So far as I know this is the only film review Manto ever wrote. The film is called Zindagi and it stars Saigal singing some of his biggest hits, 'So ja rajkumari' and 'Main kya janu kya jadu hai'.
The film was directed by PC Barua and released in 1940. This means Manto wrote the review when he was 28.
This was not an easy piece to translate. For one there are many references to scenes from a movie which I had not, and most readers of this translation have not, seen. I rewrote bits of it here and there to make it more readable in English.
Zindagi (Isi naam kay ek film par review)
The colourful glass bangles jangled and said: "Am I prettier than you?"
The smoke smoke rose from the firebed, troubled.
It spiralled as a snake and asked: "Are you the secret that burns within me or am I?"
The angels drifted in the bright air of the heavens.
The spring cloud opened out autumn's fist, and began to whisper to the mighty oaks.
The sun's mad rays sent darkness fleeing in terror.
Still waters asked the brook - "Why the impatience?"
Waiting behind her veil, the virgin flashed now this emotion, now that.
These lines are quite representative of poetry today. They squeeze the essence of human existence into a few words. They have life and a sense of mischief. They have anticipation, like the trembling of that awaiting virgin.
Many things like this can be written about the poem. Every line could be shown as having meaning beyond the obvious.
But the truth is that this poem is intellectually hedonistic. The writer thought only of putting out prettified lines. They don't really represent anything. The poem may be fun to read but it is ultimately meaningless, because it wasn't written for depth.
I should know - I wrote it and spent perhaps two minutes on it. But this sort of writing has become quite fashionable in literature.
In Europe, the literature had become very heavy. This is why such light poetry came out there, as a sort of reaction. The reader had had enough of the dense stuff, and so this literature filled the need created.
India has always imitated and now is actually dependent on the west. And so it accepted this sort of poetry and copied it.
Today, I saw New Theatres's 'Zindagi', an example of such light literature. I saw it and when I came out I wondered what it was that I had seen.
The famous Pandit Inder says this film is about psychology. Meaning something that is outside of perception. A delicate thing swimming in the ether perhaps.
Khwaja Abbas and Jalil Ansari say it's a very good film. And so I also say it's a very good film. However, I went to see 'Zindagi', meaning life. I'm sure Jamil (AP: The name changes here for some reason) Ansari understands what the word means quite well.
When the lights went down and the film began to unfold, I had a strange feeling. The sort one might have in a bar when, instead of a stiff whisky one has been handed for some reason a sweet and sour soft drink instead. It cannot be returned or thrown away, because that's not our culture. And so for two and a half hours I slowly sipped from this drink. Of course, if lots of ice is added to a soft drink it isn't without its charms.
'Zindagi' is a good film. It had everything in it, except perhaps for life. It had a counterfeit two-anna coin, which only director Barua could have used. It had songs which only Saigal could have sung. It had lines only Jamuna could have delivered. It had philosophy which Jamil Ansari has explained. And it had the touch of an extinguished candle, a moment Khwaja Abbas has appreciated.
On top of all this it had the scenes of telepathy that Miyan Kardar loved and which produced the magic at the box office. 'Zindagi' is a good film because PC Barua made it and New Theatres produced it. And because it stars Saigal and Jamuna.
How shall I describe it? Many trains come from Peshawar to Bombay. Some of them are express, and some very slow. If you are fine with going to Peshawar from Bombay, even if it takes you 10 or 15 days, you will like 'Zindagi'. Think of it as still water in which there is movement only when a leaf should fall. It's a road on which no car is ever seen. It goes straight, till death.
It is written as if the author is walking slowly along a straight line he has drawn himself. And in the end, with a thud, he falls over a cliff.
And so - 'Zindagi'. Life's problem is with, and its objection is to, death. It seems here innthis movie that life is on its knees before death. This film is the funeral of life, borne on Barua's shoulders. It should be said here that the dead are very heavy.
Many times in the film one notices that Barua has tired of his burden. He's out of breath and sitting in the shade of tree to recuperate.
