& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Nandita Das’s Manto

Although Saʻādat asan Mano died in 1955, his works retain contemporary relevance because South Asian societies continue to be intolerant, filled with hatred and are as violent today as they were in 1946-47 during the Partition.

Manto has shaped the literary sensibilities of the subcontinent with his stark stories and a nihilistic worldview. He doesn't permit his readers the luxury to judge his characters. He is a humanist who never lets his readers forget that humanity, with all its foibles, is palpably alive, even in characters generally considered unworthy by the society. This is significant because most of his classic stories are about the traumatic period of the subcontinent's history – the Partition – when even the sane turned murderous.

Manto’s life was shortened because of acute depression that stemmed from his displacement and exile. He was a reluctant exile, and never forgot Bombay, the city that made him. His rejection by the Pakistani establishment – political but especially literary – caused resentment and despair and led to alcoholism. But, even while he battled imaginary inner demons and real-life adversaries, he produced literature of high quality that mesmerises and disturbs readers.

In 2012, when Manto’s centenary was celebrated, a surfeit of books and biographies were published. Unquestionably, the best biography was Ayesha Jalal’s The Pity of Partition - Manto's Life, Times and Work Across the India Pakistan Divide. Jalal is a scholar and Manto’s grandniece. I had the good fortune of participating in a talk she gave in Mississauga in 2012 (organised by a number of Urdu organisations) when she spoke about her Manto, her book and narrated stories about Manto’s time in Bombay. 

In an interview given to the Indian media about the biography, Jalal was asked among the contemporary authors who did she consider as good as Manto. Salman Rushdie, she said. I'm certain that many of Manto's and Jalal's admirers would've been displeased by that comparison. 

While Jalal revels in controversies, she is a great narrator. She’d regaled the audience with stories about Manto’s life and friends in Bombay. She narrated the incident of the ride Manto had with actor Ashok Kumar through a Muslim basti in Bombay during a particularly tense pre-partition rioting phase. Manto panicked, but Ashok Kumar reassured him that people loved movie stars; he was right and Manto wrong because the crowd helped them take a safer, shorter route.

Manto’s misunderstanding (it was nothing more) with his friend Shyam, a movie star, led to his leaving Bombay and settling in Lahore, but what is inexplicable is why he didn’t return to India, as Sahir Ludhianvi, Qurratulain Hyder, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, among others, did, when he didn’t find his new home suitable to his temperament. 

Perhaps it was his destiny to die unhappy, unaccepted and unfulfilled. 

The lack of acceptance by his contemporaries in Pakistan must have rankled Manto especially considering his bohemian circle of friends in Bombay. Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables (HarperCollins, 2010) brings to life that grand era in the city’s history, and the life and times of Manto and his group (“By the 1930s, Bombay was the place to be if you were a writer, an artist, or a radical political activist…”).

Manto’s circle of friends included many Progressives, and he shared their sensibilities, but he remained deeply suspicious of their political ideology, to the extent that he parodied them in a short story Taraqquipasand (The Progressives). And while he was able to be sarcastic about them in India and still be friends, in Pakistan, the Progressives isolated him, calling him a reactionary, and the Pakistani state persecuted him for obscenity.

Alok Bhalla edited Stories about the Partition of India (HarperCollins, 1994) has some of Manto's best stories. Bhalla’s translation of Manto stories retains the sting of the original.

Here’s an example


The knife
ripped through the stomach
reached down to the penis
The cord of the pyjama was cut.
The man with the knife
with surprise,
as if he was reading a kalma to ward off evil,
“Chi, chi, chi…I made a mistake.”

Katha published Translating Partition in 2001 which also has a great selection of Manto’s stories and essays (and includes the classic Pandit Manto’s First Letter to Pandit Nehru published on 27 August 1954, five months before his death).

The letter ends with a memorable anecdote.

“You may get the scent of burnt meat in this letter of mine. You know there was a poet in our Kashmir, Ghani, who was well known as “Ghani Kashmiri.” A poet from Iran had come to visit him. The doors of his home were always open. He used to say, “What is there in my house that I should keep the doors locked?

“Well, I keep the doors closed when I am inside the house because I am its only asset.” The poet from Iran left his poetry notebook in the vacant house. One couplet in that notebook was incomplete. He had composed the second line, but could not do the first one. The second line ran thus: “The smell of kebab is wafting from your clothes.” When the Iranian poet returned and looked in his notebook, he found the first line written there, “Has the hand of a blighted soul touched your daaman?”

Nandita Das’s Manto has everything that an average Manto fan knows about the author and has read his stories. By seamlessly fusing important incidents from the author’s life with his best stories, the film is a veritable feast for Manto fans.

This is Das’s second film. Das’s Firaaq was a timely reminder of the atrocities committed on the Muslim minority in Gujarat in 2002. Manto will add to the debate on the rapidly reducing space for free expression of ideas and opinions in India under the Hindutva dispensation.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s portrayal of Manto transforms an ordinary biopic of an important author into a classic film. The actor infuses his performance with such energy that the actor and the character become one. Nawazuddin breathes life and fire into Manto’s explosive anger at the injustice he faces, and his despondency at his inability to get a grip on his life. 

The actor doesn’t need to speak to convey Manto’s determination in battling injustice; his steely glare and his eyes convey that evocatively. In nearly all the scenes with the family, the actor adopts a mildly tremulous tone that depicts uncertainty.

A particularly memorable scene is when Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the doyen of Progressives, rejects the Pakistani establishment’s accusation in the court that Manto’s story is obscene, but adds that it doesn’t qualify as literature either. Manto seethes at this off-the-cuff judgement by a fellow writer, and Nawazuddin conveys this despair with just a flicker of eyes.

The supporting cast, especially Rasika Duggal, who plays Manto’s embittered wife Safia, and Rajshri Deshpande as Ismat Chugtai (Deshpande dazzled recently in Sacred Games) are powerful. There are many cameos by popular and well-known stars such as Rishi Kapoor, Gurdas Mann, Javed Akhtar.

Another remarkable aspect of the film is the authentic depiction of Bombay and Lahore of the mid-twentieth century. During the post-screening interview at Tiff, Das spoke of the hardships she had to face to bring her imagination to life on the screen.

Some scenes are memorable, such as when Shyam and Manto are arguing over the latter’s decision to go to Pakistan, Shyam exclaims, “But are you even a Muslim?” And Manto replies, “(I’m) Enough of a Muslim to be murdered.”

During his persecution by the Pakistani establishment, the police raid Manto’s home to seize all his stories and papers but find nothing. When they ask the author, he bends down to pick up his fallen papers and says, “Bambai mein” (in Bombay).

In another scene when rioting in Bombay has become a norm, Manto begins to don caps and explains to Safia, “When religion goes from the heart to the head, one has to wear caps.”

Manto, the film, as well as Manto’s life, have a special resonance in today’s India when the Indian state is preventing free expression of ideas and speech. Das spoke sharply against the atmosphere of fear that has engulfed India and criticized the recent arrests of human rights activists.  #Tiff18

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