AfsanaBadosh ep 4: Listen to Manto's 'Mera Naam Radha Hai' | Presented by Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam
AfsanaBadosh, presented by Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam, celebrates the spirit of storytelling through narrations of the greatest Hindi and Urdu stories. This is Episode 4 — Saadat Hasan Manto's 'Mera Naam Radha Hai', as performed by KC Shankar.
Editorial support, execution and text by Neerja Deodhar | Art by Pinaki De | Episode edited by Varun Patil
afsana (story, legend) | khanabadosh (vagabond, gypsy)
AfsanaBadosh is the coming-together of stories and a vagabond perspective to traversing the world of fiction. It is embodied by the sort of person whose head is always in a book, or who looks for stories in the places they visit and people they meet.
But it is not that cliche of an old man with a long, white beard who trades in legend and cannot rest in one place. AfsanaBadosh is us: ordinary individuals who have experienced the beauty of storytelling in different contexts — as a way to better know the world, to find a sense of solace, and to enrich and entertain. It speaks to an ability to listen to and contend with ideas different from our own; to learn from the past and build a better future.
AfsanaBadosh is Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam's celebration of the spirit of storytelling through narrations of fiction written by some of Hindi and Urdu's greatest writers. These include Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Mannu Bhandari, Krishan Chander and Premchand.
The stories that are part of this project have been chosen for their continuing social resonance, decades after they were published. The foundation of each story is a sense of truth, whether real or imagined.
Episode 4 — Saadat Hasan Manto's 'Mera Naam Radha Hai', performed by KC Shankar. Listen to more episodes here.
SAADAT HASAN MANTO was many men inhabiting one mind: a voice of the Partition era; a chronicler of Bombay; an icon of free speech and a challenger of moralistic censorship; a purveyor of realism; a writer who made full use of the short story form.
Allied with the Indian Progressive Writers' Association, he displayed an ease across several forms of writing, including plays and screenplays. Among his most well-known short stories are Toba Tek Singh, Thanda Gosht and Kaali Salwar.
He was as prolific as he was controversial; he was tried for obscenity over five times.
Manto's proximity to the film industry did not stop him from being one of its most wry observers. In 'MERA NAAM RADHA HAI', he talks about how attraction and intimacy can play out in a film studio, where gender relations are charged and volatile.
We are introduced to Raj Kishore and Neelam through the eyes of Manto himself, who at the time was a low-level employee of a film studio. The world inhabited by these characters — Bombay's cinema — is a colourful one, with a rich, lecherous studio owner, chatty production staff, and charismatic stars.
Manto's predictable work routine combined with his access to this world allowed him to look beyond the obvious, a trademark of the writer's style. Raj Kishore — handsome and well-built — has countless fans who are in awe of his personality, looks and spirit. One of the reasons for this enduring love was that he did not keep himself insulated from his admirers; if there was a social cause or cultural meeting, Raj Kishore was sure to be present. Producers and other people of authority, too, would remark about his solid character.
But the author is not taken in by any of this because of how aware of, and egotistical about, his good looks and body Raj Kishore is. He would boast about how he looked and even make fun of those who were not as fit as him.
Despite this, the author remained in the small minority that was not his avowed fan. Raj Kishore's most ordinary stories would reach the people as legend. He even respectfully referred to his heroines as 'sister'.
Yet despite his tall stature, the hero is but a foil to Neelam, who describes herself as being 'zabardast'. Her real name was Radha, but she chose not to use this name because of how lovely it was and how it would be tainted by the film industry. She was a tawaif of Benaras. Neelam would mispronounce Manto's name despite knowing the right way to say it, and her justification for this was that she never corrected herself once she had made a mistake.
She had her own sense of individuality and a solemnity (sanjeedgi) which was misunderstood by everyone in the studio. This set her apart from other women. We later discover in the story that she also owned her sexuality and did not shy away from it. She confesses that she has become quite cynical about love since her youth.
Manto and Neelam develop a friendship because of their ability to speak openly and directly to each other. Their opinions especially converge when it comes to Raj Kishore's compulsion to call all women except his wife 'sister': What drove his need to do this, and was it entirely well-intentioned? Was it even necessary, or was it a way to hide darker secrets?
Among Manto's many literary talents is his ability to paint a scene, of which there are many sparkling examples in this story. Whether it is the remark about how both a cup of chai and the latest gossip about a new actress had warmed up those in the studio, or employing the image of two cats fighting to describe sexual tension, Mera Naam Radha Hai is rich in visual detail.
Manto's sharp comment on the hollowness of the image Raj Kishore was trying to create for himself tells us that the phenomenon of carefully manicured and curated celebrity personas is hardly new. It has perhaps existed for as long as film celebrities have. While today film stars engage in elaborate PR and image management through their social media accounts, then the medium of choice was word of mouth. Stories about stars filtered down from studios to the audience to maintain the myth about their greatness, to ensure that they were protected from both gossip and real news about their bad behaviour and misdemeanours.
Closely connected to this phenomenon is the framing of male stars as 'bhais' or brotherly figures, which continues to this day, and was especially popular in the 80s and 90s. Actors liked to portray themselves as being good, decent men who care for their families and fans, whose character was solid and who could do no wrong. This insulated them from gossip about affairs or other questionable things they may be up to in their personal lives.
The story gives us a glimpse into Manto's own ideas about beauty and attractiveness: it is evident that he is partial to the sort that can be felt from within, with one's heart, as opposed to the sort that can, ironically, become an eyesore.
The author, despite his bias against one protagonist and softer stance towards another, does not neatly label one as being correct and the other as being wrong. He recognises the complexity of the situation at hand and presents it as is. However, the listener would be remiss to think that attraction expressed by a man and a woman were viewed the same way at the time Manto was writing; female sexuality was looked at as villainous (the 'vamp' characters almost always wore their sexuality on their sleeves). This is what makes the end of the story particularly powerful.
Mera Naam Radha Hai is also a comment on the cottage industry of Bollywood gossip that is inseparable from the film industry itself. As is typical in Mumbai, stories of scandal were to be found at paan shops. The audience at the time, though it was capable of being completely enamoured by an actor such as Raj Kishore, was also prone to pronouncing harsh judgments about those it watched on the screen, entirely forgetting the fact that actors can also make mistakes and take missteps.
The passage of time makes it clear that nothing about this attitude has changed; take for example the vilification and shaming of Rhea Chakraborty. Social media and a constant onslaught of news (often driven by vested interests) about celebrities' most intimate life updates ensures that the audience's reaction to them can shake the country up.
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