EXCLUSIVE! Rasika Dugal: A man told me I am not even important enough for a casting couch

Rasika Dugal, who has impressed everyone with her performances in ‘Qissa’ and ‘Chutney’ (short film), will next be seen playing the role of Saadat Hasan Manto’s wife, Safiyah Manto, in a film titled ‘Manto’ which is being directed by Nandita Das. The movie stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the titular role. Recently, we interacted with Rasika, and the actress spoke about the film, her journey in Bollywood, and also about casting couch in the film industry.

What preparations have you done for your role?

I am reading the writings of Manto. I am reading the collection of Manto’s work called ‘Dastavez’, it’s in Urdu, and I have to plough my way to some of the essays that he has written about his life, and about the cases of obscenity that he had to fight. But, it is in very tough Urdu, so I have an Urdu teacher who comes and helps me go through them. In most of Manto’s writings, he has not said much about his wife, and there’s very little written about his wife. But, Nandita’s research has been very good on this and she has incorporated her own research work by talking to Manto’s daughters, and his niece. And she has got a lot of anecdotal information which she has incorporated in the script which would have been very tough for me to access as there’s not much written information on Safiyah Manto. So, I have been reading a few things which I think can be used. Like I am reading a gossip column written by him on the film industry, and it’s called ‘Star From Another Sky’. It talks about Ashok Kumar, Shyam Chadda, stars of that time. So, I am reading some lighter stuff and some heavy stuff, just to balance it out for myself also, and to get different aspect of a person.

Before signing the film, were you aware about Manto and his writings?

I was pretty familiar with Manto’s writing. In fact, I have been a fan of most of the writers who belong to the progressive writers’ movement. Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander and Ismat Chughtai, are also people who have written beautiful short stories, and they all have a presence in the film because they are friends with Manto. So, I have been interested in their writing for a while, and I was interested in Urdu as a language, and Urdu literature. I have been taking Urdu classes even before. I stopped it for a while because, you know, life in Mumbai took over. So, I restarted it for the film.

How is it working with Nandita Das?

We are still shooting for the film. Nandita is very lovely, and very straight and sorted person to find in this industry. I had expected her to be very in-control of everything, and to be very particular about what she is doing, and she has more than exceeded all of those. She has proved me right. She is quite a wonderful director to have, her attention to detail is amazing which is something you look forward to in a director especially when you are dealing with a period film. She is very particular about what goes in her frame. It’s a delight to have a director who thinks from the point of view of the actor because she has been such a wonderful actor herself.

Is this film a biopic on Manto or just tells the story of a part of his life?

It concentrates on a part of his life from 1946 to 1955 when he died. Well, he died at the age of 45.

How was the experience of shooting with Nawazuddin Siddiqui?

Nawaz is a very relaxed actor to work with. Actors have different processes, and I always enjoying watching it because a part of the experience for me is to watch an actor whose work I respect. So, a part of the excitement for me was to work with Nawaz and to watch him work. He is a good co-actor, you can talk to him, discuss things with him, you can work things out with him, and he is friendly. So, I am having a good time.

Manto was also booked for obscenity many times. So, as such a man’s wife, what on-screen characteristics did you have to master?

I am discovering a lot of things as we go along with the shoot. We are still working on the nuances, and I don’t find it very productive to be so conscious of it while I am shooting for it. Because if there’s a preconceived notion how a scene should go, you can lose out on the magic of what the scene could have been. I don’t like to mark clearly everything in my head, I just want to equip myself that there’s enough information, and it is enough for my instinct to work well. It shouldn’t be that I can’t do this because I don’t know what to say or I can’t do this because I don’t know the prop. I was talking to the art director and I told him that I want some props, I’m feeling handicapped. We still haven’t started shooting in the house, so I told him I am going to make my wishlist of props, and we will sit and talk about it. Talking about Safiyah, there was a lot of camaraderie between the two which also extended to Manto’s work. She was a reader of his work. The period the film covers, there are many life changing events that happen. So, how their relationship changes and the smaller things in their relationship change, that’s interesting for me to explore.

Do you think you haven’t got your due in the industry and are you happy with the kind of roles being offered to you?

