Nandita Das’s film, Manto, is neither a populist drama nor a full-fledged, experimental film, but has elements of both. Das is a sincere and sensitive craftswoman. One hopes she will pay more attention to smaller details and nuances in the future, without making certain moments appear staged. Hindi films thrive so much on theatricality that it is difficult to completely wash off the stains even in a film with nontheatrical performances. Everyone, except a pathetic Javed Akhtar, is perfectly cast. Das is intensely focused on her central character, who is also the subject of the film. It is perhaps not very appropriate to look for the detached (though not less intense) treatment that for example, the two Turkish filmmakers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoğlu, give to their subjects. Our understanding is better served by an immanent critique of a particular tradition of filmmaking. Das does not probe into Manto’s character. She is keener to catch Manto’s idiosyncratic behaviour as clues to his state of mind, and his high-strung relationship with the social, political and literary milieu around him.
Nandita Das’ Manto | Offical Trailer
Sa’adat Hasan Manto is not just a writer, but a historic figure. Das allows it to emerge through her narrative. There is an experimental blending of the anecdotal and the symbolic, where Das flits past episodes of Manto’s turbulent life and offers shaky glimpses of his stories. The camera could have paused longer on a couple of scenes, especially those depicting Partition, to cinematically draw the backdrop of Manto’s literary focus on the beleaguered life of refugees. The anecdotes are full of punch lines with an obvious effort to strike a chord with the audience’s heart. Simpler episodes that do not try to evoke effect, for example, where Manto and his wife, Safia (played by an elegantly restrained Rasika Duggal), weave a story of a real couple behind their back, are more endearing. The lively and teasingly audacious, Ismat Chugtai (played with charming subtlety, by Rajshri Deshpande), is an important element in the story. She shared similar aesthetic sensibilities with Manto. It took an exemplary and bold confidence in their craft for both Chugtai and Manto, to rebuff the stifling demand (and criticism) on their writing, made by the Progressive Writers’ Association.
The Association was a coterie of left-wing writers, who uncritically imported the Stalinist diktat of “socialist realism”: an officially sponsored form of writing that served an unreserved optimism for a communist utopia, strictly guided by the aesthetics of socialist transformation and an idealized depiction of emancipatory class politics. These strict guidelines did not impress the free-spirited Chugtai and Manto. They wrote on subjects that deviated from “progressive” norms. But today, the political significance of Chugtai’s Lihaaf (The Quilt) or Manto’s Tẖanḍā Gōsht (Cold Meat) matches their literary status. Lihaaf delved into what was, in the 1940s, an unsanctioned sphere of queer sexuality, where Chugtai, with suggestive tension in her prose, busted the myth of heterosexual marriage. Manto’s Tẖanḍā Gōsht drew attention to the collapsing sexual ethic of communal times, by producing the confessional story of a haunted man who accidentally indulged in necrophilia.
The comrades in the Progressive Writers’ Association were ironically abandoning social context for purity of language. Can there be anything more unconsciously, forgetfully bourgeois, than this? Manto was horrified to see the body reduced to a commodity in an illicit marketplace, where it was caught between its use value and exchange value. There could be nothing more Marxist in Manto’s concern. The response by members of the Association to Manto’s language betrayed puritanism towards language, and merely exposed their cultural prejudices.
The literary merit of Manto’s use of obscene language can also be gathered from Milan Kundera’s note on ‘Vulgarity’, from his ‘Sixty-Three Words’, in The Art of the Novel: “But how to avoid vulgarity, that utterly necessary dimension of existence? … Vulgarity: the humiliating submission of the soul to the rule of the down-below. The novel first undertook the immense theme of vulgarity in Joyce’s Ulysses.” Not surprisingly, Manto names Joyce in his defence.
James Joyce | Photo Credit: Biography
The writers who accused Manto and Chugtai of not paying attention to progressive concerns, missed two crucial points, one historical, and the other, political. India in the 1940s and the subcontinent in the 50s were not living out a communist utopia. To mimic a literary form that was borrowed from a European nation where communism was already established was to ignore the complex stage of a different historical moment whose trajectory couldn’t be (logically) determined by ideological certainty. Literature does not follow the deterministic rules of political necessity. Today, the critical realism of dissident writers like Solzhenitsyn is regarded as the most representative writing on Stalinist times.
Ismat Chughtai | Photo Credit: ABP Live
Chugtai and Manto were also writing realism, by focusing on their cultural milieu. To demand that every progressive writer concentrate on the lives of millworkers, apart from seriously limiting the context of social concern, aims to control (manipulate, dull) the unfathomable promise of the writer, even understood as an agent of social change. Something Manto and Chugtai undoubtedly were. To treat the writer as an appendage of the revolution demeans both, the writer and revolution.
