Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s biopic of the great writer is an ultimately unsatisfying experience, says Raza Naeem.
In ‘Why I Don’t Watch Films (Anymore)’, a satirical essay written soon after his painful migration to Pakistan that also attempted to distil his illustrious career and experiences in Bombay’s often deceitful and artificial pre-Partition film world, Saadat Hasan Manto wrote:
Someone is singing, but the moving lips belong to somebody else. The wooden telephone is placed on the table. A man stands holding a bell nearby. He rings it and Mr Hero promptly picks the receiver, as if receiving an actual call. The heroine’s hair is cut, but on the screen it appears like an advertisement for a hair-lengthening oil. The fist is struck, but actually hits no one; but two or three men collapse under its blow. There is a pile of fruit on the table, but only the banana which is to be eaten by the hero’s father is real; the rest are all earth. There is blazing sunshine, but after a red filter is placed on the camera, and lo and behold! the sunshine turns into cold moonlight. A zebra cannot be found so one makes do by drawing black and white lines on a donkey and turning it into one.
A man is dying after taking a miniscule amount of flour and people are crying. A man is falling down from the top; the camera has been swung in the opposite direction. On the screen he will be seen to have jerked upwards as if he had springs attached. The entire hall will reverberate with clapping.
Believe you me that my heart turned sour after repeatedly seeing these artifices and the English proverb that this last straw broke the camel’s back, when I saw the film which had been made before my very own eyes along with the audience in the hall; and the glycerine tears flowing from the heroine’s artificial eyebrows made me cry more than once.
What a great swindle this film is that even the swindlers get swindled. May God never show me the day when I watch (another) film.
In the light of these observations, one wonders what Manto would have thought about the eponymous film made by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, released in Lahore last month. The film chronicles the last eight years of Manto’s life, which were spent in Pakistan following his migration after India’s independence in 1947. He had already predicted before his untimely death that the government which victimised and dragged him to court—now as a communist, then as a subversive—would pin a medal to his chest after his death, but by then it would have been of no use to him. What he did not foresee was the immense love and respect which greeted his birth centenary in 2012, and now the release of the film itself.
There are several problems that needed to be accounted for before one could anticipate making or even watching such a film. First, not every personality lends itself to a successful film treatment. Manto is one among just a handful of the Indian subcontinent’s rich tradition of writers and poets whose lives yield enough of a bitter harvest to merit making a film on their lives. (Biographies are entirely different matters.)
Manto had already predicted before his untimely death that the government which victimised and dragged him to court—now as a communist, then as a subversive—would pin a medal to his chest after his death, but by then it would have been of no use to him.
Further compounding matters, Manto spent the majority of his years alive in undivided India, where he had a comfortable life as one of the country’s best-known writers, and as an emerging scriptwriter. Though he lived dangerously even there, being tried three times for stories deemed obscene by the British colonial authorities, he was surrounded by like-minded friends and comrades, including the fellow subversive Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Upendranath Ashk, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Majaz Lakhnawi.
So the question for the filmmaker aiming to make a film on such a short but eventful and “divided” life would be how to provide a context for the existence, travails, victories, struggles, hopes and despair of the writer himself, rather than selectively chopping him up into “Indian” and “Pakistani” selves.
The film in many ways traverses the same path. Manto is a problematic figure for many Indian and Pakistani literary critics, who still haven’t made peace with who he really was: a rootless cosmopolitan personally opposed to Partition, but who made the difficult choice to migrate to Pakistan, owing to family reasons and because of the murderous communal passions which had started afflicting even some of his closest friends. Instead, some castigate Manto’s migration as a betrayal of his Indian-ness; others are still attempting to crucify him at the altar of Pakistani nationalism, as if by migrating to Pakistan, he still had anything to prove to his detractors.
Some castigate Manto’s migration as a betrayal of his Indian-ness; others are still attempting to crucify him at the altar of Pakistani nationalism, as if by migrating to Pakistan, he still had anything to prove to his detractors.
