Ali Hassan |
Over the past few years, there has been a surge of enthusiasm for Urdu literary legend Saadat Hasan Manto. In 2012, Ali Sethi wrote a profile of the author for the New Yorker. In 2015, Pakistani artist Sarmad Khoosat released a Manto biopic and Indian radio show host RJ Sayema began reading the writer’s short stories on air. Now, Nandita Das has come out with a new film about Manto. Releasing another Manto film at this time must have been risky; amidst an influx of Manto media, would her take stand out?
Impressively, it does. Manto is a brilliant movie, one that is a part biopic, part period piece, and part short story anthology. To be three different kinds of films at once is ambitious. Yet, at no point does Manto feel confused, and travels between different genres smoothly, similar to Martin McDonagh’s film Seven Psychopaths or Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Nandita Das should be commended for captivatingly showing viewers Manto’s life and values, the times he lived in and, through dramatizations, the short stories he wrote. This film about an artist is itself a work of art.
Unfortunately and ironically, the Pakistani censor board banned the film from a theatrical release on the grounds that it maligns Pakistan and contains lewd scenes. The latter claim is untrue.
The film is set during the last years of Manto’s life. After the film opens with an adaptation of “Das Rupay”, viewers are shown Saadat Hasan Manto, (played by Nawazuddin Siddique), who lived in Mumbai and wrote short stories about the lives of its residents. At the time, the British were on the verge of leaving the subcontinent, and Pakistan was about to be formed.
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims were high. But Manto had given his heart to Bombay and did not want to move to Pakistan despite being a Muslim. Then, in a momentary fit of anger, his best friend, a Hindu, said that he’d kill Manto if called to violence. Manto realized he had to take his family to Pakistan. Communal violence was bringing animalistic bloodlust out of the gentlest of people.
Manto and his family settled in Lahore with relatives. It is in Lahore that he wrote “Thanda Gosht,” a short story set during the partition in which a man named Ishwar Singh painfully recounts how he unknowingly raped a Muslim girl’s corpse. Deeming the short story controversial, the government of Pakistan declared it “immoral” and accused Manto of indecency. Manto responded to the prosecution by saying that he wrote about what he saw and that the ills of society had to be exposed instead of hidden under the false pretenses of public decency and moral values.
Das sides firmly with Manto in his crusade to expose the Subcontinent’s underbelly. Through the film, she tries to show that no good can come to a society that hides its problems instead of dealing with them. By ignoring societal ills, we become complacent and, over time, convince ourselves that human misery and exploitation is normal, a fact of life that cannot be challenged. We become cruel ourselves or ignore the suffering of others using a variety of justifications, such as telling ourselves we’re too busy to help someone in need, or that someone’s pain isn’t as bad as it seems.
Nandita Das should be commended for captivatingly showing viewers Manto’s life and values, the times he lived in and, through dramatizations, the short stories he wrote.
But Manto believed the world could use more empathy, and his short stories were an attempt to make readers aware of the horrible things happening around them. Manto was particularly concerned with the way men treated women, which is why so many of Manto’s protagonists are young girls exploited by men for sexual gratification or the easy victims of wanton violence.
It is great to see Nawazuddin Siddique playing Manto. As the writer, he forces viewers to challenge the wisdom of censoring content such as “Thanda Gosht”. Unfortunately and ironically, the Pakistani censor board banned the film from a theatrical release on the grounds that it maligns Pakistan and contains lewd scenes. The latter claim is untrue. At no point in the film are we shown sex or nudity, nor are the few scenes of violence graphic. But the former claim can be debated.
Read more: Jub Manto Se Meri Mulaqaat Hui
Is showing Manto’s obscenity trial bad for Pakistan’s image, or just a depiction of a factual chapter from the country’s history? Do Pakistanis benefit from being oblivious to the fact that the state prosecuted Manto, or that the partition was extremely painful for the many victims of senseless communal violence, or that some women are beaten and exploited by men without any regard for their humanity? Can we move forward as a society if we entertain delusions about its health? Nandita Das does not think so, nor did Manto.
“Pagalpan ko roknay ke liye,
kisi koh toh ‘bas’ kehna parhta hai,
warna silsila-e-barbaadi chalta rahega,
aur hum sab ko darinda bana dega.”
Ali Hassan is a freelance journalist based in New York. He’s an economics and political science graduate of NYU and writes about the Middle East, Afghanistan, and films. The Views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.