A Stills Photographer Spent Two Months on the Sets of ‘Manto’
Nawazuddin Siddiqui rehearsing Manto's lines before a shot in Mumbai. Image: Aditya Varma


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A Stills Photographer Spent Two Months on the Sets of ‘Manto’

And his fly-on-the-wall snapshots speak volumes of the intense process of the film.

Sometime in April 2017, we were shooting in the Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat. It was more than 45 degree Celsius and a scene from Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh unfurled in front of us. I had woken up with a severe migraine but I still walked to the set in the latter half of the day, with a lot of painkillers in my system. And I took pictures. When I look back now, those pictures are some of the most memorable ones. Details such as Toba Tek Singh’s makeup and swollen legs, Nandita Das enacting the lines to the artists, and especially the light, with the mud and sand flying around to give that golden, hazy tinge to the landscape—everything came together perfectly to realise one of Manto's most remarkable stories.


Witnessing almost 200 artists—from the set design crew to the makeup and costume junior artists, to the actors—put in every bit of themselves to create a film is an extraordinary experience. Making a film is not a linear process; it is full of ups and downs. It is emotional, passionate, vigorous, arduous, extensive as well as intensive. So, many of those moments go unnoticed. What I wanted to do was to capture what I could, with my three small cameras.

Manto's pair of spectacles is a ubiquitous presence in the film. Image: Aditya Varma

I come from a really small town called NR Kandriga near Tirupati. Even trying to be different there is quite an endeavour; it’s common to grow up with expectations and aspirations to become a doctor or an engineer. I had to make a lot of unlikely choices but I knew that I wanted to pursue something offbeat. I was seeking a different form of aesthetics, one that was not conventional, coming from a small town in Andhra Pradesh.

An iIntense moment from the shooting of the scenes of Manto's short story Thanda Ghosht in Manto. Image: Aditya Varma

I had always looked up to Nandita Das, especially for her choices in her career—from the roles she chose to the kind of beauty she represents, to the voice she has raised against various issues. I grew up trying to know more about her and her work despite the slow internet connection in my hometown. When my friend Shraddha Khanna, the then Director’s Assistant of Nandita, told me about the opportunity to work on Manto, there was no way I could miss that. I had already shot one film as a cinematographer in a film called Namdev Bhau (directed by Daria Gai, who also made Teen Aur Aadha with producers Dheer Momaya and Anurag Kashyap), and some people thought this might be a downgrade from being a cinematographer to a stills photographer. But I went ahead with my instincts and, thankfully, had one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my lifetime.


Nandita Das jokes around with junior artists during a scene from Saadat Hasan Manto's short story Toba Tek Singh in Manto, depicting the transfer of inmates from the asylum to the border. In Anand, Gujarat. Image: Aditya Varma

Shooting behind the scenes of a film is not something easy. While a scene is being shot, you cannot shoot. This was more acute on the sets of Manto. Often, I was shooting covertly and it was a struggle to get a frame. It became a challenge for me to find frames in places that were overlooked. In films, the storytelling is, in a way, bound by the script. Often, a lot of small details go unnoticed by the lens. But I had the liberty to capture the smallest of elements like the objects, the little things, the hidden parts of the set—the typewriter placed on the corner of the room, Manto’s glasses placed in different places, or the intense emotions of the crew and cast behind the camera. Every tiny detail contributed to the making of the whole. Someone told me that I was detached from the real film, which was perhaps partly true, because I was constantly seeking the essence of Manto. I was just building the world of Manto. That's what Nandita had told me, "Let's take this world of Manto to the outside world through your pictures.”

From a scene depicting an altercation between an Englishman and Manto at a train station in Mumbai. Image: Aditya Varma

The story of making of Manto the film is also significant because it itself is a real story. It is about 200 people trying to transport the viewers to a different era by recreating that world with their own happiness, sadness and perception; those really made up the different layers of the film.

The "infamous" 555 cigarettes, which were considered a symbol of high class in the 1940s and 50s India. Image: Aditya Varma

Nandita’s vision combined with Karthik Vijay's lighting and location choices, Rita Ghosh's set design, and Sheetal Sharma’s costumes is truly authentic. Nandita has the ability of finding the right people and making them understand the importance of being what she calls 'Mantoiyat'. Everyone was so emotionally involved in the film and channeled all their energies into telling an honest story about a man who stood by the truth when no one dared to be truthful. The making of the film Manto is also an honest story.

A real-life tailor who was cast to play a tailor from the 1940s. In Vaso, Gujarat. Image: Aditya Varma

There’s one particular scene where the character of Safia Deen [Manto’s wife, played by Rasika Dugal] reads out a letter to Manto. I ended up weeping when I was clicking the pictures. When you are emotionally and whole-heartedly trying to do something— trying to create something—you really end up giving everything to it. Every day of filming had its own moments, quite like life itself. I just wanted to present that in front of the world: the world of Manto the man, and Manto the film.

Junior artists waiting on the recreated set of a Mumbai dock in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Image: Aditya Varma

Manto releases across India on September 21.