The opening sequence of the film shows Manto being bound and gagged by doctors in Lahore’s mental hospital. The scene provocatively gives way to Suhai Abro’s rhythmic sequence showing sexual union, with Majeed Amjad’s famous poetic tribute to Manto, ‘Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh?’ (Who is This Insolent One?) masterfully sung by Javed Bashir. The film then goes onto depict Manto’s difficult life in Pakistan, including his duels with Chaudhry Muhammad Hussain of the Punjab Press Branch in Lahore, a God-fearing, Iqbal-loving government functionary doggedly in the former’s pursuit for writings deemed obscene; Manto’s problems with alcohol; and his run-ins with the law for three stories banned in Pakistan: ‘Khol Do’ (Open It), ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat) and ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’ (Above, Below and In-between).
The vision which guides the film is undoubtedly art-house rather than commercial, reflected in the person of director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, who also plays the eponymous role, and is a scion of one of Pakistan’s distinguished theatre and arts families; the scriptwriter, Shahid Mehmood Nadeem, is one of the godfathers of parallel theatre in Pakistan. The film does so despite the presence of some of the most glamorous and bankable stars of the Pakistani acting firmament.
The writer and director of the film had much material to work with, but regrettably very little of it is reflected in the film itself. In a short life of merely 43 years, Manto left behind a dazzlingly vast oeuvre of not only fiction and nonfiction but also personal reminiscences, sketches and memoirs, reading which gives a comprehensive picture of the man, his domestic life and his times. There is also a vast trove of sketches of Manto left behind by Manto’s own friends and contemporaries.
The writer and director of the film had much material to work with, but regrettably very little of it is reflected in the film itself. In a short life of merely 43 years, Manto left behind a dazzlingly vast oeuvre of not only fiction and nonfiction but also personal reminiscences, sketches and memoirs, reading which gives a comprehensive picture of the man, his domestic life and his times.
Instead, the film rushes through Manto’s life. There are brief appearances and memorable performances, but apart from Khoosat himself, Manto’s wife Safia (played competently by Sania Saeed) and his female alter-ego (played brilliantly by Nimra Bucha), none of the characters manage to hold their own in the film. Manto’s relationship with Safia is not fully explored, give and take a couple of scenes (such as when she lights a cigarette before giving it to Manto in his final days, or when she witnesses Manto’s condition after being transferred home from his treatment at the mental hospital), given that she was the one person with whom Manto spent the major part of his life. Nur Jahan makes a brief appearance, though in the shape of Saba Qamar, she appears more like a minor starlet than one of undivided India’s and later Pakistan’s emerging singing legends. There is an interesting scene in the film where both Manto and Nur Jahan meet after a long time, only for the former to request the latter to attend his nephew Taqu’s birthday, which she duly does.
Along the way, the film uses a few very interesting devices, which work in its favour. Manto’s personality has been approached through some of the memorable characters of his stories—‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Thanda Gosht’, ‘Khol Do’ and ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’. One of the most moving scenes is the quandary Manto’s eponymous Toba Tek Singh faces in choosing between Pakistan and India, amid the background of the national anthems of the two countries being played, before finally dropping dead in no man’s land.
Special mention also needs to be made of the unsaid, unsayable chemistry between Shamoon Abbasi and Yasra Rizvi which depicts Isher Singh, the protagonist of Manto’s ‘Thanda Gosht’ and his resulting impotence when he first attempts to rape a girl who is already dead amid the frenzy of Partition, and the jealousy and vengeance of the wife Kalwant Kaur, who suspecting his husband of infidelity, fatally stabs the latter. The story, one of the most haunting written on the subject of the events of 1947, is dramatised to the soulful and haunting rendition of popular Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poem ‘Mehram Dilaan de Maahi’ (O beloved of secret hearts) by the impressive Meesha Shafi. The impact of this particular dramatic and acoustic rendition stays long after the film’s tragic conclusion.
