Holding a mirror to Manto

The upcoming film of actor-filmmaker Nandita Das aims to showcase the life as well as writings of one of the most admired literary figures of the subcontinent, Saadat Hasan Manto.

For someone who wondered in his self-penned epitaph whether he was a better writer than God, Saadat Hasan Manto continues to remain an enigma for his innumerable admirers. His stories are being read and reread, but somehow, in the fascination for his poignant writing, his personal life, which was no less eventful and painful, has often taken a back seat. Not any more. It has taken six decades for filmmakers to separate the writer from the man and capture him on camera. Recently, we had a Pakistani film on him by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat and now filmmaker-actor Nandita Das is mapping Manto for the big screen in India. The project was selected for the co-production market at National Film Development Corporation’s recently concluded Film Bazaar in Panjim, Goa and she intends casting Irrfan Khan in the lead role.

Nandita is surprised that nobody looked at his life before. “I believe people love to quote Manto but they don’t quite know the man,” she says, which is a facet she intends to reveal. Her film will be different from Khoosat’s in that she will only dwell on the part of his life spent in India. The film will give us a glimpse of his association with the Hindi film industry, especially stalwarts such as Ashok Kumar, Nargis, her mother, Jaddan Bai, Kuldip Kaur. Ashok Kumar played a significant role in Manto’s life but it is Manto’s friendship with yesteryear’s star Shyam that is one of the most beautiful and important relationships portrayed in the film. Despite flaring post Partition Hindu-Muslim tension, Manto was adamant about never leaving his beloved city of Bombay, the only place he could call his home. But he gave in when his closest friend Shyam, after hearing the stories of massacre from his uncle, said: “In that moment of madness, I could have even killed you.” “Shocked and anguished, Manto became conscious of his Muslim identity and the frailty of human beings,” explains Nandita.

By then, Manto’s wife Safia was already in Lahore to attend her sister’s wedding and he was left alone to grapple with his growing sense of isolation, fear and betrayal. Shyam’s efforts to bring his friend out of what he saw as self-inflicted misery were of no avail. Manto made the painful choice of leaving Bombay for Lahore, a decision that haunted him for the rest of his life. But Shyam continued to be his closest friend till the very end.

Nandita, who spent time with the author’s family, says Manto is more relevant now when we are “grappling with issues like freedom of expression and identity”. “I feel a film on Manto can bring India and Pakistan closer, and counter the stereotypical perceptions,” she says. His surname, in itself, is an example of the sub-continent’s composite culture. “Manto comes from a Kashmiri pundit surname Mantoo where ‘mant’ means weight, which his writing was never short of,” Das smiles. 

 She first read him when she was in college and was struck by his simple yet profound narratives. Though she nursed the idea for years, even before she made Firaaq, she felt equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story only now. What drew her to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds — something that reminded her of her own dad, celebrated artiste Jatin Das. “He too is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit,” she says.

Manto was a complex character. He was a man of contradictions, so his sensitivity, empathy for those on the fringes of society and his liberal, modern views came mixed with arrogance, obsession and other foibles like a compulsion to drink in the latter part of his life. “But that’s what made him human,” says Nandita. 

The film also showcases the best of Manto’s fiction. It is also an intimate and imaginative retelling of the history of a nation in great turmoil, seen through the eyes of an intensely engaged writer. The lines between his fact and fiction are blurred and the form will allow the audience to enter his mind, both as a person and a writer. 

Manto’s spirit resonates with Nandita. He had faith in the redemptive power of the written word and that’s why through the hardest times, he wrote relentlessly. Nandita has her own passion to tell stories, through the medium of cinema. 

She was recently in Pakistan for the Khayaal festival where she held a conversation with Sarmad Khoosat. Manto's three daughters — Nighat, Nuzhat and Nusrat — also came for the talk. “I feel like the fourth one,” says Nandita, “And the name also starts with N!"

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 2:34:32 PM |

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