Manto lived in his characters: drunk men who had no morals, women who stayed up all night for men who did not want to go home, tortured souls all.
He had a special corner in his heart for the women, he had observed them from his window in Faras Road, where he first stayed in Mumbai. Women who smelled of the men who did not care if her back ached or no, if the water pot beside the bed was washed or no. Women whose breasts held the coins left by these clients, coins that jangled if they would just rest on the bed for a while…
Saadat Hasan Manto, if you read him, he is unforgettable. If you read him, you will put aside the story and hope to drown out the sounds of chaos he stabs you with in alcohol. If you don’t read him, you will never truly understand the madness of Partition. If everything was divided, then shouldn’t the Sikh lunatics in newly created Pakistan be exchanged for the crazy Muslim men in asylums in India? Toba Tek Singh wasn’t crazy, this world was.
Sugandhi was living in a world, where Hawaldar Madho would keep his promise of sending money, where Ramlal the pimp will let her rest, the municipal officer will treat her better than he does his wife. She breaks her make-believe world by shattering the photographs, and tells Madho sarcastically that she will send him the money…
Ameen Pehelwan accepts money and goes to prison for you. Eats prison food, suffers for you. Is it right that he claims to be righteous, and wants to bury his mother? The little boy wants to go see the tamasha, but his father will not let him. The market is shut and a man lies bleeding. Will the gods listen to his prayer? Will the only stick that makes men bleed be divine or man-made?
The doctor asks the father to open the window to let some fresh air in. But the young girl, who has been raped again and again during the Partition riots hears the word, ‘Open!’ and undoes her Grown-ups frowned when I asked, ‘What does ‘throw the trump card, Ishwar Singh’ mean?’ As one grew up, the meanings of the words slowly filtered and I was compelled to read more. Ismat Chughtai, poetry by Faiz, stories by Krishan Chander slowly made space on the bookshelf.
shalwaar. The horrors of his times, dark alleyways peopled by vile characters, women vulnerable and yet strong… I grew up on tales that were as shocking as they were hard hitting. Saadat Hasan Manto is perhaps the first teller of tiny tales. So powerful was his three line stories, that they are unforgettable to the day. Even reading a paraphrasing will give you goosebumps.
‘A man was cut from the throat to his pajamas. When the pajamas fell apart, he realised he had cut one of his own, ‘Tsk. Made a mistake.’ (Muslim men are circumsized) ‘What kind of petrol have you sold me? Charged me black market rates and it’s so impure that it hasn’t gutted even one shop!’
Manto saw what polite society did not want to see. And what he saw drove him to drink. Manto, the film releases on Friday September 21, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui brings the Manto that translated Victor Hugo (Prisoner’s story: Sarguzasht-e-Aseer), wrote the wild, satirical Letters to Uncle Sam (send me micro atomic bombs that I will force down the pajamas of the men who don’t wash themselves), wrote the screenplay of Mirza Ghalib and other movies…
The film weaves the stories that Manto wrote with his own life story rather seamlessly. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is like a chameleon, stepping into Manto’s pencil wielding avatar magnificently. His eyes miss nothing. He observes all human failing.
Rasika Duggal plays Safiya, his wife, Tahir Bhasin his best friend Shyam (the film star), and several cameos from Danish Husain, Rishi Kapoor, Javed Akhtar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Shashank Arora, Ila Arun, Neeraj Kabi, Tilottama Shome, Paresh Rawal, Vinod Nagpal and Divya Dutta make this film a brilliant watch.
Cameos apart, what makes this film a cinematic experience is the fact that writer director Nandita Das manages to bring a lifetime’s work on screen leaving you hoping for more. He was tried in court for obscenity many times. But his argument was clear: If you find that the characters are living an obscene life, it is because life is. He is sure that his work is peerless, and yet hankers for praise from Faiz who he can quote by memory.
It bothers him that Faiz does not think his story has high literary value. He has pride that will not let him accept money from his famous movie star friends.
At the same time, he wishes they would force him to come back home to Bombay. Nawazuddin Siddiqui makes Manto his own. The period costumes, the music (by Zakir Hussain and Resul Pookutty) and the setting make you believe that bus no. 4 is ready to take Manto away.
Coming back home, I took the ten rupee note the autorickshaw driver gave me for change and I stared at it long after he was gone. I was remembering the little girl who goes for a ride with three lusty men and gives the ten rupee note back to the driver because the men were too tired from running after her to do anything to her… That is the magic of this film. That is the power of Manto’s stories. It is this niggling hankering for something better, this pride, this supreme confidence in his art that made his stories so different, so daring. He wanted an epitaph that read:
‘Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. And with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of story writing. Under mounds of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater story writer - god or he.’
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.