in the court.

Playing Manto is every actor’s dream come true. For me, the next best thing happened. One afternoon, I got a call from casting director Honey Trehan saying Nandita wants to meet me. It was a small role, but I said my love for Manto surpasses the size of the role. And within minutes, I was doing costume trials and script rehearsals.

(L-R) Danish Husain, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Ashwath Bhatt on the sets of Manto | Danish Husain

The set itself was a celebration. Nandita had managed one of the strongest ensemble cast for the film. From Rishi Kapoor to Paresh Rawal to Gurdas Mann, Vinod Nagpal, Tillotama Shome, Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta and Swanand Kirkire, the film has all these veteran actors. Each actor played their part with such intense credibility that they made you forget their stardom.

Also read: Nawazuddin wanted ₹1 for Manto— Promotional gimmick or Bollywood upholding artistic cause?

Fine actors like Rasika Dugal, Salim Arif, Suneel Sinha, Ashwath Bhatt, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Rajshri Deshpande, Inamul Haque, and Shashank Sunny Arora were all there as Manto lovers.

Sanyal was almost unrecognisable in the role of poet and critic Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. His make-up, down to the scar, was spot on. This was the poet who had admonished Manto for his alcohol abuse. And Manto had said: “Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, maine tumhe apna dost banaaya hai, apni zameer ki masjid ka Imam nahin!

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The same was true for the transformed look of Raghav Dutt, who was playing Naushad, and other actors who played Ashok Kumar, Nargis and K. Asif in the film.

Rasika played the role of Safia, Manto’s wife. While preparing for the role, she read Manto’s writings. She looked for what he had written about his wife. “But when I was reading about him, I realised arre! mere baare mein toh kuchh likha hee nahin!” she told me.

And there was Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the man who had internalised Manto so much that even off-camera his restrained body language did not change. He didn’t let go of the persona.

Coming to my part, I walked into a dilapidated, colonial-era, downtown Mumbai jail that had been tastefully turned into a courtroom set.

Also read: Off the Cuff with Nawazuddin Siddique

On the sets, none of the actors needed a briefing on Manto. All of them had read and performed Manto at some or the other point in their careers. I had played four characters in Barry John’s play ‘Manto’ many years ago. I had also performed a ‘dastaan’ performance called ‘Mantoiyat’ as part of his centenary year celebrations in 2012.

For my special appearance role, Das had stitched together two writers who testified against Manto into one – the character of Arshad Zaidi. He was a small-time writer, but a pompous, self-righteous one who was looking for his moment of glory by speaking against the great writer who was facing the charge of obscenity.

My character Zaidi believed that literature should be an endeavour for reform and social responsibility. But Manto’s creed was that the truth, however ugly, has a place and can be stated with brutal honesty as he was doing. He wrote to many writers, including Zaidi, asking for their support during the case.

Also read: Finally, Bollywood has courage to look at Muslims as regular Indians & not terrorists

But in the court, my character accuses Manto’s story of obscenity and says that as writers we cannot say anything we want under the guise of “likhne ki azaadi”, or what we know as Freedom of Expression today.

Manto’s trials and tribulations in court mirror the reality today. I deposed against Manto in Nandita’s movie but I would defend him in real life any day.

Danish Husain is an actor, storyteller and poet in Mumbai.

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