Manto: the man, the movie

In the wake of a new film about the late Indo-Pakistani writer whose work captured the spirit of Bombay and its residents, Devendra Mohan looks back on his life

A play here, a mini-series there; a film, a biopic – all Saadat Hasan Manto’swork has seen an unprecedented revival of interest in this celebrated Urdu author and playwright and the way he portrayed the 1947 holocaust which created India and Pakistan. The theme of the holocaustin the Indian subcontinent seems to have attracted renewed interest as people from all walks of life have started rediscovering both it and Manto himself

Contributing to this regenerated interest is a new biographical film written and directed by actress and director Nandita Das, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was released across India last month to critical acclaim. The result of much painstaking research, discussions and dialogue, the film, entitled simply ‘Manto’, stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the title role and is based on the last four-and-a-half years of Manto’s life, from the glittering Bombay of 1946 to his increasing alcoholism and feelings of isolationin Pakistan in 1948, where he reminisces about his life in India, particularly Bombay. Das’ film has been the subject of much discussion and has made waves at many international film festivals, earning manifold encomiums for its depiction of hitherto unknown aspects of Manto’s life.

A still from the film ‘Manto’
A still from the film ‘Manto’

Saadat Hasan Manto was doing well as a scriptwriter for films in Bombay when he migrated to Lahore at the age of 35,which he did unwillingly, underpressure from his family. He died there only a few years later, at the age of 42, in direpoverty while facing numerous court cases for writing allegedly ‘scandalous’ and ‘scurrilous’ short stories and articles.

Manto left India when he had just sold the idea of the classic Mirza Ghalib to the great Indian movie moghul Sohrab Modi, and had another three or four scripts in the pipeline. A friend from Delhi had asked him to gather together his short stories for publication as two book volumes. Another publisher friend wanted him to write a novel, while a third friend urged him to bring out a collection of his radio plays, written during his employment with the All India Radio in Delhi in the early ’40s.

One of the most compelling reasons for Manto leaving India werehis wife Safia and three young daughters,who were stranded in Lahore and had no means of returning to Bombay. When they finally decided to settle in Lahore, Safia pressed her husband to join them there. But he remained undecided, as he believed that once the riots subsided everything would return to normal and Safia would come back to Bombay with the children.

Manto’ director Nandita Das
Manto’ director Nandita Das

But things were changing rapidly even in Bombay, creating uncertainties as communal riots and disharmony escalated. Then one evening one of his most intimate friends, the actor Sundar ‘Shyam’ Chaddha, who was disturbed by the killing of Hindus in Pakistan, told him in a drunken stupor, ‘Manto, I feel like running a knife through your thorax.’ And that, perhaps, was ultimately what made Manto, a non-practising Muslim, change his resolve and leave India.(Paradoxically, it was Shyam who bade an emotional farewell to Manto at Bombay port and helped him load his belongings on to a Karachi-bound ship in early 1948.)

For many of us, the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 evokes the saddest memories of an unfathomable human tragedy which brought in its wake the loss of one million lives, displacement and the uprooting of nearly 18 million people as they migrated to either side of the artificially created borders of India and Pakistan.

Manto was shocked and dazed by the gruesome happenings of Partition. Before going to Pakistan, his writings had been concerned with the plight of individuals, mostly from impoverished or mixed backgrounds:their struggles,dilemmas and compulsions, their sad and happy experiences. He brought characters from Bombay’s underbelly, those on the margins, to the glamorous world of cinema.

In his work, we see Bombay as a serene place, one with ample space to accommodate a vast and colourful variety of people; a world of both simple, ordinary folk with strong ethics, and complex, amoral ones. Manto’s portraits of Bombay were of a great metropolis, greater than Calcutta, Lahore or Delhi; an entity so powerful that it forces people to change radically, both physically and psychologically, in order to adapt to its rhythms, yet also gives them an opportunity to reinvent themselves. ‘You can take a man out of Bombay but you cannot take Bombay out of a man,’ he would say three years after moving to Pakistan.

As a writer, his greatness did not lie in the skills of a landscape artist who etched a scene in minute detail, nor was he a Dostoevskian prober of souls. Manto revealed his characters to the reader simply by describing their key life situations and through their words. In a short story set in Bombay, ‘Mera Naam Radha Hai’ (My Name Is Radha), the eponymous character is a struggling actress besotted with the hero, Raj Kishore, probably based on the actor Prithviraj Kapoor, a friend of Manto and a man who treated his leading ladies with deference and slight aloofness. In one scene, Kishore enters a room and greets all the women, ‘Sisters, how are you?’ ‘Don’t you call me a sister,’ retorts Radha as she saunters from the room.