Me, I like action. I like seeing things that are fast. Things which excite me, like cars driven at full speed, trains hurtling along. I like these. I think they are the essential part of what I think of as life and living.
This may be why, on seeing 'Zindagi', I felt no excitement. I felt in fact nothing. I came out of the hall feeling what I had felt on entering it.
I had gone to see life - what I saw instead was death.
Now I accept that death is the destination of life. But isn't even death full of life? Death isn't always dead. That death which slowly crushes life in its hands, which stills the bubbling of life's blood - that death cannot be lifeless.
In my opinion, death is more powerful than life. More full of life even, than life. But the death I saw in 'Zindagi' was dull, lifeless.
The film's story is about an unemployed graduate and an oppressed woman, whose husband is a drunk. As it unfolds, it seems as if the writer is trying to construct a building on quicksand. Every moment it is in danger of going in entirely.
The girl is melancholic, because she's been married off to the wrong man. He gets drunk and thrashes her. He throws her out of his house. But Ms Heroine is seen as claiming that she has left him.
I haven't figured out what act she performed to claim that. She was battered first and then flung away. He had no use for her. What sense does it make for her to say that she left him? She didn't have the courage to do this of her own will.
And when she's out and then she meets Ratan Lal, the vagabond, why on earth is she in hiding? And why is he so angry? And why, while we are at it, is he unemployed?
I heard him sing so exquisitely. He could have made more than a bit of money peddling this talent. Why, if 'Zindagi' is meant to be a story of our times, he could have walked into New Theatres and found a job immediately. Every film company is short of singers.
So why's he never doing anything?
I was convinced, after seeing the whole film, that he wanted it this way. This may be why the canvas of the film is so limited.
Life isn't a little puddle, it's an ocean on which both great yachts and little boats sail. But in this film, Ratan Lal and Ms Heroine keep making holes in the bottom of their vessel. So far as I got it, 'Zindagi' is a whine against society for not letting Ratan Lal and the girl be together. Their love remained uncomsummated. Is this bedding of a person the primary aspect of someone's 'Zindagi'? Are bodily relations everything?
Ms Heroine is married. There's no divorce among Hindus so she cannot marry her unemployed lover. And he apparently can't get his act together because he can't bed her. Is this what life is about?
I know that love is a powerful thing. The question is: What sort of love did these two actually share? So far as I understood it, it was sexual as such love tends to be.
If it had been something more than sexual desire, something more meaningful, something deeper, Ratan Lal would have moved his ass and done something about it.
And what does Ms Heroine do? She's a literate, educated girl. She knows the problem and the situation confronting her. She is confident enough to spend the night in the same room with a stranger rather than go to her father. She then roams the streets with this man. Could she not have fought for her rights, a woman such as her? She could have found a job and, truth be told, taken in her lover and supported him. She does nothing. She is afraid, we are told. Of what?
Barua has given the answer right at the end, when Ratan Lal begins to abuse society. Now I think it right that society should be abused, if not manhandled.
The question is - what and who is society? Are not these two people part of it? If society is a donkey, Ratan Lal is its tail, trying to whisk the flies off.
I'm told 'Zindagi' is a film about society. No doubt it is, because the word 'society' is referred to in it. And perhaps because it addresses the aspect that a woman who has been married off to the wrong fellow should be allowed to romance another man.
I'm in favour of this, but I want to see a war being fought for such rights. Some stuff should be broken in anger. A hammer taken to hand and smashed on the problem: Right, we're rid of this now.
Ms Heroine can, when she wants to, break the law and get into bed with Ratan Lal. Because she possesses the very heavy hammer of her father's wealth.
What was she waiting for? Tough to say. Opportunities have to be created to resolve a problem. Why wait for the solution to drift towards your boat?
The other thing that troubles me is this: Ms Heroine chooses, when thrown out, to go not to her father, but a stranger. Then, theatrically, she bumps into her sister and is told their father is dying. When she goes home, he praises her for her courage in 'leaving' her husband. And he wills to her all his wealth out of admiration for this courage. He doesn't ask her where she was all this time, and why she had now returned home.
