Thanks for this Nandita; no, really!

Sep 19, 2018, 06:07 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Manto and history: We still don't get the first, or learn from the other

Thanks for this Nandita; no, really!
Nandita Das directs Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manto, releasing this Friday

Mayank ShekharTop columnist Aakar Patel mentions how, up until writer Saadat Hasan Manto's (1912-55) daughter Nighat (settled in Pakistan) turned 30, she wasn't aware that her father had been so famous. Even in India, it was only in the early '80s, when Debonair magazine ran Khushwant Singh's translation of Manto's short story Bu (Odour), that he became a sensation, again.

Aakar — who's translated Manto's columns in an anthology titled Why I Write — recalls Bu had left him deeply disturbed when he read it at 13. Reading this, my respect for Aakar, already high, went up further. He had access to Debonair at 13 — more significantly, he read short stories in them! That Urdu iconoclast Manto has been omnipresent as a giant in India's literary landscape ever since, especially among the young, is a given. I was first attracted to Manto because, like me, he moved to Bombay in his early 20s, enjoyed his drinks, was a night person, lived for/among friends (like Shyam, and superstar Ashok Kumar, in his case), following the film world closely as a journalist.

He lovingly chronicled this in Stars From Another Sky (SFAS), my copy of which is still lying with director Ayan Mukerji, who had passed it on to filmmaker Kiran Rao to read. Kiran told me she wasn't altogether as blown away by the book. Maybe she intended to write a script around it; or on Manto himself (hard to say). Regardless, a feature film on a writer's life (which by definition isn't deliriously dramatic) is a tough one to pull off. Gulzar did, with Mirza Ghalib (on TV).

Nandita Das has, on the big screen. Her Manto releases this Friday. The film leaves you supremely quiet in the head. Zeroing in on Manto's life in Bombay, and his move to Pakistan after Independence, Das employs a splendid technique of mixing narrative non-fiction with fiction — engaging with the writer's life, and how it would inform his writings at the same time.

Portions of Manto's memoirs merge with his stories, allowing you to simultaneously absorb shades of SFAS, even Bombay Stories (a fine collection, translated by Matt Reek and Aftab Ahmed), along with crisper vignettes from his popular fiction, like Thanda Gosht, Toba Tek Singh. It's not that Manto's works haven't made it to the Indian screen before. My favourite Manto moment, although there are several in Das's film, is from Fareeda Mehta's Kali Salwar (2002), where Irrfan Khan as a local wit (perhaps modelled on the mock-ironic Manto himself) eyes a sex worker in the balcony.

He asks, "Kya kar rahi ho?" She says, "Jhak maar rahi hoon!" "Chalo. Saath mein jhak marte hain," he seals the deal. Only a couple of years ago, the great Pankaj Kapur killed it as Toba Tek Singh in Ketan Mehta's short film (that dropped online recently). Playing Manto in Das's biopic, Nawazuddin Siddiqui wonders aloud if he is, or is God, the greatest storyteller! Which reminds you of Nawaz as don Gaitonde (in Sacred Games) thinking: "Kabhi kabhi lagta hai ki, apun hi bhagwan hai!" Either way, Nawaz, like his protagonist, is seriously God-gifted.

If you've met him, you'll know he's nothing like Manto. But the gravitas he lends to the role, helps you seamlessly locate yourself in the world of the writer: his life (wife Safiya, wonderfully played by Rasika Duggal); his compassion (for the under-classes, low-lives); humanism (to see religion for what it is); individualism (being part of no movement/club); his contemporaries, Faiz, Ismat, Kishan Chander, and others. Partition broke Manto's heart. As it did India's.

Like with her debut Firaaq (2008), Das is solidly sincere, focused. The film is tonally flat, but consistently so. It's a period drama. She dives deep into craft, to get her setting right. At no point, though, does she waver from her original intent, which is to see her (or rather Manto's) point through. One of which is encapsulated in the line: "Jab mazhab dilon se nikalkar, sar par chadh jaaye; tab topiyan pehnni padti hain!" Through Manto, primarily in the '40s, she wants you to hear frightening rumblings of the current times — the familiar exhortations of the past, in order to commit sins in the present; employing morality to kill thought, etc.

Not much has changed, although I must add, Manto was an artiste, rather than simply a depressed activist, regurgitating bland words to expend internal energy, or virulent anger. If he still lived in Bombay (now Mumbai), as a young man, I suspect his typewriter would've flowed the same way — with an angular look towards life, full of sarcasm, irony, humour (black, or otherwise) — very 'Hiptulla' (a word he coined to explain nothing/everything).

That's also what, I suspect, has drawn actors (and non-actors) like Rishi Kapoor, Javed Akhtar, Paresh Rawal, Gurdas Mann, Ranvir Shorey, Ila Arun, Divya Dutta, etc. to show up for bit parts in this picture. Nawaz himself, I'm told, charged a rupee. The purpose is very clear. And I genuinely hope Das's film does for Manto, what Debonair magazine did for his career in the '80s. Four stars for that alone — for sure!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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