Manto’s characters could be pickpockets, pimps and prostitutes, but he showed how heroic they could be. In one story, for instance, the main character, Mammad Bhai – a real-life goon from the notorious red light area of For as Road, whose name Manto did not change – shows he can be large-hearted and generous towards someone who is critically ill.

Similarly, in his post-Partition fiction he portrayed characters who were daredevils, willing to risk their lives to save others. He wouldn’t shy away from writing about men with mean souls, yet he saw a human element in them. In his much discussed stories such as ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Flesh), ‘Khol Do’ (Open The Window), ‘Siah Haashiye’ (Black Borders), ‘Kali Salwar’ (The Black Salwar) and ‘Toba Tek Singh’ – one of five of his stories that are woven into the narrative of Das’ film – Manto bared people’s humanity.

When he wrote about celebrities, he chose to dwell on their ordinariness. In a sketch of the late actress Nargis Dutt, for instance(one of many he did of celebrities), he narrates how she visits his house to meet his wife and her sisters and asks his sister-in-law for a recipe to make toffee out of jiggery. Of Ashok Kumar, a leading star of the ’30s and ’40s and one of his great friends, Manto writes that every now and then Kumar yearns for an extra-marital affair with an actress but can’t muster the courage when he thinks of his wife, and runs back home in panic. He also writes about Noor Jehan, the great singing star; Babu Gopinath, a journalist-cum-producer; Sitara Devi, the Katthak exponent and actress; music director Rafique Ghaznavi, and the poet Miraji; comedian Desai and journalist-publisher-producer Baburao Patel. These sketches ranged from 1,500 words to much longer portraits.

Born in Samrala, Ludhiana(in what was then British India) on 11 may 1912, Manto came to Bombay at the age of 23 or 24 to pursue a career in journalism and film writing.His output was extensive: 22 collections of short stories, more than 100 radio plays while at All India Radio, one novel, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches and more than 15 film scripts.

Manto could never have imagined leaving his beloved Bombay. Perhaps it was fated that he would do so, and would face a harsh future. When he decided to leave India and Ashok Kumar tried to stop him, Manto said,with an acute sense of premonition: ‘I am aware that I’m heading towards an unknown destination. I don’t have the faintest idea what lies ahead of me. I don’t know much about Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar or even Karachi. They are all alien to me. Speak to me about Ludhiana, Amritsar, Aligarh, Poona or even Delhi. I have known these places like the palm of my hand and can speak about them for hours together. But Bombay is the only destination I can speak about for months, even years on end because it inspires me. It gives me characters in flesh and blood. Believe me, Dadamuni [Ashok Kumar’s pet name], I am a walking-talking Bombay!’(Main chalta phirta Bambai hoon!)

Inside the mind of an actor

Though Manto wrote many sketches of celebrities, there are some that really stand out. In one sketch of the actor Ashok Kumar, Manto describes an incident that occurred during the height of the communal riots in Bombay. When Kumar offered to drop Manto at his residence in the preponderantly Muslim locality of Byculla, the writer was petrified at the very thought and begged Kumar not to take the risk. Ashok smiled and said, ‘Manto, car mein baitho. Dekhte hain.’(Manto, sit in the car. We’ll see!)
As Kumar’s car entered the locality, a Muslim wedding procession appeared in front of the vehicle. Manto froze with fear and started preparing his lines.‘Friends, let me tell you that I am a Muslim. I was scared to travel alone. Ashok sa’ab was kind enough to offer me a lift. In the name of Allah, don’t touch him…’
But two youngsters simply turned to the actor and said, ‘Ashokbhai, the road ahead is blocked. Aap bazoo ki gali se nikal jao…” Manto almost fainted with relief. Ashok Kumar was all smiles, saying, ‘Rioters don’t touch artistes.’
The actor revealed himself to an astonishing extent to Manto. In another sketch, despite pining for physical relations with women, Kumar doesn’t have the gumption to seduce them. Manto writes about an incident in which the beautiful and desirable actress Paro invites Ashok to her house. ‘She offered me drinks and sat by my side,’ he says. ‘Next, she pressed my hands, but I developed cold feet and made excuses to leave the place. I could see she was hurt. I saw tears welling up in her eyes. But then the next moment she composed herself and said, ‘Ashokbhai, I was just testing you. The truth is, I see you as my brother…’

Devendra Mohan


Devendra Mohan is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist who writes in English and Hindi, and has published several articles about Manto. His Hindi play ‘Aupar Di Gur Gur of the Yeh Saala Manto Kya Hua’, summarising Manto as a man and writer, was recently re-published by the Hindi literary journal Pal Pratipal and is llikely to be staged soon in some Indian cities 

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