I am never going to be happy with the roles being offered to me because I always desire more. I am very hungry and greedy as an actor. So, for me nothing is good enough. But, it has become far better than earlier in my career. It’s a good sign for me and motivating for me. There have been interesting roles which are coming. I have been very happy with roles in ‘Qissa’ and ‘Chutney’, and they are not the easy ones to find. There are many actors who have long careers and have done more than me, but I feel they should still envy me for the kind of roles I have done. And I should continue to envy them for the quantity of roles they have done. The one disappointment I have felt is that the kind of films I have done hasn’t reached more audiences. But, ‘Chutney’ has changed that because even at a digital medium it has received 50 million views.

Do you think ‘Manto’ will reach out to more audiences because of names like Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui attached to it?

I hope so, I can’t say for sure and nobody can. I hope that it will, and even for Manto, there are a lot of people who are fans of Manto and waiting to see what comes out. So, whenever you do a piece of work, you do desire it to reach more people. But, it’s so out of your hands, and it is really not something that I stress myself about because it’s totally out of my control, and it’s not even my area of work. I just do what I have to do in a film and whatever is asked to me in terms of promoting it or helping publicise it because that is my responsibility. But, the outcome of that is not in anybody’s hands. I am still not in that phase where I feel that ‘arre meri film chali ke nahi’. I am in the phase that the film is made and released.

You have come from a theatre background. So, is there someone who is guiding you in the industry?

No, nobody is guiding me. In fact, I really feel the lack of it because there are a lot of situations I have been in, in the last few months where I had decisions to make in terms of what projects to take what to not take. Also in terms of protecting yourself, like there’s work and more work is coming. So, sometimes I feel that I need a 10-day break. I don’t know what is the correct decision to make in such situations. If I had somebody, for instance, if my parents were actors, I would have had an insight. But, I actually miss that because there are many decisions that I have to take every day which I had no clue about.

You have done a short film titled ‘Chutney’ which has received a great response. So, do you think that the digital medium has potential to grow?

It’s grown phenomenally already. I don’t know where it is going to go from here. Things are becoming crowded there. To get yourself viewed is becoming expensive, in terms of publicity and advertising. But, at least for last 2-3 years it was a new opening for actors like me. It gave many of us new opportunities that were out of our reach. YouTube and all are so popular, like 22-year-olds are doing their covers of songs. They are a rage, I mean their fan following is insane. And whenever I watch that, I am like what a world.

In future, do you have any plans of turning a director?

Not yet, there’s so much yet to explore as an actor. But, things change, however right now, no plans at all.

What is your take on nepotism?

I think it exists everywhere. Some degree of nepotism does come in everywhere. I am not at a stage where I have to battle with those people in day-to-day life. But, star kids have other pressures; I mean if my father was a star, god knows how I would be feeling when I would have done my first film. So, there are issues there as well, but I’m not condoning nepotism. Well, I am not taking it personally at the moment; I haven’t seen a direct snub because of it. Of course I keep hearing about it, and it is hard to meet the directors of big commercial films because they already have their inner circles. It’s a hard one to battle because it’s very difficult to tell why somebody has got a role and why somebody hasn’t got a role.

Your ‘Chutney’ co-star Tisca Chopra had spoken about an incident of casting couch. So, any incidents of casting couch that you came across?

Actually, I didn’t. But, I had a very weird experience. I met someone in Prithvi theatre long back. Some really odd, mad guy and I didn’t even know him. He was sitting next to me, and he said ‘so have you experienced casting couch?’. He was some random person having a conversation with me. I said, ‘No, I haven’t’. So, he turned and said, ‘Oh, so you are not even important enough for that’. I was like ‘what are you talking about?’ (laughs). People keep asking about this in the industry, but it is more rampant in the industries which are not structured because that makes it more vulnerable to things like this. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in structured industries. I haven’t been through anywhere, so I don’t know.

Your wishlist of actors and directors you want to work with.

Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Irrfan (Khan), Adil (Hussain), I want to work with all of them again. I would love to work with my contemporaries like Radhika Apte. Among the stars I think Alia Bhatt is a very good actor. I would like to share screen space with Ranbir Kapoor. I am a die-hard Shah Rukh Khan fan, so I would like to share screen space with him as well. Directors I would like to work with… Imtiaz Ali, Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibaker Banerjee, Kanu Behl and Anurag Kashyap.

What are your upcoming projects apart from ‘Manto’?

I am doing a small film after ‘Manto’. I will start with it in July and I finish ‘Manto’ in June.