Saadat Hasan Manto, who would’ve turned 100 this May, is synonymous with modern Urdu literature. “No one else has written about Mumbai or the Partition the way Manto has,” says Salim Arif. A 1984 graduate from the National School of Drama, Delhi, Arif is paying homage to the legend through his play Manto Mantra, which premieres this Tuesday. Although Arif has covered a wide variety of shows with the theatre group, Essay Communications, the last time he brought one of Manto’s stories to the stage was back in his college days. “He’s been so prominent in Urdu literature, that a tribute to him was an obvious thing for our group,” he explains.
Through the play, Arif aims to provide insight into Manto’s writings as well as his life. He has juxtaposed scenes from a few of Manto’s short stories — including Khol Do, Nangi Awazein, Kali Salwar, Aakhri Salute — as well as scenes from his life. “The idea is to create a suitable palette, enough to show just what makes Manto the subcontinent’s greatest writer,” says Arif. And what is it that makes Manto just so great? Says the director-cum-playwright, “I am yet to read another writer that gives such great insight into the psyche of the have-nots. He managed to portray society’s most downtrodden in an incredibly humane way.”
Arif believes that Manto’s writing can be compared to nothing less than Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. “The way Van Gogh painted the prostitute or the peasant — it was beautiful! Manto does the same with his portrayals of the prostitute. Instead of choosing to write about a middle class woman, he chose to write about the prostitute.”
Arif, who has been with Essay Communications for the past 10 years, has cast a fresh set of actors for this play. “I felt this was a great way to introduce the younger generation to Manto’s work. Besides, their fresh energy would best suit Manto,” he adds. Manto’s role will be essayed by Yassir Khan; he will be the narrator.
Manto may have passed away 57 years ago, but his stories are still very relevant. “Human beings haven’t changed, have they?” asks Arif, “His characters are still very much alive today. They’re human, their drives remain the same.” And this is the reason why Arif believes that his play, Manto Mantra, is likely to appeal to those unfamiliar with Manto too.
Manto was just 42 years old when he passed away on January 18, 1955. His last few years were spent in Lahore, where he lived post-Partition. He was an emotional wreck in those years, which helped fuel his stories. The five years he spent in Bombay’s Byculla, Nagpada also served as inspiration for several of his stories. In his short life, he’d published a total of 22 collections of short stories, one novel, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches and five collections of radio plays. He was an author, a journalist and a scriptwriter for films and radio as well. He was tried for obscenity six times, but was never convicted.
At: July 17, 9 pm, Prithvi Theatre, Juhu