Journalist Aakar Patel has translated Saadat Hasan Manto’s book of Urdu essays into English. Here is Manto’s essay on Bollywood, at times quirky and profound too, in a comical way
I have long desired that someone should ask me why is it that I don’t watch films. My family sometimes enquires: ‘Why don’t you eat bhindi?’ Friends frequently demand to know: ‘Why don’t you wear trousers?’ At home, and also away, people are curious enough to ask: ‘Why don’t you get your hair cut?’ Unfortunately however, as I said, I have long been waiting to be asked this question: ‘Why don’t you watch films?’
Saadat Hasan Manto lives on in his work
But nobody asks. Despite the fact that those who know me are also aware that I was once crazy about the movies. I often watched three in a day, and the ones I loved I watched over and over again. From Amritsar, I’d go to Lahore - even Jalandhar - to watch. I remember that for one movie, starring a favourite heroine of mine, I had to go as far as Delhi. So what happened that I should have given up watching them entirely?
I finally have the opportunity, this essay, to relieve myself of this burden. Else I have long suffered the invitations of my friends to see a movie with them, without their asking why, when I turned them down saying: ‘I don’t watch films.’
The book cover
I wanted them to ask why, but they never did. Some of them would just shut the car’s door they had opened in invitation and move on. Others smiled and instead of asking ‘Why not?’ would say, ‘You’re a strange man.’ Still others, behaving like Banias, would say: ‘Excellent! It saved me money.’
There was a time when from Eddie Polo to John Gilbert and from Mary Pickford to Gloria Swanson, I knew all the names, every address and even each one’s age. In fact I still remember how tall Gish was, and his sister, Dorothy Gish. But today if someone were to bring up Paul Robinson, I think of Robinson Crusoe.
If Ginger Rogers were praised, my thoughts would turn to Bombay’s Rogers Company and its delicious Ginger soda. When my friends discuss Shanta Hublikar and Shanta Mazumdar, I shout out: ‘Shanti... shanti....’ Angel-faced Nasim Banu, gorgeous Veena, sensational Ragini. These women and their bodies no longer interest me.
You perhaps think I’ve given up on the world and its delights. That I am ready to smear ash on my forehead and head for a mountain top as a saint. But no! I live in the same world of sensory delights as you. At least for now, in any case (who can say what tomorrow will bring?)
I eat and, yes, I drink. I read good stories and praise the writing. I am moved by couplets of poetry. And yet, sirs, I don’t watch films. At one point, the pride of my walls were photographs of actors and actresses. I was so besotted that I lovingly made the frames that held these photographs with my own hands.
In my mind I had a chamber I entered every evening. Here I would worship the stars I so loved. What has now happened that I should have locked it up? Could it be that I have become a Mahmud Ghazni-like fundamentalist?
Some people don’t watch films because they can’t see well. Others don’t see the films they buy tickets for because they fall asleep the instant the lights go down. Still others because they are embarrassed (or traumatized) by scenes of lovemaking. And of course there are a few among us who think this whole business of movies is the devil’s work and keep their distance.
My problem is different.
I cannot see well, it is true, but to remedy that my glasses are forever perched on my nose. My heart, praise the lord, is quite stout (and I have a cardiogram to prove it). I think of movies as the work of man, not the devil. So what’s my reason, then?
That I don’t watch films must particularly shock those who know me as a writer of films. What sort of man, they must wonder, writes them but doesn’t watch them? ‘Did he not also,’ they will think, ‘act in a movie? Yes, he did. Bugger has spent a decade in the industry but he says... “I don’t watch movies.” Must be pretending to be an eccentric.’
That isn’t true either. Let me tell you what the deal is. It’s all make-believe. That is what has put me off the thing entirely. The story began twelve years ago, when I was looking for work in the movies. I made many assaults on the Somnath of Bombay’s film industry. The last of these is important because, finally, I succeeded. Meaning that I was actually able to enter a studio.
