Sadat Hasan Manto wrote about the people and events that lurk in the cracks of society — Thanda Gosht, about a man who has raped a corpse; Toba Tek Singh, whose heroes are inmates of a mental asylum; and Bu, in which a rich young man is hooked to the smell of a girl he has had sex with, among others. His protagonists are mostly sex workers, working-class men and women, alcoholics, pimps and the deprived who were raped, murdered and cheated by the Partition.
Actor Ashwath Bhatt first read Manto in 1997, when he was directing and acting in Thanda Gosht at Shriram Centre, an auditorium with its own repertory in Delhi. Bhatt was also a migrant — in 1990, he and his family had fled Kashmir and settled in Jammu and, then, Delhi. He couldn’t get Manto out of his mind. Graduate from the National School of Drama in Delhi in 2001 and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, in 2003, he created a play titled Ek Mulaqat Manto Se about the writer and his portrait of social depravity. Bhatt has become a recognisable face on screen due to his roles in Haider, Raazi and Kesari as well as plays such as Eidgah Ke Jinnat but continues to perform Ek Mulaqat Manto Se several times a year. On December 18, 7.30 pm, he will bring it to Pune’s Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha as part of the theatre festival MCC Rang Mahotsav. Excerpts from a conversation with Bhatt:
Why do you think Manto is relevant for our times and makes your play relevant?
Look at what is happening around us, from rapes and brutal violence against women to religious divide and all the rising instances of hatred. Do we need to ask why Manto is relevant? I have often said, as long as human beings don’t learn lessons from history, Manto and writers like him will be relevant. The play depicts Manto’s observations about the dark times and also the survival methods we invent in adverse conditions.
The more one experiences life and is exposed to the hypocrisy of the world, the more Manto’s writing grows inside you. You start understanding the depth of his pain and frustration at seeing how we ruin our surroundings for petty gains.
How has your play changed over the years?
The play opened at Nehru Centre, London, in 2002. It has evolved at various levels, from costumes and set design to, above all, text. The basic structure is the same but each performance space throws up various challenges that, in a way, keep the production fresh. It took me four years to slowly create this piece. I must admit that it went through various drafts and work in progress shows. The main reason for making this play was to talk about Manto’s life and times and his thought process. I always saw his stories being dramatised in theatre but very few attempts were made to talk about the person behind these stories. Also, his name was sort of taboo, which I didn’t like and wanted people to see the tragedy of this man. The play has been performed in various countries as well as cities in India.
What is the storyline of Ek Mulaqat Manto Se? How do you perform it on stage as a solo?
The play opens with Sadat commenting on Manto. All the texts used in this performance are Manto’s writings. I have edited and created a performance text. These were the articles and not written for stage. It was a real challenge to make it as a theatre piece. I play various characters during the course of the play, which give us some idea about the sensitivity of this great writer.
You are also performing Djinns of Eidgah at Serendipity Arts Festival. How do you resonate with the role as a person and actor?
I am playing Dr Baig in Eidgah ke Jinnat. It was a very traumatic journey as an actor to find Dr Baig. I must give full credit to playwright and director Abhishek Majumdar’s excellent writing and brilliant direction. I don’t think that, without his guidance, I could have created this complex character. I belong to Kashmir and at many levels have my own understanding of the complexity of the politics of the valley. It was important to have somebody as strong as Abhishek to tell you when one was on a different tangent. I have met people who have lost their sons to the conflict in the last 30 years and also the perpetrators who have nothing but guilt in their hearts and eyes. It was important to have empathy as well as be critical of what went wrong there.