“I had picked up
in Mumbai airport,” reminisces Ashwath Bhatt, “And I felt like crying because I remember that young boy who used to deliver magazines in Jammu.” Ashwath knows the pain of displacement only too well, as he and his family had to leave Kashmir during the exodus in 1990. The actor, who is an alumnus of National School of Drama (NSD) and London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), never gave up on his dream of becoming an actor, and has carved a place for himself in Bollywood, step by step. He has acted in Vishal Bhardwaj’s
, Ajita Suchitraveera’s
Ballad of Rustom
, Ashiq Abu’s
, Mira Nair’s
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
, and most recently Meghna Gulzar’s
Ashwath, however, defies being categorised as a Bollywood actor alone. His solo stage performance
Ek Mulaqat Manto Se
has won him acclaim and standing ovations for his unbelievably real portrayal of Sadat Hasan Manto. When we meet him for an interview prior to the staging of the play at Ranga Shankara, the first thing that strikes us about him is his Urdu diction, which is clear, distinct, and classy. “When I started working on Manto, people used to say why Manto, every other artiste is doing something on Manto, why don’t you do something else? But my intention was that there should be a play about Manto, not a staging of his stories, so people can get to know this man who is totally misunderstood.”
Ashwath rues the fact that most people have a cursory knowledge of Manto, and yet have an opinion about him. "They have opinions like his writing is full of obscenity, but I ask them
aapne Manto padaa hai?
(Have you read Manto?)"
Ashwath has been reading Manto in-depth, from his teenage years, and has been working on staging
Ek Mulaqat Manto Se
even before joining NSD. “I always wanted to do a solo performance. It took me four years to create it. The play is based on Manto’s articles and one story, which Girish Karnad had asked me to include,
Manto, Main Afsana Kyun Kar Likhta hoon
Kal Sawere Jo Meri Ankh Khuli
Deewaroon Pe Likhna.”
He adds: “I believe in theatre of connect. It should resonate with the audience. Plays should be experiential, later you can analyse it, talk about isms, intellectualise it, but the play must first touch the audience.”
To imbibe the essence of Manto, Ashwath had the good fortune of visiting Lakshmi Mansion in Lahore, Pakistan, Manto’s house.
“People used to come to pay their respects. And today the mansion has been converted into a shopping mall! I cried that day. It should have been made into a memorial. But I am lucky that I slept in the same room where Manto used to write. Nighat Patel, Manto’s eldest daughter, she used to tell me about his little gestures. She shared anecdotes on what he used to say, she also said people had to be careful of what they said in front of him because he would invariably write a story on it! I came to know how Manto got frustrated in Pakistan. He didn’t want to go to Pakistan. Mumbai was in his blood, his veins.
Unke rooh mein thi
(Mumbai lived in his soul). For Manto, going to Pakistan was torture. When he used to be in Lahore, he used to recall his days in Mumbai. He used to miss the vibrancy of Mumbai.”
Ashwath’s talent extends to ‘red nose clowning’, which is therapeutic clowning; he has founded the Theatre Garage Project which bears the philosophy ‘something out of nothing’; and is working on his documentary,
The Other Half of Paradise.
“There are so many stories that I have come across from different countries, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Vietnam. Their stories made me wonder,
Manto har jagaa hai
(Manto is everywhere). The stories are always the same. As long as human beings don’t reflect on themselves, Manto will be relevant.”
Ashwath’s association with Manto continues in Nandita Das’ film
“I was not initially in the film, but Nandita called me to play a part in the film. I have a small role towards the end.” He says that Meghna Gulzar’s
shows the importance of an ensemble cast. “The film is not preachy, in many ways it is matter of fact.”As he takes his leave, the scene in which Mehboob Syed (Ashwath), looks at Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) and says ‘
Abdul tumhaari bhi baat kar raha tha’
(Abdul was also talking about you) flashes across my mind.
As long as human beings don’t reflect on themselves, Manto will be relevant
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