In the famous court case after he shifted to Lahore, Manto was on trial against charges of obscenity for the fifth time in his life, for his short story, Tẖanḍā Gōsht. The scene unfolds with Manto, realising something is wrong, rush to his house to discover, the police had ransacked his belongings including his books. They ask him where he had hidden his stories. Manto writes down the address for them. To the dismay of the police, he has left his books in Bombay. The interest of the police in Manto’s library is remniscient of Professor K Satyanarayana’s recent account of the police entering his house with a search warrant in August. Satyanarayana, who teaches at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, wrote, “They started pulling out books, clothes and everything else in our home…. They were picking all material… which had any mention of Dalits, Muzzafarnagar, Caste, or had photos of Marx and others and questioned why we had them… They said that if we read so many books, we might be dangerous.” If during the early 50s, it was dangerous to produce a certain kind of literature in Pakistan, in 2018, it is dangerous to even possess certain kind of books today in India. You can be implicated not only for what you write, but what you read. Our times are worse than Manto’s.
Saadat Hasan Manto | Photo Credit: Between the Lines
During the trial, Manto felt most let down by Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s testimony. Faiz’s despondent poem on 1947, ‘The Morning of Freedom’, was on everyone’s lips, including Manto’s, who could recite it by heart: ye daaġh daaġh ujālā ye shab-gazīda sahar / vo intizār thā jis kā ye vo sahar to nahīñ (This scarred, scarred light, this night-stung dawn, / The one we were waiting for, this is not the dawn). Faiz remarked in court, Manto couldn’t be charged with obscenity, but his story didn’t match up to the standards of good literature. Manto was pained to hear a man of Faiz’s stature, dismiss the literary worth of his writing. He later remarked in exasperation, it was better Faiz disliked his obscenity instead. It was perhaps a rare, but certainly unfair, literary judgement on Faiz’s part.
It is possible to ascertain today, what Faiz means to Urdu poetry, Manto contributed to Urdu prose. They were parallel opposites in their use of language. Faiz took Ghalib’s legacy to robust heights, infusing Urdu poetry with a political and lyrical edge. He evoked vivid and weighty metaphors to depict utopia and apocalypse alike. Manto, in contrast, ripped the veil off Urdu, baring its wounds. He was a master at producing anti-lyrical shocks, using idioms from everyday language.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a bit unusually stiff as Manto. Maybe the folklore around Manto’s persona weighed on him. There is no lack of intensity, but the body-language appears a bit tight. The Urdu monologue he delivers to a crowd in Lahore, on the task of the writer, is memorable. Except that Siddiqui speaks a bit self-consciously. The lines sound more rehearsed than spontaneous. Did Das tutor Siddiqui a little too much? Despite directorial glitches, Siddiqui plays Manto the way a refined artist pays tribute to another. His rendering of Manto allows you to reinvent the writer.
Manto was arrogant, but vulnerable. Safia provokes Manto’s softer side with her poise, and makes him feel guilty of neglect. Duggal essays Safia’s predicament with delicate finesse. If Manto wasn’t good with others, he wasn’t also good with himself. He was pursued by a question bordering on aesthetic calamity: If the world had lost its soul, how can language retain its own? Manto can’t be understood as a man. The writer is not a man or a woman. The writer is not to be understood either as a purely human subject, or even a gendered being. A writer is, primarily, intensity. S/he is a quantum, a mass of energy that is never at home with oneself, always flying out, never at rest. Alcohol was not merely Manto’s constant companion, but the recipe of his fluid, ill-at-ease self. Manto is such intensity, in the way the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze meant it: a writer whose thinking is born of his intense encounters with the world. Writing, for Manto, was a violent transmission (or translation) of reality, where language speaks what it hears, and often fails to digest. Writing was Manto’s indigestible preoccupation. He was not looking for coherence, but instability.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a still from Manto
Manto was a writing-machine. The writer exists only at the table where he writes. The table is Manto’s real court of law, his confession box, his bed of nightmarish lovemaking, where he dissects a world that has lost its mind. It is also a world where the mad alone, like Toba Tek Singh, retains the sensibility to realise the madness of Partition. It is at the table that Manto finds himself, his tongue, and his soul. He can hardly make sense of the world, perhaps of himself too, otherwise. Manto was a difficult lover, friend and writer. He wrote at a time when it was difficult for a writer of his sensibility to write. Manto is our contemporary, not because he could see what was coming ahead of him, but because he could accurately detect the unresolved barbarism of his time that would return to haunt us. A truly contemporary writer is always a misfit for her times. She fits her times too violently, for it to bear all of her. Manto is our double, the one we are scared to remember. Can we bear Manto today, just because we eulogise him?
Manto’s world has returned without Manto. God save us.