Disclaimer: I am yet to see Nandita Das’ Manto.
Saadat Hasan Manto was my father’s friend and the first time I heard his name was at the age of five or six. As kids, we were fascinated by the telephone and I had only recently picked up the art of saying ‘wrong number’ and banging the phone in frustration. I was intrigued by that phrase. One day, Dadamoni called from the Bombay Talkies studio office. I picked up the phone and started talking to him, updating him about mundane things like school homework and what’s going on at home. Our brief chit-chat ended with papa asking if mom (Shobha Devi) was around. “Give the phone to maa,” he demanded in Bengali. The moment he uttered those words, I said, ‘Wrong number’ and hung up. He kept ringing. Every time he said he wants to talk to my mother I would repeat, ‘Wrong number’ and disconnect the phone rudely.
He was calling as he wanted to bring his friend Manto home for dinner that night and wished to speak to mom about what to cook for his special guest. He nevertheless brought Manto home. We were staying at Worli at the time. That was my first tryst with Manto, the man, the name. Later, as a grown-up when I read his fiction, the experience was bleak but breathtaking.
Papa spoke a lot about Manto. He felt he was ahead of his time. He liked him as a friend and admired him for his literary genius, always insisting that Manto had the rare talent of saying things as truthfully as possible. Papa championed his literature and actively promoted him at Bombay Talkies. “He writes original screenplay,” papa used to say about Manto. In that era, Hollywood was a big influence on Hindi cinema but Dadamoni was strongly against this blatant borrowing from the West. He felt we must reflect our own social reality and for that reason, encourage local writers to write our own stories. For Dadamoni, cinema was an instrument of social change. It’s not like Dadamoni (Manto, like everyone else, started calling him Dadamoni but only after discovering that papa was two months older than him) was against entertainment. The purpose of cinema, in his view, was entertainment mixed with social commentary, that somewhere a film must touch you and make you think of the human condition, in a subtle way. He fully subscribed to cinema’s powers as the greatest medium of the 21st century. So did Manto who wrote screenplay for Eight Days, Shikari and Chal Chal Re Naujawan, all starring Ashok Kumar.
They shared a common passion for literature. Both were interested in French and Russian books. Papa had a life beyond films. In Manto, he must have found a kindred spirit. He liked the fact that he could talk to Manto about anything and believed that as someone with a wider worldview he would understand him. Dadamoni had faith in Manto while Manto extended him the same courtesy. But these reasons are not enough for me to stop wondering what truly fuelled their friendship. I guess they must have connected because papa was, at heart, a storyteller. When we were kids, he made up stories all the time and each time he’d regale us with something new. If it was about a vague Chinaman and his daughter one day, the next would be a musical session with him singing and Kishore Kumar at the piano, cranking out the sad tunes designed to reduce us to tears and next moment, something peppy to get us on the dance floor.
Like Manto, he loved to tell stories – wild, funny, child-like, all kinds of tales.
When Manto was leaving for Pakistan as the Partition violence swept across India and Hindu-Muslim tensions reached a flashpoint, papa was very upset and tried persuading him, hoping to change his mind. “This is your life and your city, Manto. This is where you belong,” he pleaded. But Manto went ahead, boarding a ship to Pakistan and died there some years later, regretting that decision the rest of his life.
I don’t know if papa ever read Manto’s profile on him (published in Stars From Another Sky). I think he must have, but we never discussed it. In person, Dadamoni was quite shy. He was a simple man but not simplistic. “I always find it odd that Ashok should be scared of women when hundreds of them were willing to jump if he told them to jump,” Manto wrote in his essay on Dadamoni, titled The Evergreen Hero. It’s true that Dadamoni was not good at handling all this attention from his female admirers. Neither did he take his fame seriously. He wasn’t a ladies’ man though he enjoyed the company of what he called “glamorous, high society perfumed beauties.” Manto mentions that my mom Shobha – who was a very simple woman and a devoted companion – and his wife Safia were good friends. Mom was also a great cook and host. Pran, who was my father’s good friend, loved mom’s cooking. When I called him once just months before his death in 2013, he joked, “Of course, I miss Dadamoni. But I miss your mom’s mirchi ghosht more.”
Manto also wrote about that famous incident when their car was stopped at Mohammed Ali Road in Bombay following the communal riots after Partition. Years later, papa recalled the fateful day, “Manto was terrified. But I assured him nothing will happen.” And nothing did.
The Shy And Reluctant Superstar
Dadamoni wasn’t a communal person and people loved him for that. When the Hindus at Bombay Talkies complained to him and his Parsi partner Savak Vacha about the growing Muslim might at the studio and threatened to quit (besides Manto, there was Ismat Chughtai and Shaheed Latif at the studio), Dadamoni put his foot down. He would have none of it. Papa was a complete believer in the Hindu-Muslim unity. In fact, his man Friday Khursheed whom he lovingly called Jeeves to his Bertie Wooster was a Muslim and he looked after papa after mom’s death.
Papa was a reluctant superstar, as acting wasn’t his first choice. He was a man of many talents. He was a lawyer but also self-taught and passionate about learning new things. He learnt painting and chess from actor Iftekhar. He was a boxer. Manto describes him as “soft on screen” but “tough.” Dadamoni learnt Urdu from Dilip Kumar and started writing his dialogue in Urdu. I think, somewhere, he was very keen to be a director. Film was a director’s medium and he thought his rightful place was behind the camera. But it was as an actor that he eventually found success. He was pathbreaking for his time in the sense that he didn’t believe in theatrical or bombastic performances. His was a more naturalistic style. Manto appreciated these talents in Dadamoni and their relationship was one of mutual respect. You can see that Manto was in awe of him and looked up to him as an elder brother.
Dadamoni himself never took his role in films or society lightly. I remember when Sangram (1950) became a big hit, Morarji Desai who was the Home Minister of Bombay at the time came rushing to Dadamoni accompanied by the police commissioner. Papa was a gangster in the film who kisses his gun as he shoots at a cop. Mr Desai felt Dadamoni was glamourising violence with his role. Dadamoni explained by saying that the hero does get his comeuppance in the end, as the father shoots the boy. (Shakti was later remade on the same theme). But Mr Desai was not convinced and shot back, “When you were having a gun fight with the police on screen, the audience was cheering you. That’s not good. You are a role model.” Dadamoni realised that as a hero emulated blindly by millions, he has some social responsibility and shouldn’t have done it.
Dadamoni was a balanced and focused man, something Manto was not. This contrast served their friendship well. Both, however, had a great sense of humour. Manto’s was darker. Papa’s more poker-faced. I had never seen him lose his temper, except once. That one day when he came home in a really foul mood he had an urge to break something. He got hold of the first thing he found in the living room. “Papa, leave this. It’s your favourite European glassware,” my sister Preeti Ganguly screamed. “Go,” he commanded. “Find me something cheap to break. I am very angry.”
By the time she came back, his anger had evaporated.
(As told to Shaikh Ayaz)