Pakistani Film “Manto” at UC Berkeley Makes Quite an Impact
By Ras H. Siddiqui
Few people would take this liberty but one has to here as two very different titans of Urdu language writing have to be mentioned together but not for comparison. The main reason for that is that a very large gathering on Urdu and Pakistan had taken place at UC Berkeley a few years ago (with this writer present) focusing on poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz and it had filled the hall and was almost standing room only. Faiz Sahib as he is well known and is revered across the partition border in both India and Pakistan, and when his daughter came to this world famous campus in California a few years ago, the South-Asian Diaspora showed up in strength to show their support.
This phenomenon was repeated once again last month, but this time the event was the showing of a recently released Pakistani movie titled “Manto” on the life of Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), a Ludhiana-born Urdu short storywriter. Manto moved to Pakistan after the division of British India and chronicled the obscenity that accompanied partition in vivid (fictional) detail. Krishan Chander (1914-1977) was another similar short storywriter in India; a contemporary of Manto, who lived a longer life and wrote both in Hindi and Urdu.
The spirit of Saadat Hasan Manto almost overfilled the very large Room 2050 Valley Life Sciences Building on campus in late October at a gathering jointly arranged by the Institute of South Asia Studies & the Cal Pakistani Students Association. The director and main actor of the film Sarmad Sultan Khoosat was present to accompany this “non-commercial “showing of his Urdu movie (with English subtitles). Khoosat is a familiar name in Pakistan because more than one generation of the family has contributed to the arts in the country. Sarmad’s claim to fame is also the TV serial Humsafar which took both India and Pakistan by storm just a few years ago and in the process launched the careers of more than one Pakistani star.
Manto the movie opens with “shocking” intensity. A lady in red, a beauty on a charpoy (bed) prepare the audience for Manto (Khoosat) and his narrative from a mental hospital in Lahore where he is fighting battles with his many demons, including the very personal one, alcohol. He is also shown being hounded by his nemesis Mr Chaudhry Mohammad Hussain who wants him charged with obscenity to end his writing career. What is made obvious is that Manto’s writings are about grim tales of what really happened during and just after partition, and since the new country of Pakistan had been created, his stark reminders of the horrors unleashed got in the way of the “necessary” optimism being spun.
In this film our one savior from the seriousness is Melody Queen Noor Jehan (played by Saba Qamar) but that naughty relief is short lived. We are back at the hospital where the complaint is that patients are treated like criminals. And through his affinity for the bottle, Manto expresses his closeness to both the divine and the devil, as we visit his truly controversial “Khol Do” (Open it) where rape has found a new expression in helplessness. Once again who wants to remember? The movie goes on as Manto has to face the realities of working for a living (selling ice) as we visit another one of his stories where a woman gets her Tonga (Horse Buggy) Driving License revoked so she would not annoy the conservative powers that be, and is then (ironically) forced towards working in the oldest profession of “entertainment” instead. And it is these ladies of the evening that become Manto’s most supportive fan base, possibly because they knew the realities which he had been writing about in his stories up close! He is shown welcomed in both the Kothas (Dens) of Lahore’s infamous Diamond Market but also in the courts where his nemesis leads him.
No movie on Manto can escape Toba Tek Singh, his fictional insane asylum where he so carefully partitions insanity in what has become his best known work. Imagine the difficulty; how do you partition the confused patients of a mental institution and figure out whether they belong in India or Pakistan? But things at this point are getting too grim. And once again Noor Jehan comes to the viewer’s rescue at a birthday party and the return of some smiles. But even here Manto is possibly distracted by a “Kaali Shalwar” (Black Pantaloons) of a dancer.
Nobody is spared the pen of Saadat Hasan Manto as his Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) and impotence make their dramatic appearance, where necrophilia haunts the private lives of a Sikh couple. An American Consulate official also visits Manto offering a handsome sum for writing “positive” stuff which is rejected. (Surprisingly Manto’s famous “Letters to Uncle Sam” are missing in this movie). What we do have instead is a writer hounded in the courts, haunted by his alcoholism and helpless in front of his own writing brilliance. These are the three powerful aspects that any viewer can take away after watching this movie. And the irony, as a Judge fines Manto 25 Rupees for “Obscenity” yet asks for his autograph on a book since he is also a fan.
To offer a digression, the viewing of Manto should be mandatory for the current leadership of South Asian countries. It somehow creates space for all of us tied in some way to India or Pakistan to help foster a healthier future relationship. The people who lived through partition needed to forget. Their future generations have the luxury of remembering. As Professor Harsha Ram explained in his introduction to this showing in Berkeley, Manto was a writer of both nations, India and Pakistan and yet of neither. He added that Manto wrote without feeding the nationalist mythologies of either country. An unsentimental realist deeply shaken by the carnage of 1947, Manto became the enemy of both the Marxists and the Mullahs which in itself is quite an accomplishment, said Ram.
Sarmad Sultan Khoosat has a winner on his hands with “Manto” which is a cut above many, if not most, South Asian movies. In a chat with Ram and a Q&A session after the showing, Khoosat said that he had been asked to cut the running time of the film by another 20 minutes or so for international commercial release. One suggestion would be to cut some scenes of his own fine acting (unfortunately) while portraying the sad demise of the main character. “Manto” is already a very tragic story. There is no need to further highlight that aspect of his life. This film needs to stay focused on his writing genius, his treasure chest of ironies.
Even today, some of the demons of 1947 still haunt India and Pakistan from within. It is time that the people there revisit the horrors of partition just so they do not repeat them. It is time to move on and to create a better future for all people in both India and Pakistan just as Saadat Hasan Manto would have wanted it. It appears that he deeply loved the land and people of both!
(This movie is for mature audiences so please don’t take your children to see it. It rates a full four stars on a scale of four)