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, fo