A retributive carnage formed the flesh and blood of the Partition — the difficult yet defining division of the subcontinent into two separate, sovereign nation states — which made India and Pakistan’s history look like the way it does. Violent, desperate, haunting and full of hysteria and anguish. Even somewhat complicated.
Amid the horrors of it, where people killed, mutilated, looted and raped their fellow people, writer Saadat Hasan Manto wrote on these aspects with a forlorn familiarity, in turn becoming a chronicler of the subcontinent’s past, kicking the conventions in the shin. No garbs, no nationalism, just plain penetration into heartlessness of the people.
Now, four of his stories — Thanda Gosht, Khol Do, Aakhri Salute and Assignment — form a part of Mantostaan, filmmaker Rahat Kazmi’s latest project, which will be screened at the 69th Cannes International Festival this year. The film will premiere in the Le Marche du Film category on May 14 and will also be screened on May 16.
“India always considered Manto a Pakistani while Pakistan has considered him an Indian, not realising that he just wrote the truth, without the idea of how ugly or not ugly it sounded. Manto never belonged to one community or religion. He was the messenger of truth, and yet these stories weren’t taught in schools and colleges. We found these books in bookshops as kids,” says Kazmi, who grew up in Poonch, Kashmir, where his first brush with Manto was through the famous story Toba Tek Singh.
Set amid sounds of gunfire, murmurs of distrust and loud discussions over war, Toba Tek Singh is about a Sikh inmate in a Lahore asylum, who is to be sent home in an Indo-Pak exchange programme a couple of years after the Partition, but he refuses to go. “There, behind the barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh,” goes its last line.
“This story and its lines had such an impact even in my twenties,” adds Kazmi. But the idea of making a film came to Kazmi after he returned to Khol Do, another controversial piece by Manto about a father looking for his daughter post-Partition. Kazmi has cast actor Raghubir Yadav for the father’s role.
“I have been a student of Urdu and Manto’s stories have struck a chord with me since college. However, I never thought of doing a film.
Khol Do gave me a certain courage to do this. So I approached Raghubirji, who is also a huge Manto fan, and the process began,” says Kazmi, who shot Mantostan in real locations in Jammu and Punjab because of limited finances that he and some of his friends put together for the film. “We found houses in Punjab that had been constructed around 1920s and ’30s and those became our locations. The border scenes were shot in Jammu,” says Kazmi, who has cast Sonal Sehgal, Shoib Nikash Shah, Tariq Khan, Virendra Saxena in the lead roles.
Kazmi’s previous film Identity Card, starring Saurabh Shukla, dealt with the basic issues faced by people of Kashmir, who always have to carry an identity card. It highlighted identity of a common man in a war-like situation.
Kazmi wanted to attempt a short film first but realised it will be limited to a small audience. “When we went into the detail, we realised that it will be unfair if we make a short film on one of the stories because it will only cater to a limited audience,” says Kazmi, who, while making Mantostaan, had to deal with the challenges of weaving different stories into one screenplay.
“Four stories, all of which have different characters. The idea was to interweave them without disturbing each of them. As for the screenplay, what Manto has written is so brilliant that I just picked his lines and placed them in the script,” says Kazmi, who has been approached by Manto’s daughters to hold the film’s screenings in Pakistan. They are also planning to come down to India for the film’s screenings post Kazmi’s round of the festival circuit.
“Partition was a decision by a few people that changed the lives of so many. You see that pain in Manto’s stories. No other writer gave that kind of point of view with the truth and darkness intact. I wanted to do this before I died,” says 35-year-old Kazmi, who flies down to Cannes on May 11, which is incidentally Manto’s 104th birthday.