Thursday, March 02, 2006

The film writing of Saadat Hasan Manto

Just recently I've been reading some of the film writing of the Saadat Hasan Manto, portraits of the great players and characters of the Hindi film world in the 1930s and 40s put together in a book called Stars From Another Sky, in an English translation by Khalid Hasan. Manto is by consensus the greatest Urdu writer of the twentieth century, so there is no real need to make a case for how good his work is - that is already known. But sometimes, when his name crops up in discussions with friends, or on the rare occasions when it appears in some context in the memory-less Indian press, I get the sense that the side of Manto that is generally remembered today is the Manto of the post-Partition years.

This is the angry, bitter, traumatised Manto who, having left Bombay for Pakistan early in 1948, wrote from Lahore arresting fables of the ravages and ruptures of Partition such as "Toba Tek Singh", the Manto who was capable of compressing the horror and the inhumanity of what he saw into stories sometimes no more than two lines long. (Here is one called "Resting Time": "He is not dead, there is still some life in him." "I can't. I am really exhausted.")

But there is another Manto, the Manto who came to the city of Bombay from his native Amritsar in 1936 at the age of 24, and who over the next twelve years, working as a scriptwriter in the Hindi film industry, became the poet of the charms of chawl life, of joblessness, gossip and drink, of rags-to-riches stories, of sudden affections and bitter partings, of vagabonds and prostitutes, of the sights and sounds of the big city, all of which he recorded with great affection and sly humour. This is the Manto I like best, and this side of him is often seen in its most vivid form not in his stories but in his non-fiction pieces about the film stars, directors, lyricists, and playback singers of his times, most of whom he knew very well through his work.

Here are Manto's pitch-perfect first three paragraphs from his essay on Ashok Kumar, which pitchfork us all at once into a world of frenzied passions and hectic disorder:

When Najmul Hasan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil. The film they were making had gone on the floor and some scenes had already been shot. However, Najmul Hasan had decided to pull way the leading lady from the celluloid world to the real one. The worst affected and the most worried man at Bombay Talkies was Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani's husband and the heart and soul of the company.

S.Mukerjee, Ashok Kumar's brother-in-law, who was to make several hit movies in the years to come, was at the time sound engineer Savak Vacha's assistant. Being a fellow Bengali, he felt sorry for Himanshu Rai and wanted to do something to make Devika Rani return. Without saying anything to Rai, he somehow managed to persuade her to come back, which meant that he talked her into abandoning the warm bed of her lover Najmul Hasan in Calcutta and return to Bombay Talkies where her talents had a greater chance of flourishing.

After Devika Rani came back, Mukerjee convinced the still shaken Himanshu Rai to accept his runaway wife. As for Najmul Hasan, he was left to join the ranks of those who are fated to be deserted by their beloveds for less emotional, but weightier political, religious or simply material considerations. As for the scenes he had already done, they were trashed. The question now was: who was going to be his replacement?
It is opening worthy of a great story or novel: so many things rush by so quickly, but by the end of it all we not only feel like we have a grip on all the action, but also on the natures of the three people implicated in it. Notice how sly Manto's comedy is. Logically the first sentence should have been, "When Najmul Hasan ran off with Devika Rani, her husband Himanshu Rai was in turmoil," and only later should Manto have spoken of how a film that was already on the floor was now ruined. But instead he makes us believe for a moment that the loss to Bombay Talkies is the most important consequence of Devika Rani's flight, and only tells us about her hapless husband in the last paragraph. And lest we think that he is being unnecessarily cruel towards Rai, Manto balances things out in the next two paragraphs. One pokes fun at Devika Rani in the juxtaposition of boudoir and film set (the latter being the place "…where her talents had greater chance of flourishing"), while the next pours cold water over poor Najmul Hasan, who had appeared in paragraph one a dashing hero.

And yet there is also something poignant about these paragraphs. That something is not to be found in the writing itself, which is too assured to reveal it, but we feel it when we find out that Manto wrote this piece and the pieces alongside it for a Pakistani film magazine in Lahore in 1950. He was out of work in the new world to which he had migrated, and pining for the Bombay that had supported not just his material life but also nourished his imagination and his powers of moral discernment for the best part of his adult life. Manto was never to return. His condition grew steadily worse in Pakistan, he was almost always out of work and had a family of four to support, he was prosecuted by the state on charges of obscenity for his story "Thanda Gosht", he took to drink, and finally died tragically early in 1955. These long journalistic pieces - about Ashok Kumar, Nargis, Rafiq Ghaznavi, Nur Jehan, Paro Devi - are not pieces concurrent with the events which they describe, but rather attempts to fix in memory a world which had been left behind forever.