Another stylistic innovation which the film-makers introduce successfully is Manto’s alter ego—fittingly played by a woman, as the most memorable characters in Manto’s stories are indeed women.
Impotence was also at the centre of the third of Manto’s stories to be banned, ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’, regarding an impotent husband and his wife, conveyed memorably in the scene where the husband, an influential Lahore grandee, holding Manto to be some sort of authority on sexual matters, expectantly asks the latter, “Is impotence physical or psychological?”
Manto’s other important stories, ‘License’ and ‘Hatak’ (Insult) are also portrayed with finesse.
Another stylistic innovation which the film-makers introduce successfully is Manto’s alter ego—fittingly played by a woman, as the most memorable characters in Manto’s stories are indeed women. She also accosts Manto at key moments in his life, whether he is attempting a creative catharsis of the Partition horrors or is weak and hopeless after checking himself into a mental asylum. Some of the most moving lines in the film’s script belong to Manto’s alter ego, “You are financially poor, not intellectually . . . the same Manto who denies God becomes a believer on paper.” So how does one evaluate a film ostensibly made to pay homage to the literary icon, and at the same time attempt to reintroduce him to a new generation albeit within the framework of a strictly personal directorial vision?
The film limits its ambit by concerning itself only with Manto’s “Pakistan years”. How much the director and his team may have been constrained by the film’s budget, or other limitations, the film should have provided a context for how Saadat Hasan became Manto. The credit cannot just be thrown Pakistan’s way alone.
One, the film limits its ambit by concerning itself only with Manto’s “Pakistan years”. How much the director and his team may have been constrained by the film’s budget, or other limitations, the film should have provided a context for how Saadat Hasan became Manto. The credit cannot just be thrown Pakistan’s way alone. Manto’s problems with alcohol or the law did not begin with his migration to Pakistan. He was already a connoisseur of alcohol in colonial India, and as mentioned, had had three of his short-stories banned there as well.
Not putting Manto’s subsequent problems in Pakistan into their proper context is not only an injustice to the writer, but also to one who is approaching him and his work for the first time. Nor can the context just be dispensed with by means of a few flashbacks showing the disturbances of Partition. We this emerge from the film with a skewed image of the reasons Manto remained an alcoholic and a banned writer even after his migration to Pakistan.
Despite the erudition of the scriptwriter, there are factual inaccuracies in the film, which makes one wonder to what extent the director and scriptwriter had done their research from the extensive material available on Manto, as well as the translations and critical commentaries written on him in Pakistan alone. Examples abound: the name of the writer should have been pronounced Mantoo as in ‘one-two’ and not ‘Manto’ as the writer himself mentioned in one of his own writings. Then, in one of the opening scenes, he is shown saying, “I migrated to Pakistan at the insistence of my wife and friends.” This is only partially true, as Manto’s decision to shift to Pakistan was also conditioned by other factors, such as his assessment of his financial future in independent India, as well as the callousness of some of these same “friends”. Also Manto’s pursuit by Chaudhary Hussain was not a personal crusade as depicted in the film—he even instructs his son from his deathbed to “pursue Manto’s case”—but in Hussain’s capacity as a government officer.
The only time Manto is shown to be speaking Punjabi in the film is a few casual sentences thrown in during his encounter with Nur Jahan, as if it were not his mother tongue but a language to be shared with only a few acquaintances by way of exception.
There are also problems with the way Manto’s persona and family life have been depicted in the film. I personally was moved by the depiction of Manto as a devoted family man, who despite his problems with alcohol, adored his three daughters. He has been shown painting the walls of his own house. Then there is that unforgettable sequence where Manto braves the curfew put in place by the government during the anti-Ahmadi disturbances of 1954-55 to go out to buy medicine for his typhoid-ridden daughter. However, he ends up spending twenty out of twenty-five rupees on alcohol and paying a fine to a policeman who catches him with it; he then returns home empty-handed to be confronted by his expectant family. “I am a coward, what should I do?” he tells them. “What kind of father I am? I am a human.”
Throughout the film, Manto is shown riding a bicycle, wearing black rubber shoes and, even more absurdly, white socks while travelling to Karachi to attend his trial, though it is well-known that Manto mostly used the tonga and always preferred the chappal or at best the khussa to any other form of footwear. Also, the only time Manto is shown to be speaking Punjabi in the film is a few casual sentences thrown in during his encounter with Nur Jahan, as if it were not his mother tongue but a language to be shared with only a few acquaintances by way of exception. As a son of Punjab, born in Ludhiana, Punjabi was deeply ingrained within Manto, and it is well-known that he preferred to speak Punjabi at home rather than any variant of chaste Urdu. Then, he routinely addressed his wife Safia as ‘Saffu Ji’ and not by her maiden name.
Perhaps what is unforgivable for Manto fans are two extremely crude ways in which Khoosat has taken artistic license with his subject’s life. One, while it’s an open question whether Manto visited prostitutes (if only to gather material for his stories), it is patently untrue that his wife accepted money from a courtesan in order to pay for Manto’s treatment from alcohol. Also, Manto was not forced in any way to check into the mental hospital by his family as has been shown in the film; he went there voluntarily to cure his alcoholism. In the absence of any rehabilitation clinics in those days, this was the most appropriate thing to do.
While some important details, including which in the film would have helped Manto’s cause, have been left out, on other occasions, too many extraneous details have been put in, which not only serve to detract from the main character but to waste the actors’ potential. For example, too much attention has been lavished on the episode concerning the allotment of an ice factory to Manto, and of the role of “that stupid intellectual bureaucrat”, the writer Qudratullah Shahab. In his own words, Manto hardly devoted a few lines to the issue; he had applied for a license for a publishing house to publish his own work and in return he was issued a license to sell ice, but he never once set foot in the factory himself.
Elsewhere, one doesn’t understand the point behind the inclusion of a minor short-story ‘Peshawar se Lahore Tak’ (From Peshawar to Lahore), screened to the accompaniment of ‘Kya Hoga?’ (What Will Happen?), an average song featuring the beautiful Pakistani actress Mahira Khan, who will soon be seen in a Bollywood film. Likewise, Humayun Saeed, one of the ablest Pakistani film and television actors of the last decade is utterly wasted in his cameo appearance as Shaheed Saz (The Martyr-Builder) as the end-credits of the film are rolling. What was the point of these gaffes? Was it just to oblige a few of Khoosat’s friends through token appearances or to really educate us about Manto’s diverse oeuvre?
The film ends as it begins, violently, for there was absolutely no need to conclude the film showing Manto coughing up tons of blood as he sinks into the abyss; such an image perpetuates the abiding image of Manto as a victim in the minds of the audience rather than a rebel and iconoclast. In any case, the wildly exaggerated scenes of Manto’s eventual passing away do not correspond with how he actually died.
The film ends as it begins, violently, for there was absolutely no need to conclude the film showing Manto coughing up tons of blood as he sinks into the abyss; such an image perpetuates the abiding image of Manto as a victim in the minds of the audience rather than a rebel and iconoclast.
It would have far more appropriate to cull material from different episodes in Manto’s own life, which he himself has written about: his difficult and rebellious childhood as the only son from his father’s second marriage; his mentorship in colonial India by Bari Alig, a progressive writer; snippets from his interventions in the Indian film industry; his wicked sense of humour; his entertaining account of his marriage to Safia; and even his third-person account of a meeting with Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Also missing from the film are Manto’s early years as a young progressive writer enamoured with the ideals of Bhagat Singh locally, and the Bolshevik Revolution internationally.
His relationship with some of his illustrious peers, which provides context for some of the difficulties of his life later on, in independent Pakistan, is also missing. There is of course the entertaining exchange between Manto and a pompous literary critic Anwar “Shabnam Dil” (the nom de plume means “dew-hearted”), but nothing on Manto’s relationship with the Progressive Writers Association, which under his close friend and distinguished writer Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, expelled the former from its fold for the publication of Siyah Hashiay (Black Margins).
