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Manto: The maverick

By September 17, 2018No Comments

Source : The Tribune

Manto was an impossible genius. Despite social and legal persecution on charges of obscenity, his pen could not be suppressed. A biopic revisits his brilliant legacy and troubled life

…and it is also possible, that Saadat Hasan dies, but Manto remains alive.”

More prophetic words could not have been uttered by none other than the man himself. Saadat Hasan Manto, a towering figure in Urdu literature who had the nerve to write his own epitaph in glowing terms, still lives in his writings today like only a few can. The relevance of his being and of his writings will soon be seen on Indian screens in Nandita Das’ film Manto that has been garnering accolades at various international film festivals.

A biopic that brings many shades of Manto to life, his bebaak nature  and his dare or as actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays his character in the film; Manto’s truth.

Indeed, Manto’s is an unusual life, tragically cut short at 42, one that automatically lends itself to celluloid reality. Of course, this isn’t the first time his persona will appear on the silver screen in the subcontinent. In 2015, Pakistan paid tribute to its own in Manto, a biographical drama, based on his life that starred Sarmad Khoosat in the title role.  It was later turned into a TV series.

Closer home J & K-based film-maker Rahat Kazmi wove Manto’s four short stories together in the film Mantostaan. The reason Kazmi named it so was because he wanted to bring home the point that Manto belonged neither to Hindustan nor Pakistan but to humanity at large. Among Manto’s many pluses Kazmi thinks the most remarkable was his ability to move beyond the simplistic good and bad binaries. Says Kazmi, “His characters were never black and white; he never judged them either. For him a human being was a human being beyond caste, religion or nationality.”

Yet, he was a Punjabi to the core with his roots in a village near Samrala. Theatre-person Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, who has adapted 10 of his stories in her three productions, feels he was so rooted to his terra firma that she could never uproot his stories from the original context in which the tales were written. She not only hails him as one of the greatest writers of Punjab but on par with world’s best in the same league as Chekov and Maupassant. The man who wrote about what she calls “desperate creatures” was the voice of the disfranchised.

His stories have many layers. Toba Tek Singh, a poignant tale about Partition, is a metaphor in itself; even his micro tales of barely two or three lines speak volumes and end with the same dramatic flourish as his long ones. “Pata chala ki woh apne majhab ki thee…” is how one of his succinct three-line tale climaxes. His own religion, however, was just a minor detail for him as he spoke on behalf of every religion.

Indeed, in times where ultra-nationalism is being flaunted as a virtue, recalling a man who stood for values that transcended all barriers and borders, who even in the darkest corners of society saw light and humanity can never be underplayed. According to litterateur Gulzar Singh Sandhu, “All of us face similar situations. But only a master like him can find a story in such a situation and who also possesses the craft to build its narrative arc; right from how to begin to how to end it.”  If Nandita talks of Mantoness, his undiluted stance against suppression of artistic liberty, Nawazuddin thinks he unveiled societal hypocrisy like no other.

Human suffering, which sadly has a pattern of recurrence time and again, is yet another undercurrent. So even when he wrote about forbidden subjects such as sex, feels Sandhu, “It was not to provide vicarious pleasure, never as a tool of titillation but to uncover human agony.” Yet, he was charged on grounds of obscenity both in the country he was born into and the one he migrated to.  While his works on Partition are considered to be seminal, his writing, often acerbic, invariably disturbing, at times laced with sex and violence, finds a resonance, as it deals with real issues, woven at a human and personal level.

An indomitable writer, who never judged others, can’t quite possibly be judged on the parameters known to mankind. Great, greater, greatest are mere epithets. Narrowing him down to being only a Punjabi, would be a disservice to his immeasurable calibre though many of his stories like Thanda Gosht, Toba Tek Singh did feature Sikh characters and Tamasha brought alive the horrors of Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

However, playwright Dr Atamjit calls Manto quintessentialy a Punjabi, dabangg, frank and fearless, who said what he wanted to without mincing words. But above all he was a human being and like all humans he had follies such as boastful arrogance.

As Manto is all set for release (September 21), it remains to be seen whether we will get to see the real writer who gave us many literary masterpieces or the man who was no stranger to narcissism and who fell prey to alcoholism. In Nawazuddin’s words, a man who was “was full of contradictions.” The actor, who has lived him for months, feels, “There never is a difference between a person and his work. Thought is what defines and differentiates one human being from another not the biographical details that he was born in India in 1912 and died in Pakistan in 1955.”

“With him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing…. is how Manto may have desired his elegy to read. The film, hopefully, will decode many of those secrets. Holding a mirror to Manto and through him to society….for here lived a man, “who exposed the truth through his stories.”

“Mein apni aankhein band bhi kar loon par apne zameer ka kya karoon…” it was a conscience that was as troubled as it was meant to jolt the status quo.

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