Rasika Dugal On ‘Manto,’ Cannes, And Effortlessly Transcending Between Mediums
- IWB Post
- September 13, 2018
The first time I saw Rasika Dugal was in Manto’s teaser (or that’s what I thought at that moment). Playing Safia Manto, the rock steady wife of the troubled Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, Rasika exudes the kind of conviction and warmth that brushes through your subconscious, leaving an impression that lingers for years to follow.
However, a thought kept nudging me throughout the teaser. Something kept telling me that I was familiar with that calming presence, that I had been impacted like this before. The instant Rasika answered my call yesterday, a memory popped open somewhere from the fading precipice of my subconscious.
Her sonorous voice instantly reminded me of a cameo she had a done in a YRF production television series called Rishta.com some 10 years ago. She has made a guest appearance in just one of the episodes of the series and that has stayed with me all this while.
Rasika is one of those actors who breathe life in every character that they touch. There is a distinctive charm about her that is sure to leave an impact on you, the magic that quality cinema thrives on.
Add her agility to the equation and you’d know what sets her apart. From theatre to films and from television to web series, Rasika transcends mediums on an almost ethereal level. Be it her role in films like Kshay, Qissa or Manto or in Television shows like Bandi Yuddh Ke or in web-series like Humorously Yours, she becomes one with the character and fits the mould so well that you are convinced that no one else could have done justice to the role.
Here are excerpts from a conversation that I had with her:
Right from films to web series, you switch between mediums with utmost finesse. Tell me about the process of fluctuating between these mediums. Also, do we have a medium that we can identify as your comfort zone?
As an actor, I don’t see one medium different from the other. Be it films, web series or television, I do not approach them any differently. For me, the same sense of excitement comes when I am working for any of these mediums. Yes, theatre is another space altogether. But recently I have done a few web series and I find the format very interesting. It gives you time to get in the character and build it along the narrative. In a film, you just get 1.5 hours to decide the course of the character.
Honestly, until last year I was an old-school cinema romantic. However, the series bug has bitten me as well and these days I am always browsing through Netflix or some other platform fishing for some new series.
I have done tonnes of work post-Manto, including three films and a few web series. The scripts are outstanding and I think it is a very interesting space. Having said that, my love for cinema remains intact and probably that’s why I keep experimenting with a lot of mediums.
You have done a lot of theatre. What do you think is that one quality or essence that theatre artists can bring to the mainstream cinema and help it evolve?
When I first started working it was theatre and that’s perhaps why I am called a theatre actor “essentially.” But my initial training is in cinema and it would always be my first love.
According to me, one thing that cinema could borrow from the theater is the idea of rehearsal which is imperative to the latter. I think it is one thing that we should be carrying to films as well.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that films don’t require rehearsals. I feel that a high level of rehearsal should be involved in a film and you should do it so well that it doesn’t look like you have rehearsed at all. In theater, if you fail to perform well, there is always another time and there’s always scope to improve. But once you shoot for a film it’s there forever.
This reminds me of your Twitter bio, where you have mentioned that you regret being an actor only once a month when you have to pay your bills (we both laugh). Let’s dig deeper. Shall we?
Honestly, the kind of films I do, there isn’t much money behind them and that’s why it would be unfair of me to expect that kind of money unless they are commercial films, of course. If my films are making big money then I’d certainly like to have a share of the pie.
However, irrespective of money I’d still keep going for such films. I don’t want to be that actor who rejects a script because of money. Good content would always be the first thing I seek. Fine quality cinema is the reason I am here in the first place.
I am one of those people who is instinctively modeled not to go after a lot of money. Of course, I need money to survive in this city, pay my rent at the end of the month but my mind is not tuned to having a flat in Mumbai or wearing expensive clothes all the time.
Manto was the only Indian production in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival this year. How empowering was the experience as an actor?
As an actor, Cannes was definitely on my bucket list and I am so glad that it has been checked out (laughs). Also, to have a film at Cannes is one thing but to have a film in the prestigious category of Un Certain Regard is a matter of great pride. One of my biggest desires has been fulfilled.
Did you have one of those Oh My God moments at Cannes?
Well, certainly. The biggest moment at Cannes was the walk up the steps of the Palais des Festivals which was an extension of the Me Too movement. It was a very powerful experience as we all shared a moment of solidarity and unspoken understanding. I had goosebumps. It was like one solemn moment that stood out for that fact that we have been all been through something that has brought us together. Nandita was there with me too.
I am glad you brought her up. Tell me about the experience of working with Nandita Das. How different is it to work with a woman director?
Definitely because of her politics I was throughout assured of the choices that she made for the film, for Safia and for the women in the film. They were all very sensible and in sync with my own politics. With Nandita, I was completely reassured. I have a lot of respect for her art as she advocates things that I feel very strongly about. I remember back in my college in Delhi she was a role model for many of us. Thus, I was assured that I was in good hands.
Having said that, I don’t think a male director can’t have such sensitivity. That would be a very polarized point of view. To say that a male director would fail to approach the film from that angle would be untrue.
What was it like to play Safia Manto? Does the film contain any exclusive information on Safia? How is she relevant to the contemporary times?
I think all the information in the film is new information as very little is known about Safia. All of this information would have been lost had Nandita not decided to make her such an important character in the film. She researched hard for the information and spent a lot of time with her daughters and sister Zakia. The family has been really generous with the information.
Speaking on contemporary relevance, towards the end and the dying days of Manto, her role almost became that of a caregiver. It is a very difficult situation to be in. There is a lot of quiet strength embedded in the character which is often misunderstood as weakness. I have attempted to translate the same strength on the screen and I hope I have achieved that.
You have talked about sharing an uncanny resemblance with Safia in more than one interview. What is it that connects you with her?
When I first saw Safia’s photograph, I recognized a certain kind of gentleness in her visage which reminded me of my grandmother.
Apart from this, the structural similarity was uncanny. When I first connected with Nusrat apa, one of her daughters, she remarked, “Aapki shakal bilkul hamari ammi se milti hai (you absolutely resemble our mother).”
All of this that I gathered, right from first impressions to the conversations with her family, helped me create a mental picture of her. There was this gentleness and warmth about her that I had to incorporate in the character without making it look weak. That was one of the biggest challenges. It helped a lot when I finally got the costumes and especially the specs. They made it sort of easier to fall into the character.
A lot of research went into Manto. You too read so many of his works. Which would be that one particular piece of writing that would stay with you for life?
On so many! But if I had to choose one maybe I will pick up one of his short stories called 100 Watt Bulb. That is one of his writings that I find amazing as there is so much to learn from.
The story is based on a sex worker who kills a man because she wants to sleep. The idea of all the physical abuse that she must have been through has been presented with so much of sensitivity in the story. It’s her fatigue that brings out the extent of atrocities that she has been through. There are no didactic paragraphs, no gory descriptions, no titillating details. Just the emphasis on this very basic human need to sleep says it all.