Manto's portraits often bubble with a writer's insight into and sympathy for character, a feel for the shape of individual human nature in all its aspects. Here is a bit from his essay on Nargis, who became a star very young:

She was simple and playful like a child and was always blowing her nose as if she had a perennial cold - this was used in the movie Barsaat as an endearing habit. Her wan face indicated that she had acting talent. She was in the habit of talking with her lips slightly joined. Her smile was self-conscious and carefully cultivated. One could see that she would use these mannerisms as raw material to forge her acting style. Acting, come to think of it, is made of just such things.

Another thing I noticed about her was her conviction that one day she would become a star, though she appeared to be in no hurry to bring that day closer. She did not want to say farewell quite yet to the small joys of girlhood and move into the larger, chaotic world of adults with its working life.
"Acting, come to think of it, is made of just such things." With this one sentence, presented as a tentative thought, Manto establishes the relation between what might be said to be a person's real self and the acted self that they project for the camera, showing how they overlap and are nourished by each other. Stars From Another Sky may be not just the most dazzling but also the truest book ever written about Bollywood.

Several stories by Manto have been made into films: Mrinal Sen's Antareen (1994), Fareeda's Kali Shalwar (2001), and Toba Tek Singh by the Pakistani director Afia Nathaniel in 2005, but I have not had the fortune of seeing any of these. Kishwar Ahluwalia's translation of Manto's story "The Hundred Watt Bulb" can be found here, and Mushirul Hasan's translations of the Manto's Partition stories can be found here. Here are two good accounts of Manto's life and work by Khalid Hasan and Khurram Ali Shafique.


Falstaff said...

What?!! There is an entire book of Manto's writing that I haven't read! How did that happen? This must be corrected immediately, immediately I tell you!

Thanks for the post. I'm grateful for the introduction to the other Manto, whom (as you suspected) I'd never heard of. Oh, and stunning writing as always, but you're probably bored of hearing that by now.

Anonymous said...

hi, enjoy your book reviews immensely.
your writing has an old world charm about it.
thank you for the post and keep writing.


neha vish said...

See when I read a post like this - I just go bury my head somewhere. This is too good. Really.

Chandrahas said...

Confused - It's interesting that you make that remark, because my next piece is going to be about the Spanish novelist Javier Marias, who's just published a book called Written Lives in which he analyses writers as they appaear in their photographs. Manto in his photographs looks very curious indeed.

Falstaff and Neha - Thanks very much, you're too kind. It's a pleasure passing on the charm of good writing, and that's all I try and do.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post.

Mystic Bard said...

Hey there Chandrahas,

Manto is like a God yaar!The moment I read Manto in the subject I was sure this was gonna be a sumptuous read, and so it was.Very nicely written.You have managed to lace an undercurrent of pathos which was a prominent part Manto's life - in the fag end of his life when he used to sell a story a day so that he could pay for his evening booze.

Oh..I digress...Manto shaks hi aisa hai ki uska do lafzon mein isteqbal hona na-mumkeen hai.

Is this book available in Hindi?If yes, then what is it called?I would love to read it in his own inimitable style.

And once again Thanx...

Anonymous said...

Manto is best read in Urdu. For many of us not familiar with the urdu script nilkamamal publications has published a 5 volume set of his collected (not complete)works called 'dastavez' in devnagari script. The paperback version is reasonably priced. Its a minefield of vintage Manto that is not available in any english translation. For the academically inclined there is a collection of papers on Manto published by Indian Institute of Advanced tudies, Simla. I do not have the volume with me right now and so am not able to quote the exact name. Happy reading.

Banno said...

"Dastavez" has all the original stories on Ashok Kumar, Nargis, and many more. I made my diploma film at FTII on a lesser known story by Manto "Phobhabai". We had to shoot in b/w then, which worked well for me.

prakash bhatia said...

This book is available in hindi and is titled as MEENA BAAZAR and is published by Rajkamal Prakashan Delhi1B Netaji Subhash Marg Daryaganj New Delhi 110002 From Prakash Bhatia