Another strange thing about the story. To show that Ratan Lal is possessed by Ms Heroine, Barua uses a very tacky device. He has Ratan Lal bump into a friend in the market. The friend insists that Ratan Lal come home with him: "I'm having a party. Show your magic there."
This magic, telepathic communication, is difficult to depict. It is shown instead with the girl recieving voices in her head and having a conversation with the hero. I thought this was unbecoming of a director like Barua. It seems as if he's in the cinema hall, whispering into the ears of his audience: "Please remember, viewers, that the heroine is on our hero's mind. The... Heroine... Please... Understand..."
It was as obvious as that.
'Zindagi' is a well-packaged film. I suspect Barua picked up a few tips on this from Europe recently. I wish, like Barua, I could turn this review into a film. Alas, I have no New Theatres to back me. And without New Theatres, a film like this cannot be made.
Afterthoughts (a few lines written after the review was finished)
I repeat: There is no life in 'Zindagi'. It has death, and a lifeless sort at that. The image I have of this movie, now that I can look back at it, is that of a colourful balloon losing its air slowly. It is said this film represents a rebellion against society. A woman with her delicate hands breaks open the bonds that have been imposed on her.
I saw the film with these eyes of mine and I saw her bravery nowhere. I saw only her cowardice. Indeed, from one end of this film to the other, not one act of daring can be seen.
The film begins with a scene at Ratan Lal's house. The rent hasn't been paid. Hearing his landlord's voice, and fearing a confrontation, the terrified hero slips out of his house unnoticed.
Through the film we see that the hero and heroine keep running scared, even from those who are not enemies. Why would anyone want to chase them? And why do they hide all the time? Why are they alarmed by every sound?
Mr Abbas and Mr Jalil might be able to answer this in their way. I have my own explanation.
These two characters are not the people they should have been. Let me explain. Ms Heroine has been thrown out by her husband. She pines for love and male companionship. What does she do? Attach herself to the first available man she meets. We see the expression of her love on screen, and that's how it should be, because she is hungry for it. Hungry for physical love. She doesn't particularly care to know - for she doesn't even ask him - who or what Ratan Lal is. She just jumps straight into his lap because he's a man.
She is bold enough to sleep in a room with him alone, but not bold enough to own up to this. And I couldn't figure out why they kept crying all the time instead of doing something about it. Surely she was bold enough to have seen the thing through?
And why abuse society? When Ms Heroine is considering spending the night in Ratan Lal's company, society doesn't knock on the door and tear them apart. Nobody objects to their wandering about openly on the streets either.
Whatever Khwaja Abbas might say, the fact is that the two of them are aching to be in bed, but they also want that society not have a problem with that.
This story was about just the two of them. They could have done as they wished, and what difference would it have made to society? Would it have brought Armageddon?
If not, what was the point of this film? I has no bearing on reality, no relation to society. It is merely the story of one couple's inability to have sex. That's it. Why make it out to be something else?
The film calls itself 'Zindagi', or life. Life is not about a man and a woman. Life is about action. Life is struggle. Life is about staying alive.
This loser of a hero, who has an MA and who sings like an angel, could have earned thousands of rupees a month if he had chosen to work instead of whine. He knew magic, but he's shown as winning only a counterfeit two anna coin and wandering about the streets. I regret that it was Ms Heroine who was killed off in the end by the script. I wish Ratan Lal had gone instead, a useless man. He loves her but curses society.
Had I been society, I would have slapped the fool so hard he wouldn't have had the courage to stay an unemployed vagabond.
And another thing I didn't understand. When her father thinks she has done this great thing, he makes over all his wealth to Ms Heroine. She promptly begins to give it all away to charity. As an act this is fine, but what aspect of her character was driving her to do this? Was she doing it to get into heaven? It's all a mystery.
Khwaja Abbas says those who go to watch 'Zindagi' should carry with them two handkerchieves. I agree.
One to wipe your tears, the other to wipe Barua's!