I eluded a fierce Pathan guarding the gate and managed to slip in. No sooner than I did, I heard someone shout: ‘Adam bo! Adam bo!’ I froze. A dark woman walked past. I wished she would fall for me. That we would be like the mythical Alif-Laila and this Laila would cast a spell on me. The spell would turn me into a fly, thereby sparing me the catastrophe of being discovered and thrown out.
Alas, she walked on, her ass swaying. Just then, a horde of men in armour carrying swords ran out of a corner and went into a large stable-like place. One of them, unnoticed, dropped his weapon near me. I bent to lift it, trembling, and my hand lifted it clean over my shoulder. The thing was made of plywood.
I was examining its “blade” with my thumb when a big-mustachioed man dressed as god emerged. He was walking towards the gate I had come in from, when a loud voice stopped him. ‘Where do you think you’re taking the company’s property?’ the voice demanded to know.
“God”, now afraid, whimpered: ‘What do you mean, boss?’ The boss, to me the very vision of Lord Indra, said with some arrogance: ‘Moonch kis ka hai?’(Whose moustache is this?) “God” twirled the said piece of facial hair and said, with not a little pride: ‘Boss, this is real.’ Boss was convinced, and so ordered: ‘Tum ja ne ko sakta,’ (You may go now). And so “God” went. Boss now turned to me, and said: ‘You! You’re hired.’
I learnt the next day, on turning up for my first day of work that my name wasn’t Saadat Hasan Manto, but for some reason, not apparent to me, “Munshi”. My tasks, and this was made clear, were three. First, getting a paan for the director every five minutes (or so it seemed). Second, to not speak. Third, if these two were performed competently, to write, every so often, a dialogue in incorrect Urdu. And then to not speak.
Those days I was not particularly in love with the Urdu language. And so, every day when I got together with the director to maul it, it was fine. One day, however, that changed. Boss came in to shake the director’s hand and say: ‘I sold the rights to our thirteenth film.’
What’s it called, the director asked. Boss smiled: ‘It’s brilliant. Pharaj-e-Ada.’Director turned to me: ‘Munshi saheb, begin from this moment to write Faraj-e-Ada. But first, please get me a paan, a desi kalakandi...’
I interrupted: Desi kalakandi, roasted supari, a little chuna on the side and a Passing Soap cigarette. These I will bring immediately. But this “Farz-e-Ada” is absolutely wrong.’
Boss went red. ‘What did you say...?’ ‘I said what you said, chalne ko nahin sakta (won’t work).’ Director said: ‘Why chalne ko nahin sakta?’ I said: ‘It’s all wrong. Adaigi Farz (Obeying command) it could be. Or call it Farz Adaigi (Command-obeying). At the most you may call it Ada-e-Farz (The grace of the command) and perhaps in time, as the movie unfolds, its meaning might emerge. But for the sake of god change the name from Farz-e-Ada (Command of the grace)!’
Boss stared at me. Then he said: ‘Have you fried your brain, Munshi? Title change hone ko nahin sakta (The title cannot be changed). I’ve already sold the movie.’ Hearing this fried my brain. And I lost my job. The story of my losing the next job is similar. The name of the movie this time was: “Ulloo ke Do Patthay”.
I objected. ‘What is this Ulloo ke Do Patthay? It should be Do Ulloo ke Patthay.’ I got the answer: ‘Who are you, again? It’s our money at stake here. If we want we’ll call it Patthay ke Do Ulloo.’ And so, dear reader, work on Ulloo ke Do Patthay began, and I was again looking for work.
Thus I began to fall out of love with films. My total contempt for them, however, was still a few years ahead. After working for small units, I found work with one of the larger studios. I spent four years writing films and during this time my love ended. In short, here’s how.
An actress famed for her horsemanship was shooting one day. I noticed a wooden horse was brought to the sets. Not the whole horse, mind you, only its back. On this was a saddle. Three men lifted the actress and mounted her onto the horse.
