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Manto Country

The provocateur’s ever-relevant vision fires a spate of films on both sides of the border

Not that he ever went of vogue – he was after all the most brutally blunt of the Partition chroniclers, not easy to brush aside – but Saadat Hasan Manto, Urdu literature’s great agent provocateur, has never been the flavour of the season for Indian and Pakistani filmmakers quite to the extent that he is today. It is not difficult to see why.

The subcontinent sits on a tinder box of growing social disharmony, religion-fuelled tensions and virulent nationalism, just as it did when history tore it apart seven decades ago.

No wonder the life (short but eventful) and voice (strident but precise) of the iconic Manto, generally regarded as one of the greatest short story writers that this part of the world has ever seen, have come into sharp focus all over again.

Manto’s acerbic pen tore into the heart of the schisms of Partition and dissected its deleterious consequences with unflinching honesty. But did we learn anything from his raw fables? Zilch. That is why the stories that he wrote and the characters that he drew from the realms of personal experience are understandably still as alive and relevant as ever.

Manto died at the age of 42 but not before producing 22 collections of short stories, one novel, numerous radio plays and film screenplays and three anthologies of non-fiction writing that spelled out a worldview that made him anathema to both the ultra-conservatives and the radicals of his time.

Had he been alive today, Manto would probably have been one of the world’s most trolled writers, but he would have gone on regardless, turning up his nose at the establishing and calling received social and moral value systems to account.

Manto had an active association with the cinema of the subcontinent, having worked in the Mumbai film industry as a scenarist until he left for the newly-created Pakistan in 1948.

His stories, which have never gone off the bookshelves, continue to hold readers in thrall. His life, marred by alcoholism and battles with the authorities on charges of obscenity, is no less fascinating. It is especially the latter that seems to be increasingly drawing filmmakers in India and Pakistan to the Manto orbit today.

In 2015, young Pakistani actor, director and screenwriter Sarmad Sultan Khoosat brought Manto to the big screen, focusing on the last four-and-a-half years of the tormented writer’s life. “It is not easy to separate Manto’s life from his work,” he said.

Indeed, the scathing and unsettling stories that Manto wrote are an integral part of the history of India and Pakistan. They define its terms of reference and iconographies, and that of the cataclysmic event that cleaved the subcontinent into two in 1947 amid horrifying bloodshed.

Khoosat’s Manto weaves several of the writer’s stories – Madari, Thanda Gosht and Peshawar Se Lahore Tak – into a tale that turns the spotlight on his personal battles with alcoholism, depression and state repression.

In his director’s note on his film, Khoosat says, speaking obviously from the Pakistani standpoint: “Just as we respect and live the dream of Iqbal, we also have to bear the nightmares of Manto… they are just as much a part of the collective national consciousness.”

Manto with his wife

He could well be speaking for Indians as well. “Manto talks about everything that I care for – freedom of expression, identities thrust upon us and [SC1] nationalism bordering on jingoism,” says actor and filmmaker Nandita Das, who is currently in post-production with a biopic on the controversial writer who never managed to live down the pain of Partition.

Das has roped in Nawazuddin Siddiqui to play the role of Manto in the Indo-French co-production that is scheduled to be ready in 2018. Rasika Duggal has been cast as the writer’s self-effacing wife Safia, who, the filmmaker believes, hasn’t quite got her due.

“Manto may not have been a hero had it not been for Safia, who stood by him through the best and the worst of times. The best were few and the worst many,” the actor-director wrote in a birth centenary tribute to the writer’s wife earlier this year.

“My film will not tell a cradle to grave story. The focus will be on seven crucial years of Manto’s life – 1946 to 1952 – which were also an important phase in the history of the subcontinent,” says Das.

“The film will be a celebration of the life and work of a writer who was a natural rebel who swam against the tide but resisted being labelled,” says the filmmaker whose 2008 directorial debut, Firaaq, explored stories set in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Veteran Mumbai filmmaker Ketan Mehta has made a screen adaptation of Manto’s most celebrated Partition story Toba Tek Singh, a tale that bears retelling given the violent and polarized climate that we live in.

Featuring Pankaj Kapur as Bishan Singh, the rebellious inmate in a Lahore mental asylum who defiantly dies in no man’s land after he learns that his village is no longer part of the country that he now belongs to.

Mehta’s Toba Tek Singh, made as a part of Indo-Pakistani project in which six directors each from the two countries contributed films to mark the 70th anniversary of Partition, goes beyond the four-page story by introducing Manto into the screenplay in the form of actor Vinay Pathak.

That, of course, is perfectly in keeping with Manto’s approach to his stories. Much of his fiction was written in the form of a diary or a travelogue, or as a dialogue between him and the protagonist. Clearly, the screenwriter in him often took the upper hand and that makes his stories so eminently filmable.

Four of them are part of Mantostaan, a feature film by Kashmiri director Rahat Kazmi. With Raghuvir Yadav, Sonal Sehgal, Virendra Saxena and the filmmaker himself playing various onscreen roles, the film adapts two of Manto’s most controversial stories, Khol Do and Thanda Ghost, besides Aakhri Salute and Assignment.

What makes Manto such a timeless draw for filmmakers of the subcontinent? The answer is obvious: neither of the two countries have paid heed to his entreaties. Both have let him down. But can filmmakers resurrect his vision from the ruins of history and rescue us all from the continuing rage of flag-waving chest-thumpers?

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