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Manto from another sky: The writer of Partition spent his best years in 1940s Bombay as a film reporter

As Nandita Das’ biopic Manto, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rasika Dugal releases this week, we look at the literary bad boy’s Bollywood years in the 1940s, his juicy portraits of the matinee idols and how his intimate friendships with Shyam (unknown to today’s film audiences) and Ashok Kumar shaped him.

Written by Shaikh Ayaz | Mumbai |
Updated: September 19, 2018 1:59:17 pm
Manto A biopic on Manto will hit screens on September 21.

What comes to mind when you hear Manto, a name much in the news these days thanks to a renewed interest in literature written by him about Partition and the ever-relevant debate about freedom of speech? Eccentric genius? Literary rebel? Obscene chronicler of prostitutes and pimps? Agent provocateur? Crusader of truth? Martyr of free speech? Whatever you may call him, he was the kind of writer your parents didn’t want you to read. Today, it can be said with some certainty that Manto has become a shorthand for fearless writing. The author’s hard-hitting satires about the horrors of Partition, including Toba Tek Singh, Thanda Gosht and The Dog of Titwal, are still in circulation while his touching portraits of Bombay’s underclass are so full of intimate human details and a feel for place that it has won him well-deserved comparisons with Russian masters like Chekov, Gorky and Tolstoy. As fellow rabble-rouser Ismat Chughtai put it, “He enjoys digging in the refuse because he doesn’t trust the luminaries of the world.”

That’s the Saadat Hasan Manto most readers know. There’s another Manto who made the rounds of film studios in the 1930-40s and became, surprising for a man of letters, the era’s most colourful Bollywood reporter. In his film essays, collected in the page-turner Stars From Another Sky, he brings the same acidic and ironic lens of his savage Partition stories to film reporting. It’s hard to believe that the film writer Manto is the same man who writes about hookers and has-beens from Foras Road and other louche and seedy corners of old Bombay. He flits between the high and low society, belonging nowhere and everywhere at once. Writing in the preface to Stars From Another Sky, Jerry Pinto sounds surprised that “Manto of Toba Tek Singh” was a film journalist. But he was, as Pinto assures, “no ordinary film journalist.” Like anything touched by Manto’s brutally naked pen, Stars From Another Sky is by turns obscene, funny, glamorous, malicious and honest. It gives us a glimpse of the famous and the forgotten. Reader discretion is advised at this point. Manto’s roving male gaze is obsessed with breasts and brassiere but it’s equally uncompromising on the men. Men so beautiful, one description suggests, that they could be women!

Manto, through this book, also serves as a gossip columnist complicit in satisfying the public’s insatiable hunger for celebrity, with his entertaining accounts of endless starry love affairs. Every once in a while, it devolves into ‘who’s sleeping with whom’ sort of salacious reporting. In their search for a scoop, most nosy scribes can sneak into a star’s bedroom at best. Manto went a step further. In a profile on Naseem Bano, Saira Banu’s fairy-faced mother, Manto expresses disappointment at the first Indian female superstar’s modest bungalow in Thane and is further shocked by her unglamorous bathroom with no “exotic soaps” and “bath salts” at hand. Was a voyeuristic Manto looking for a key to Naseem’s beauty ritual? If he was, he couldn’t find any except to wonder how she always ended up looking so “fresh and lovely.” Here’s Manto on V. H Desai’s speech: the God’s clown couldn’t separate “peeshap (urine) from Peshawar!” If a title like Stardust had existed in the 1940s, Manto would have been a natural fit.

Of womanisers and man-eaters

A native of Ludhiana and Amritsar, Saadat Hasan Manto first arrived in Bombay in 1936 to work for the Urdu film weekly Musawwar. Also a screenwriter, he was hired as a ‘munshi’ by major studios like Bombay Talkies, Filmistan and Imperial Film Company where he became friends with stars-in-the-making Ashok Kumar, baby Nargis and many others. He hung out with a bunch of home-grown bohemians whose likes included poets, painters, filmmakers, actors and even dentists! In Stars From Another Sky, the essay One in a Million charts singer Nur Jehan’s journey from a coltish young girl to a full-blown beauty. He details her passionate affair with the stylish director Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (of Khandan fame), later even revealing sordid details that includes her elder sister and brother running a brothel from Cadell Road, near Shivaji Park. About musician Rafiq Ghaznavi, Manto remarks acidly, “He had a romance knotted into every necktie he possessed – and his collection was large.” If the matinee men were serious womanisers and philanderers, the girls were no less brash. With her many affairs, the much-married Sitara Devi is described as a man-eater. At one point, he compares her to a typical five-storey Bombay high-rise “with many flats and rooms, all inhabited. It is a fact that she had the ability to be involved with many men at the same time.”

manto wife

Manto is equally ruthless on the young Nargis, the unattractive girl who “couldn’t sing.” Though he admits that Nargis did mature into a good actor later on, his early impressions of her is that of an “artless” girl “incapable of portraying emotion.” How Manto and family met Nargis is a story straight out of an endearing Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedy. The author’s wife Safia and her two sisters were in the habit of ringing up film stars (with a film writer for husband, it wasn’t too difficult to source celebrity phone numbers) and conducting “nonsensical conversations” with stars pretending to be their fans. One such call was once placed to Nargis. Despite Manto’s initial misgivings, an unusual friendship developed between Nargis, Safia and her sisters. However, the book’s highlights are the two people Manto was closest to. He knew Ashok Kumar from his early days with Devika Rani and their friendship supplies Stars From Another Sky with some of the most moving anecdotes. Manto reveals Ashok, or Dadamoni as he was fondly called by everyone, as a shy star who craved female attention but didn’t quite know how to handle it when it came his way. In one touching account, Manto describes an incident when Ashok and he are passing through a Muslim neighbourhood during a communal riot. For a moment, Manto fears the worst but when the crowd recognises Ashok Kumar, their car is gently guided to safety.