The lights came on. ‘Go!’ the director said. A man began to rock the horse. The camera rolled. The next day the shot shifted to outdoors. An expert rider in the actress’s clothes tore about on a real horse - a stallion so fierce it would rear up at the very thought of someone touching it.
The shots of the horse and rider going this way and that, were taken. When all this was spliced together, I could have sworn I saw the famous actress herself astride the stallion. Then it was required that we shoot a close up of her hands holding the reins. Alas, the hands of this fairy-bodied (pari paikar) woman were as ugly as her face was beautiful. Her fingers were short and stubby.
The director summoned a dozen extras. Of these girls, one had pretty hands. These were dusted up with whitening agent and the close up shots taken. At this point I thought of Chacha Ghalib: ‘Kaghazi hai pairahan har paikar e tasveer ka.’*
Another time, we had to show that a storm had broken. I saw many men climb a machan positioned over the set with watering cans in their hands and showering water on the sets. An airplane’s propeller was wheeled in and this created a terrific gale.
Two other men stood with baskets of leaves. Fistfuls of these were hurled into the propeller’s wake. When I saw all this on screen, the gooseflesh of my brain flared. How could it be possible? The hero was braving this fierce storm manfully in his little boat.
And this is how it is in all films. The milk boiling over - that’s limestone and water. It’s snowing in Kashmir - that’s labourers showering bits of paper and soap suds. The hero and heroine are romancing in the fog - that’s actually smoke from a fire of dry grass.
And it’s suffocating them. Tears are glycerine. A man sings, another moves his lips. Wooden swords, wooden guns, wooden telephones. Our heroine is short-haired but on screen her mane is so lustrous and long it could be for an advertisement.
A punch is thrown which touches nobody. But it sends a couple of villains flying onto the roof. It’s a blazing hot day, but the camera has a red filter and, lo, it’s now cool moonlight. If a zebra is not to be found, a donkey is painted. All of this, over and over again, was, as we say in English, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I observed myself in the cinema hall actually cheering loudly with the crowds when I should have known better. What an effective fraud is this business of films, that it should have also defrauded the one who helped make it. And so, this is why, in case you had asked me, I don’t watch movies.
*one of the most impenetrable couplets by Mirza Ghalib
From: why I write: essays by Saadat Hasan Manto. Edited and translated by Aakar Patel. publishers: Westland Ltd Tranquebar Press
'The translator is a traitor'
Q. How much time did you take to do the translation? When did you start this book and did you give yourself a deadline to finish it?
A. About six months in all. The first piece was done in October 2012. I was doing it for a lark in the beginning, so there was no deadline then. It’s only after I finished 25 of them that I thought it might make for a book.
Q. Perhaps the biggest fear of all writers is that some flavour is lost in translation, do you agree with this? Have you consciously guarded against it?
A. It is indisputable that flavour is lost and gained in translations. The Italians have a saying: Traduttore, traditore, meaning the translator is always a traitor. I have cautioned the reader that I have treated Manto as an editor would his columnist, and rewritten him in many places. The book has my voice as well as his.
Q. Is it true that Urdu is a dying/dead language? Is this one way to make Manto accessible to the new generation?
A. It’s funny but Pakistanis believe that Bollywood is Urdu (and what Vajpayee speaks is Hindi). We think PTV is Urdu and Bollywood is Hindi. They’re both the same language, let’s call it Hindustani to avoid confusion, with identical grammar. Some of the vocabulary is different but that’s true of all languages spoken across a large area, including Arabic and English.
The real difference is the script. Urdu seems like a different language from Hindi because it is written in the Perso-Arabic script called Nastaliq. Gandhi said that all Indians must learn Hindustani in its Devnagari and Nastaliq scripts. If one learns both, the differences disappear. Reading Manto, who uses a simple and easy vocabulary, one may as well think one is reading Hindi.