Manto makes the cut!
It is said Sadaat Hasan Manto wanted to write for films but his sharp writing didn’t find many takers in an industry which believed in poetic justice and mass appeal. Now six decades after his death, popular culture is reclaiming the writer who saw life as it is
There is a sudden spurt of cinematic interest in Saadat Hasan Manto’s life and works. Rahat Kazmi’s Mantostaan will be premiered in the market section of the upcoming Cannes Film Festival on May 14, three days after the celebrated writer’s birth anniversary. Meanwhile Ketan Mehta’s film on Toba Tek Singh is ready and Nandita Das is busy turning the spotlight on Manto’s life and times in Bombay film industry. For long Manto’s stories have spurred radio plays on Akashwani but now they are making commercial sense as Radio Mirchi is running a series of Manto’s stories in its night segment with popular RJ Saima.
It is a lot because all these years it is only the theatre practitioners who have been drinking from Manto’s well. Of course there is long-forgotten Iqbal Shehzad’s Badnam, Mrinal Sen’s Antareen and Fareeda Mehta’s Kali Salwar but that’s about all. Filmmakers have been wary of Manto’s brutally honest approach and mainstream actors have been avoiding playing characters whose moral centre is not cemented. His Ishwars and Kalwants don’t measure up to the so-called values of the society. Perhaps the clouds of hypocrisy are fading. Suddenly Manto has become marketable.
Rahat says Manto is important because his stories capture the pain, something the modern society and writers are increasingly becoming immune to. “The political manipulation of common man has not changed all these years but the number of writers and creative people who could reflect people’s pain and conscience has come down to almost nil. Today we see a post on Facebook about a riot and it is followed by a rock concert.” Also, Rahat underlines, there is hardly any popular writer today who is not leaning towards a political ideology. “Manto was neutral and perhaps that’s why he was called a Pakistani by Indians and an Indian by Pakistanis.” Rahat gives the example of Chetan Bhagat to drive home his point. “I liked his 2 States where he captured the situation during the 2002 Gujarat riots but now he has written a one-sided biased piece on Kashmir,” says Rahat, who hails from Poonch.
A rebel among rebels
Seasoned theatre practitioner Danish Iqbal, who has staged many a Manto story, agrees. “While researching for ‘Chand Roz Meri Jaan’, a play about the exchange of letters between Faiz Ahmad Faiz and his wife Alys, I found a letter where Faiz talks about the death of Manto and goes on to describe him as his student. Later I discovered that he was his contemporary and the patronising tone was uncalled for.” Though Manto moved among progressive writers, Iqbal underlines that he was a rebel among rebels.
If Nandita Das is exploring Manto’s tumultuous relationship with actor Shyam, Iqbal has written a docu-drama which deals with his working relationship with writer Ismat Chugtai. “She was also condescending towards him. Manto wanted to write films for Dev Anand and Ashok Kumar but his writing was not accepted. Meanwhile, Chugtai’s story ‘Ziddi’ was made into a film with Dev Anand,” reflects Iqbal.
According to him, Manto is better of the two and goes on to add that Manto has been recycled many times by screen writers without giving him credit. “His works may not have been adapted in films but his style of writing has inspired many and references from his stories have been lifted many times. I always recommend Maupassant and Manto to youngsters trying to make a mark in writing. Manto’s stories have both content and craft.”
Concurs Rahat, “Manto’s stories are so visually rich that I didn’t have to work much on the screenplay. We have picked four stories – ‘Khol Do’, ‘Thanda Gosht’, ‘Assignment’ and ‘Aakhri Salute’. All four will play simultaneously like a multi-narrative drama. Even as one story unravels in Lahore, we cut to another in Karachi. It makes the editing part crucial,” says Rahat citing Babel as a reference point. Manto has been translated into many languages including Japanese and that answers international interest in the film.
“We are getting mails about interest in acquiring for different territories.” With invitations from Toronto and San Francisco Film Festivals, Rahat is set to take Manto on a world tour.
‘A wonderful satire’
Mehta has made the 75-minute Toba Tek Singh as part of the Zee’s Zeal of Unity initiative where Pakistani and Indian directors have come together to make films. Mehta says Manto is one of the most exciting writers of all times. “And ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is a wonderful satire, a very humane depiction of very tragic incident in the country’s history. It is a story that has been fascinating artistes from the time it was written. In the schools and colleges it is still one of the most common plays.” However, it has taken the film industry a long time to touch the crazy sardar. Mehta says it is difficult to convert it into a script. “We managed to do it because we decided to create a character of Manto and use him as a narrator in the film.” Producer Deepa Sahi, who hails from Punjab, adds that part of the reason Manto’s stories were not touched by filmmakers was because the wounds were too raw, particularly in North India. “We hardly have three-four good films on Partition. It is not like the Holocaust.”
Rahat says Manto’s stories are full of strong female characters, who ask uncomfortable questions with their words and actions. “Perhaps that’s why not many in the industry tried to explore his writing. With the mood changing now, it is time to push the envelope.” Iqbal echoes his thought. “TV is a better medium to explore Manto’s writing but here again the inability to face strong female perhaps prevented producers to take risk.” Talking of the relevance, Deepa recalls how the visa of the Indian directors was cancelled at the last minute because of a suicide attack in Peshawar. “So there you go; things haven’t changed much in the last 60 years,” says Deepa, who grew up listening to poignant tales of Partition.
For Mehta, who has been fascinated with the story since his college days in Delhi, Manto’s stories are sharp and irreverent yet humanism shines through in most of them.
Pankaj Kapur plays Toba Tek Singh. Mehta is excited to have worked with the seasoned actor after 35 years. “It is one of his most impressive performances. He just dived into the character, grew his beard. He also wanted to play Toba Tek Singh for a while. Everything fell into place. Vinay Pathak, who plays Manto, retained the lightness of the story. The actors worked for almost free because they wanted the story to be made into a film.”
Apart for Sadiya Siddiqui in Kali Salwar (2002), Sonal Sahgal is perhaps the only actress to play a Manto’s character on screen. She plays Kalwant, the “feisty sardarni” of Thanda Gosht in Rahat’s film. “In Hindi cinema we rarely see characters which are fully human. She is a mistress, who loves Ishwar, but deep inside she is filled with jealousy for she fears that she might lose him to somebody else. It is a character which oscillates on the extremes of the good and the bad and by the end of the movie you still can’t make out whether to love Kalwant or hate her. The story should be seen in the light of generation degeneration of human values in the time of riots and communal tension. Kalwant and Ishwar come from the lower strata of the society and their concern is their next meal. So if my lover has found somebody else, what am I going to do now? She is not concerned whether her master has raped another woman or not, it is her own survival that matters to her.”
Sonal says to get into the frame of Kulwant, so vividly described by Manto, she stopped working out and didn’t thread her eyebrows. “Kulwant was definitely not going to beauty parlour to have a manicure,” she quips.
Credit: The Hindu