The freedom of India from British Colonial rule in 1947 and its accompanied partition was not only the creation of two nations (India and Pakistan), or the large scale displacement of people or with the violent episodes of massacres. Rather, it also involved a partition of various forms of arts and artistic representations- writings, paintings, theatre, movies, etc. Several literary figures, theatre artists, sportsmen, etc. were forced to move away from their homeland and workspace. Thus, many of the legendary figures like Faiz Ahmad Faiz or Saadat Hasan Manto had to go to Pakistan. It was not easy for all of them to accept this big change and thus, many like Manto got destroyed on the personal and socio-cultural front, though gained acclaim by writing about the tragic death of humanity.
The appropriation of these shared arts and artists was done by both the nations in their own ways- not by changing the historical truths related to these figures but by highlighting or minimizing the various relevant aspects. The representation of Manto and his stories in the form of movies is a very good example of this. The Pakistani version of Manto (Main Manto) came in 2015, directed and acted by Sarmad Khoosat. While the Indian perspective was presented by Nandita Das (director) and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in 2018. Both the stories develop along with the same plot i.e. presenting Manto’s life and weaving his stories into it. There is no remarkable difference between the two versions but the two narrations complement each other: the Pakistani story fails to show the lively side of Manto which existed before the tragedy of Partition and which is visible in the Indian film. Similarly, the Indian story skips various significant characters closely associated with Manto’s life both positively and negatively, like Noor Jahan or Chaudhury Mohammad Husain (especially in Pakistan), which can be seen in the Pakistani movie.
The Indian version of the story has been narrated in a nice and chronological order which is easy for the audience to understand; while the Pakistani version of the same develops kaleidoscopically. The differences in both the presentations came due to obvious reasons: the story of Pakistan starts with the partition. The presentation of Indian life, therefore, is shown as part of Manto’s memory i.e. before partition. The Pakistani story is a long one and thus, manages to present various detailed aspects of Manto and his life, which are missing in Indian film. It is very much visible in both versions that Manto was going through economic hardships after his shift to Pakistan, but it is the Pakistani story (Main Manto) which shows that his financial situations and the charge of being an obscene writer forced him to start a partnership work in an ice factory, which he finds difficult to maintain. He finally gave up this work because, in his words, ‘fire and ice can’t go together’. It pained him that he got the license easily for the ice factory (unwanted or illegal things) and could not get the license for writing, afsana nigari (a legal and desired thing). He connected himself with the event and molded it in his story, license. The story describes the plight of a woman who takes over the job of (horse cart-pulling) his husband after his death. Society, however, does not allow her to do so. She faces passive harassment by her clients daily (“Woh aksar mahsoos karti ki wo khud ko nahi bechti, lekin log chupke-chupke use kharid lete hain”). Once the police asked her either to get a license for driving this cart or to turn into a prostitute. The incident shattered her completely and she agrees to the offer declaring her body as dead. This idea of being dead might have given her the license of selling herself. Here, it is to the credit of Sarmad Khoosat that he beautifully mentions how the ideas take birth in Manto’s mind. Sarmad shows the passion and alive relationship of Manto with his stories: one of his stories troubled him for long, asking Manto to write it down. Manto, in reply, told her (the story) to be in the queue and wait for its turn to come.
Similarly, there are other things which are visible only from the Indian perspective. Nandita Das is successful in presenting Manto’s struggle with his own identity. She showed the presence, adjustments, and deterioration of communitarian relations. Before Partition, Manto was working as a journalist and as a short story writer, who had written for classics like Mirza Ghalib. He was working in Bombay Talkies film studio as a screenwriter but in the wake of partition riots, he was fired (for being a Muslim). The Bombay Talkies was getting threat letters of its destruction if all the Muslims (who were dominant in the industry at that time) were not removed from it. Nandita nailed it by showing the quick infection of communal hatred in his best friend, Shyam Chadda. Shyam’s relatives were attacked and killed by a Muslim mob and this angered him to the level that he generalized all Muslims, not even sparing his friend Manto. The words of Shyam: ‘bloody Muslims…I would have even killed you’, were so impactful on Manto that he immediately decides to leave India and moves to Pakistan. He had never expected this communal hatred from his friend and due to fear of getting trapped in this hatred, he decides to go away. At the same time, the incident made him realize that though he was not a practicing Muslim but was Muslim enough to be killed. The incident put a pause on the audience and forces them to think. It is commendable on part of Nandita to bring out the issue of identity politics, which is so true and relevant in the current political environment. Nandita Das is excellent at writing the dialogues of the story. Manto says, “if one cannot bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times.” The trauma of partition, violence, and loss of humanity forced him to speak and write and show society its ugly image. He, thus, says,” We dreamt of freedom when we were enslaved, what should we dream now that we are free?”