Perhaps it is fair to say that one cannot discuss everything in a film. However when the subject of a film is someone as illustrious and notorious as Manto, and the director and scriptwriter happen to be a duo like Khoosat and Nadeem, one expects the film to do justice to its subject.
The major problem of the film is that it seems to be extracted from a 25-part drama serial on Manto’s life and work. The script itself is based on an actual play written by Nadeem for the stage, which was excellent; so perhaps the filmmakers felt that no special adjustments would have to be made. Not true. If this is indeed the case, it would have been much better for merely the television serial to have come out, rather than as a flawed telefilm on the silver screen; or the film’s length could have been increased by another hour, and the bonus material released as a separate documentary, as for example happened with the release of Steven Soderbergh’s magnificent epic on the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, Che. Unfortunately, such a monolithic vision is all too predictable, and can become the tragic result when both the director and main actor of the film happen to be the same person.
Khoosat’s Manto, though hugely ambitious, is a snapshot of Manto’s life and work rather than the definitive biopic it was meant to be. His own acting is brilliant, but the picture of the writer which emerges is a very disjointed and fragmented one. More importantly, among occasional flashes of brilliance, the film reinforces the stereotypes which literary critics and pundits of every hue have long held and popularised about the legendary writer—that Manto was a realist of sex or Partition, or at best a writer without a vision, à la Maupassant, not a far-sighted social and cultural critic head and shoulders above his peers and contemporaries (for example, there are only salutary references to Manto’s prescient Letters to Uncle Sam, which chronicle the rise of American influence, foreign policy and aid in the subcontinent decades before the subject had become fashionable among academics and critics). The film holds his economic and social situation in Pakistan as responsible for his miserable plights and early death, rather than provide a context for his troubles beginning with his childhood.
Additionally, the film serves to make him out to be a pious Muslim and loyal Pakistani—he is repeatedly shown beginning every work with “786”, a numeric inscription for the Bismillah in Arabic—two identities with which Manto would have had no truck at all. It is a film die-hard Manto buffs will find disappointing, and they will probably seek refuge in Manto’s own voluminous writings to get a true measure of the master. On the other hand, scores of members of our younger generations—most of whom have been exposed to his work through English translations of varying quality—might not relate to the sanitised and victimised version they see on the screen, in a language they only sparingly understand.
Among occasional flashes of brilliance, the film reinforces the stereotypes which literary critics and pundits of every hue have long held and popularised about the legendary writer—that Manto was a realist of sex or Partition, or at best a writer without a vision, à la Maupassant, not a far-sighted social and cultural critic head and shoulders above his peers and contemporaries.
Manto’s great contemporary Krishan Chander had presciently written about him:
Today Mirza Ghalib the film is running in Delhi. The story of this film was written by Manto while sitting in the Mori Gate of the same city. One day we will also make a film on Manto and earn millions from it, the way we are earning thousands of rupees by publishing print after print of pirated editions of Manto’s books in India, those rupees which Manto needed desperately in his life; those rupees can still rescue his wife and children from poverty and humiliation. But we will not commit any such mistakes. If we can raise our profit from the blood of thousands of people by increasing the rates of rice during the days of famine, can’t we pick the pocket of a poor writer for this same profit? When Manto wrote ‘Pickpocket’ he did not know that one day he will have to contend with a whole nation of pickpockets.
The film may not have picked Manto’s pockets but by its selective treatment of Saadat Hasan Manto, it ends up picking the audience’s minds. However, what is welcome is that with this film, will come the initiation of a much-needed—but by no means conclusive—conversation on Manto’s place in our collective national and cultural psyche, and as an introduction to the life and times of perhaps our best-known writer to the young and uninitiated, and of the problems and prospects of truly independent and rebellious artistic spirits in a still-conformist society. But meanwhile, we still await the definitive Manto film.