Actor Shyam, whose name is lost in movie history, gets the most sympathetic treatment from Manto. He was the author’s best friend. Manto learns of his death in Lahore’s mental asylum, at a time of great emotional turmoil. Beset with financial worries and drinking heavily, was this personal loss driving Manto batty? “To have gone mad after learning of Shyam’s death,” as Manto claims, “would have been madness itself.” A handsome figure and a bon vivant to boot, Shyam reminded Manto of a character in a Russian novel. But to Manto’s readers, he’s as Manto-esque as one can get. The duo shared a room as strugglers in the city, with Shyam often lending him money. “He was prepared to die for anything that was beautiful,” Manto writes. “And I think death must have been beautiful. Otherwise, he would not have died.” The word ‘hiptullha’ (invented by Manto) was a secret code of happiness between them, and they used it to convey everything from a toast to good times over atrocious Nashik Deer whisky to a lack of depth in a scene. It’s evident to anyone who reads the book that the years Manto spent in Bombay, his drinking binges and the Craven A smoke-filled evenings with friends like Shyam and Ashok Kumar were the best years of his life. “I stayed in Bombay for twelve years,” Manto once wrote, recalling his Bombay days after having moved to Lahore where died in 1955. “I am what I am because of those years. There were times in Bombay when I did not have enough to eat and there were times when I was making vast sums of money and living it up. That was the city I loved. That is the city I still love.”

“Hiptullha,” as Shyam would say, chuckling.

Train to Pakistan

It’s important to note that although Manto was hobnobbing with Bollywood elite he was also critical of it when it came to the nuances of craft and storytelling. Writing on one occasion, he had a word of warning for Hindi cinema’s dream merchants, “The dream the progressive youth of India have had has still not come to fruition. There is but one reason for this: the people in charge of moviemaking here are old, old-fashioned and simple-minded. They have neither the desire nor intention to progress. No art can come of this lot, whose lives are like still water.”

After Partition, Manto, a staunch believer in Indian plurality, chose Pakistan over India. “The future looks beautiful,” he told close friend Ismat Chughtai, trying to convince her that Pakistan was the promised land that Indian Muslims were waiting for. She refused to go, and called him a coward. The hard-drinking author died at 42 in Lahore, regretting his decision about Pakistan and pining for Bombay. In his lifetime he wrote his own epitaph, “Here is buried Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all secrets of the art of fiction writing. Under mounds of soil, he is still wondering who is the greater short-story writer: him or God?” The quip stings like the last words of an egomaniacal Bard but the fact that we are still reading Manto and discussing him over sixty years after his death attests to his literary genius and long shelf life. Yes, he was given to arrogant pronouncements and theatrics. But his work is nothing short of magisterial in its scope, thinking and forms of expression.


The most radical of all Urdu writers from the Indian subcontinent, Manto has had a grip on our imagination the way few literary figures have. Like Tagore, Premchand and Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Manto’s champions encourage us to see him as a conscience-keeper of the Indian society. Would Manto himself approve of the grand narrative and the legacy of cult spun around him? One suspects he would have preferred being called something simpler. Truth teller? Probably. Storyteller? More likely.

And story-teller he certainly was. Author Aatish Taseer saw a kingship between Salman Rushdie and Manto. The similarities appear uncanny when you think about it. Both were Bombay boys with a Pakistani connection who believed in the redemptive powers of fiction and were, unfortunately, vilified and hounded by extremist forces. While Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa made the author of The Satanic Verses a patron saint of free speech by default, in Manto’s case, he was dragged to court at least six times on charges of obscenity. At the India Today Conclave in 2012, Taseer described Manto as “a writer of places, of cities, of streets, of small towns rather than of countries.” He went on, “He revelled in the plurality of the subcontinent. Like Rushdie, he saw its variety as a literary opportunity and like Rushdie, it took him everywhere, from brothels to drawing rooms, from riots and to film studios, up and down and across the country ahead and back in time. It was as if, like Rushdie, his response to the forces that sought to carve up his country, to limit his worldview was in ever greater celebration of its variety. It was as if he sought to make whole what history had torn asunder. He was to pay a very heavy price for his imagination.”

When alive, one of Manto’s worst fears was if the Partition would also imply a division of our shared culture and literature. “Who owns all that was written in undivided India?” he asked. More than half a century after his death, it’s telling that the author is still being read in India while largely forgotten in Pakistan.

It’s a twisted irony worthy of a Manto short story – one ‘hiptullha’ moment the God’s nemesis author wouldn’t have enjoyed.

(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)

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