“If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.”
One of the most popular quotes of writer Saadat Hasan Manto, these words perfectly reflected the man, his aspirations, and his fearless conviction. During his lifetime, the playwright and short story writer was vehemently criticised for his writings. But the years since have been kinder as he is now considered one of the finest writers of 20th century. Though he began his career as a writer for All India Radio and then worked as screenwriter in the film industry in Bombay, Manto is noted mainly for his short stories on Partition. His uniqueness lay in the way in which he portrayed those who dwelled on the margins of society — sex workers, pimps, rape victims, the mentally challenged and the like. Manto through his writings aspired to provide a mirror to society, in which it could see itself as it is.
As a tribute to the writer who wove gems like Toba Tek Singh and Khol Do, actor and director Nandita Das has produced, written and directed the film Manto which releases today. Das, along with actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui (who plays Manto in the film) and Rasika Dugal (who plays Manto’s wife Safia), visited Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Wednesday to interact with the students of the Department of Arts and Aesthetics. The trio discussed the relevance of Manto today, the setting of the film in the years between 1946 and 1950, the form in which Das created the film as well as what ‘Mantoiyat’ means in the day and age we live in.
“For Nandita, Manto is not a figure for 1947. Manto is a figure for today,” says Professor of Cinema Studies Ira Bhaskar opening the discussion. She asks Das to explain the relevance of the mid twentieth century writer in the socio-political conditions of today, especially in relation to recent events at JNU. “What is happening today? The stories of the common man and the marginalised is not being allowed to come to the fore. Seventy years back, Manto was telling us the stories of these people,” says Das. She goes on to explain that Manto’s objective was to tell us what the impact of violence was, what women were feeling, what sex workers were feeling and the like.
Manto was tried six times on grounds of obscenity. Das explains that the threat to freedom of expression is still a reality. “Whether its artists being silenced, whether it is the media and journalists being silenced, or whether it is self-censorship, there are a variety of ways in which freedom of expression is being denied,” she says. Das adds that in present times, we are in dire need of people like Manto. “We are losing the spirit to tell the truth and present the reality,” says Das.
“My thoughts are very similar to those of Manto, but I had not been able to convey them due to several reasons. This character gave me the opportunity to convey them,” says Siddiqui.
Das’ film narrates the story of a very brief time period in Manto’s life, those spanning the years between 1946 and 1950. These five years were not just significant to Manto’s life and career, but also an extremely crucial moment in the history of the Indian subcontinent with the Independence of India and Pakistan taking place and the violence of Partition that accompanied it. In the course of these years, Manto moved from Bombay to Lahore and the film narrates his story in the backdrop of the film industry in the Bombay of 1940s and then in post-Partition Lahore.
Manto was working in the film industry then. He had written biographical sketches of entertainers like Nargis and Sitara Devi, he was a film critic and used to write gossip columns as well. “Bombay was a city he loved. When someone asked him if he would leave Bombay for Pakistan after Partition, he had responded saying that ‘main toh chalta firta Bambai hoon, agar Bambai wahan chala jaaye toh ho sakta hain uske peeche peeche main bhi chal padu’ (I believe that I walk and breathe Bombay. If Bombay goes to Pakistan, maybe I will follow it there)”, says Das. She explains that Manto’s story Toba Tek Singh is in a way his own search for the answer to the question on where do we belong.
The film then goes on to explore Lahore after Partition. “The reason why Partition is constantly invoked in our films, conversations, in our collective psyche is because we have not learnt enough from it and those issues keep repeating themselves and we are having to deal with them even today,” says Das.
“I have seen the trailer and there are some sequences that I recognise from Manto’s stories. She has combined the form in which the life of Manto during those four-five years is interspersed with some short stories,” adds Bhaskar.
Das explains that there would be many who would not know Manto at all and then there would be those who would be experts on him, so she wanted to weave a story that could appeal to both. “Right from the beginning I had decided that I want to show you a few glimpses from his stories. In order to know the man, you need to know the writing,” she says.
Asked about what the brand of Mantoiyat can be to fight the forces that threaten freedom of expression, Dugal says: “To me the way to fight these forces is to have conversations with them. My brand of Mantoiyat in today’s times would be fearlessness with kindness, fearlessness with openness.”
“We all have that Mantoiyat in us in various forms. Mantoiyat is all about the desire to be more honest, the desire to have conviction and courage to tolerate truth,” says Das, adding that “if we can spread the idea of Mantoiyat then we have won.”