At the age of 14, I happened to have read a small book of short stories. It was a series of short stories compiled in a book called Partition: Sketches and Stories. It was one of the first books that completely gripped me and shocked me. There were stories in there that were sexual and violent in nature, which made me wonder how a Pakistani could write such a story. I still remember reading one story about how a family crossing over from India to Pakistan in the train had managed to escape the killers. They had to hide and pretend to be dead in front of the killers to make the escape. There was a lot tension and dread as they made their journey over. They finally reach safely to the other side with their belongings packed in sacks. Once they open up their sacks, thinking they’ve made it safe and sound, and the reader is sighing with relief, the family discover the sack is full of women’s breasts that’s been chopped off. The reader is completely thrown off the tracks and realizes how far man can go.
The author of these short stories was none other than Saadat Hassan Manto and that’s precisely the kind of stories he wrote about.
There was very little information about Manto at the time that I was not able to understand the author very well. All I knew was that he was an alcoholic, who wrote provocative stories and was tried in court several times for violating the obscenity act. Oh, and also that he wrote some brilliant stories for his time, making him the most translated author of Urdu language. He is considered among the greatest writers of short stories in South Asian history. He produced 22 collections of short stories, 1 novel, 5 series of radio plays, 3 collections of essays, 2 collections of personal sketches and his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics.
A small group of us were extremely privileged to have watched Manto on the big screen last night, followed by a chit chat with the cast and crew. Before I get into that, I have to share with you the brilliance that was the movie Manto.
Manto focuses on the last 7 years of his life. From the opening shot, we are shown Manto receiving shock therapy which jolts us and prepares us for what is about to unfold. We learn that Manto is in a “mad house” as he refers to the mental hospital and is released from there due to him riling up the other patients to revolt against the authorities. He returns home to his wife, Safiya, and three daughters.
Manto starts to write again as he claims to have a “fire within” that needs to be unleashed; stories that needs to be told. The partition of India and Pakistan has a huge influence on his writings as he struggles to channel the horrifying incidents in his stories. We the audience are taken through some of his stories, which are ever so cleverly and seamlessly woven through the narrative.
The stories include Justice, Toba Tek Singh, License, Black Margins, Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) and From Peshawar to Lahore. These stories are provocative and shocking, which lands him in trouble with the courts. There are some subplots that deal with the political aspects of his life, namely how the American ambassador met Manto, but they are merely just touched upon.
Because of his addiction to alcohol and getting in trouble because of his writings, his mental condition deteriorates. Along with this, he has financial issues, even ready to sell off his stories. The common thematic elements in his stories primarilydeal with the dark human psyche and the deteriorating social climate post Partition. This aspect allows us to delve into his mindset that at once is a deadly combination of genius and madness. His stories become his demons as he battles with his alter ego.
It is at the end of the movie, when we are left with the words “I am Saadat Hasan Manto” on the blank screen that we get goosebumps, realizing us what a remarkable and legendary man he was for his time.
Credit has to be given to Mr. Sarmad Khoosat, who acted in the main role of Manto, and directed the movie. He played the role so amazingly well; nuanced, restrained without being overtly obvious. That he’s playing such a highly regarded man of his time. Khoosat humanizes the character of Manto, making the audience relate to Manto. (This was a problem with the movie Jinnah, where Mr. Jinnah was hero worshipped and made somewhat human-less and more hero worship.) We see Manto the writer, the father and the husband. Sania Saeed, who plays his wife, complements Sarmad so perfectly well; I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in a TV drama together. In particular, watch out for the scene when Manto return homes after fetching medicine for his daughter with disastrous consequences—acting par excellence from both Sarmad and Sania.
The stories include several notable actors from TV dramas and all of them succeed in their parts. The stories are so powerful and these actors do justice. My favorite story has to be Justice, which has Savera Nadeem, about a beautiful widow who starts riding horse carriage to earn a living only to be denied justice. These stories are not easy on the mind as they deal with rape, prostitution, impotency among other subjects but they surely get you wondering about the stark reality of the human mind and the extremes one can go to in a given situation.
There are also some light hearted moments that keep us engaged and provide a sigh of relief amidst Manto’s tumultuous last years. His sense of humor is also evident in his cheeky remarks to those who would discredit his writings. Watch for the playful conversations between Manto and Noor Jehan, that border between fun and flirtatious.
Along with the stories being the highlight of the movie, Manto also utters some deep and philosophical arguments, something that irks the people around at the time. Manto, the rebel, was indeed way far ahead of his time. One thought that stuck in my mind even now is when he defends himself against those accusing him of writing obscene material, whereby he argues that he is merely using white chalk on a blackboard, which makes the black seems more black and obvious. In other words, he was merely writing about such material in order to highlight the issues which no one else at the time was talking about.
There are four songs in the movie, and the main title song resonates deeply as that is played more than once in the movie. The main title song in the credit is sensual and erotic, without being sleazy and provides a great setup for what to expect in the movie. Credit goes to Mr. Jamal for working so efficiently and brilliantly on the sound.
Technically, the film is almost near flawless. There may be some moments where lighting could have been slightly better, but when we are watching such a powerful movie, one tends to overlook these minor technical glitches.
It was sheer delight to have Mr. Sarmad (Actor/ Director), Mr. Shahid (Scriptwriter/ researcher), Mr. Jamal (Sound) and Mr. Khizer (Cinematographer). Questions from the curious minds of the audience provided for an insightful talk.
The movie was initially commissioned to be a 22 episodes TV Drama, and once they had the material, they decided to go for a movie. The vision was to make Manto accessible. To someone like me, who was not entirely familiar with the works of Manto, I left the room wanting to know a lot more about him. That to me is a huge success of the movie
The women brought up the issues of how misogynistic Manto’s writings were. According to Mr. Shahid, Manto was merely reflecting upon the reality of the situation of women at that time. He brought up a key point: Manto may have written a story that is sexual in nature, but does the story arouse you or disgust you? If you are sexually aroused by the mere thought of reading a story of a sexual nature, then someone is wrong with you. It’s the paradigm shift that we as a collective nation have to make to understand his stories. Mr. Sarmad brought up a very valid point too: a lot of us revere and hold Manto in high regards, yet why do we shy away from having his works being taught in school and colleges?
Discussions ranged from how the family of Manto helped in making the movie, to what the research materials were to the technical aspects of the movie. It certainly helped us in appreciating the movie on a deeper level as we understood where the makers of the film were coming from. I also have to say that Mr. Sarmad is a very intelligent man, who spoke so eloquently and clarity, and knew exactly what his vision for his movie was.
With the film making at its excellent, along with a solid and strong subject matter, Manto is one of those rare Pakistani film that can match up to any foreign movies. Deep, profound, powerful, evocative and gripping from start to finish, Manto is clearly right at the top as one of the best Pakistani film made till today. As Manto famously said on his writings, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth,” and it is in that mindset we can understand the movie as it’s meant to be.
5 out 5