Before 1947, Manto was charged and tried for obscenity in his writings three times (in India) for his works Dhuan, Bu, and Kali Shalwar and three times after 1947 (in Pakistan) for Khol Do, Thanda Gosht, and Upar Neeche Darmiyaan. Manto’s works are in deep sympathy for the downtrodden women of society, clerks, journalists, etc. He dares to write about those prostitutes and concubines of the society, whom all the ashraf used to visits at night but did not care to see their plight in the morning. When he was asked that his stories show a special empathy for women, he replied by saying, “not for all women, some for the one who isn’t selling herself but is still being bought and some for the one who works all night and sleeps in the day, dreaming of old age knocking at her door.” In his story, Thanda Gosht Manto depicts two kinds of women-one who was raped and the other who kills the rapist i.e. her husband. He shows that women were, on one hand, used as the honor of a community, and raping women means raping the community. On the other hand, women were not always submissive and coward. He presented them as powerful and well-aware of their rights. This is most visible in Sarmad Khoosat, who shows a prostitute not surrendering herself to society. She was interested in reading, putting her regular work aside, was bold enough to reject the offer of a policeman, and was sensitive to the death of her child. For writing Upar Neeche Darmiyaan (showing the internal and complicated life of a minister) he was called and tried in Karachi court and was punished Rs. 25 (since the date on that day was 25th and the judge did not perhaps consider him guilty) on his confession. However, he did not stop writing and came up with a new story, Mozail, a Jewish girl who suffered in the partition. She was so brave to give her clothes away for saving the life of another girl of a different faith. These diverse women and their active rejections of social and sexual exploitation dominate Manto’s writings. During one of his trials, Manto boldly said that he writes what is truth and what he sees and that he is angry because society wishes not to see the death of humanity. Thus, he once said, “the truth must never be told, tear up the pages you don’t like.”
It is interesting, shows Sarmad Khoosat, that on one hand, Manto is charged for writing ‘obscene’ literature and the Progressive Writers’ Association boycotted him but on the other hand, we see that a member of the same organization felt jealous of Manto for being a famous obscene writer. This writer or fahhash nigar, who used to write under the name of Wahi Wahnavi (original name Shaukat Thanvi) got insecure with Manto and didn’t consider him as a true fahhash nigar. Gradually the members of the Association came to know about this Wahi Wahnavi but never decided to throw him out. Rather, he was awarded a prestigious title by the Association. The incident shows the dual nature of the PWA and its members.
Further, Manto’s relation and friendship with Ashok Kumar, Shyam Chadda, Ismat Chughtai, etc. are visible in both Indian and Pakistani movies. Sarmad Khoosat does not forget to mention Manto’s relation with Madam Noor Jahan or the admiration both had for each other. Noor Jahan was depicted as a flirt, open, frank, joyful lady, and was in an extramarital relationship or love with the famous cricketer, Nazar Mohammad. What seems politically significant and missing in the Indian story is the complexity of Manto’s association with writing for America (see next para) and the local confusion about Manto’s political identity, tagging Manto as Progressive, Communist, or traditionalist. It shows that discussions are going on among communists whether Manto is rujjat pasand (orthodox) or taraqqi pasand (progressive). The story catches the people’s positive approach to Manto. Locals sitting in the street tea stalls, for example, talk sympathetically about Manto and his rusty treatment by the government. They were very much liking the frank attitude of Manto. However, there were people also like Chaudhry Mohammad Husain, a Muslim leagui, who was anti-Communist and anti-Manto. Considering Manto’s work as obscene, he along with many others prepared to ban him from the intellectual world. Resultantly, Manto was boycotted by the Communist party and by PWA. His colleague and friend Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi wrote him an open letter over his story, siyah Hashiye, and alleged that Manto had picked up cigarettes, jewelry, and money from the dead bodies. However, the issue of his boycott was debated and he was taken back at the party later. One of the interesting points caught by the storyline is a constant comparison of Bombay and Lahore. This comparison was not only in terms of living conditions and earnings but most importantly, the sorrow of living away from friends and other known people of the film and writing industry. There is a constant craving for merging the Lahore and Bombay industry or of going back to Bombay. Manto misses his friends Shyam, Ashok Kumar, etc. Being sarcastic of partition he says that wandering dogs should also be partitioned, though how will we differentiate between Muslim and non-Muslim dogs.
The Pakistani story refers to Manto writing letters to Uncle Sam i.e. United States of America, which were published in a local newspaper. Seeing these letters Manto got an offer to write for the United States (by the US ambassador in India). The proposal to write for America came because these letters were quite bitter about the depiction of America in relation to Pakistan and the US now wanted to change this image in the local and intellectual world. Manto accepted the proposal only on the condition that he would write anything he wants and that too in Urdu. Manto, thus, chose to write in the format of letters. The theme of these letters revolved around the conditions of Pakistan after partition. He considered it a plan of Uncle Sam (USA) to attract Pakistan and turn it into a Capitalist satellite. Though he was criticized by the intellectual world for this acceptance, he continued to write. He accepted the proposal of the US only when they agreed to pay Rs.200 (as demanded by Manto) and not Rs.500 (the proposed amount): he insisted on a lower amount because he doesn’t wish to burden himself with foreign money. This was also done to indicate to the US that Pakistani intellectuals are not greedy or easily available on sale. He is also sarcastic about Pakistan’s wazeer-e azam‘s (Prime Minister) shift towards America.
By the end of the story, we see Manto has failed to tackle with his habit of drinking and decides to kill himself. His last story, Toba Tek Singh, reflected the impacts of division on normal and disturbed mindsets which are not willing to accept this partition or leave their homeland. His character finds himself confused i.e. to which country he belongs to and at last dies at no man’s land.
While we see the development or rather a decline in the personality of Nandita’s Manto; Sarmad Khoosat remains a serious and tensed man throughout (due to the presentation of Manto after partition which had torn him completely). Both the actors, Nawazuddin and Sarmad, beautifully played the character and did justice to the role. While Sarmad Khoosat is a heavy watch (except for the episodes of Noor Jahan), Nandita Das is light and easy-going story, meant for the common man or to reach out to the locals. The Pakistani characters, accents, and environment look closer to reality because of their culture, which has changed a lot in India over time. On the whole, Manto is remarkable in presenting the minute by minute evaporation of humanism from amongst the humans.
The author is alumnus of Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia.