Women in films: Manto's musings on India's dubious morality

Saadat Hasan Manto was the most interesting Urdu writer of the 20th century. A Punjabi of Kashmiri ancestry, he came like many from undivided Punjab to Bombay to seek work in Bollywood. He found some success here as a writer, and more success as a friend of stars like Ashok Kumar and Himanshu Rai.

He panicked during Partition and decided to leave for Lahore, thinking he could continue working there. In Lahore, he lived in a lovely flat in a building called Lakshmi Mansion (where Mani Shankar Aiyar was born) given to the Mantos as refugee property.

Saadat Hasan Manto.

Pakistan had no film industry and its religious state began to persecute the freethinking writer for obscenity. Out of work, with little money, Manto began thinking about Partition and wrote short stories about its meaninglessness. These made him famous much later, in the 1980s.

He drank himself to death at age 42 in 1955. His sole source of money towards the end came from little sketches he would write for newspapers and magazines. Pakistanis were obsessed, as they are still, with Bollywood (it was not called that then), and Manto's association with it helped him.

He would scribble these pieces, often standing up, and take his money and be off. Though Manto's fiction has often been translated, his non-fiction, these hurriedly written pieces have not been for the most part.

They have been compiled in his Urdu anthology, in a book called Manto kay mazameen (Manto's essays). Some are on films, but most aren't. We shall publish them as a series once a week.

Manto is to be read for the directness of his language, and the modern way in which he approached the world intellectually. This second thing cannot be said for most Urdu writers who are forgotten, and perhaps deservedly so.

Virtuous women and the world of cinema

(Translated by Aakar Patel from Manto's Sharif aurtein aur filmi duniya. )

From the time that Hindustani films and working in them has come to prominence, the greater part of society has debated this question.

Should women of virtue work in movies or not?

Some gentlemen, who want this profession to be cleansed of its image and association with women of the street, want the women of good virtue to enter Bollywood.

There are other gentlemen for whom this association with cinema is not only off-putting, but a crime. These guardians of morality forget that though they seek to erase from one set of faces the stain of immorality, it will of course remain in another set.

Removing the women of the street from the film set will not mean that the market for the sale of women's bodies for pleasure will end.

Those who oppose the presence in cinema of fallen women, whose skill at acting and at singing otherwise brings them entertainment and relief, forget that these women were once not fallen.

If a woman from a brothel should leave it and find work in the line of cinema, then we have little right to oppose her.

Prostitutes are really the product of society. Then why do we raise the demand for an end to them, when they form a legitimate part of our culture?

If they are to be reformed, then we must also reform all other work that is associated with the body.

The clerk in the office spends his day in writing and inspecting his books of accounts. Similarly, the seller of alcohol spends his day making a living his way. Both for for the same reason. Only their method is different.

It's possible that our office clerk, should he have no other option, might also turn to selling alcohol. We would not hate him for this, even if we did not like those who drank.

What reason could there be for such hatred to be shown only when a woman offers to sell what she has of value -- her body?

The circumstance of such a woman is surely not deserving of hatred or contempt. The good women of our good families are the way they are, so fragrant to us, because of the social conditions in which they were brought up.

From the security of their home, they enter the financial safety of their husband's home. From the rough ways of the world, they are at all times distant.

The woman who didn't have a father's shelter above them, who had no education, who had to feed herself with her own devices, such a woman is as a pebble broken off from the pavement.

Prostitutes are not born, they are made. Or they make themselves.

That thing for which there is demand will always enter the market. The demand of men is of course for the body of the woman. This is why every city has its red light area.

If the demand were to end today, these areas would vanish of themselves.

Our classification of women, this naming of them and this branding of them as prostitutes is itself wrong.

A man remains a man no matter how poor his conduct. A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance, from the role given her by men, doesn't remain a woman but a whore.

She is viewed with lust and contempt. Society closes to her the doors it leaves ajar for a man stained by the same ink.

If both are equal, why are our barbs reserved for the woman?

It is being demanded that the entry into studios of prostitutes be forbidden. Does this not tell us that man is incapable of controlling himself? That he is in fact much weaker than the woman?

To those men who say that women from 'good families' must come into the world of cinema, I have this question:

What is it that you mean by 'good'?

That woman, who puts on display her wares honestly, and sells them without intention to cheat, is such a woman not virtuous?

To these men, who want actresses to be those women only who are possessed of virtue, I ask: Is it fine for the man who acts to be not virtuous?

I would say it is necessary for both actors and actresses to be, not virtuous, but familiar with the emotions they portray.

I say a woman unfamiliar with the pain of separation from her lover cannot properly enact it.

The woman unacquainted with sadness will not be able to show us melancholy.

The facts are before us, we cannot run away from them. If it is quality of movies we make that concerns us, we must correct our vision.

Flaws of character are the personal problem of the individual. They have nothing to do with the talent of the person, which is the aspect that interests us.

Our films, whether acted in by women of virtue or women of fallen virtue, must reflect reality.

I clarify here that I don't necessarily think of prostitution as a fine thing. I don't want that prostitutes be given entry into studios for the fact of their being prostitutes alone.

What I want to say, and what I have said, is clear enough.

If an actress has no memory of pain, no idea of sorrow, she will never be a quality actress.

To be an actress a woman must be familiar with the fine and the less fine aspects of life.

Whether she is from a brothel or from an eminent family, to me an actress is an actress.

Her morality, or her immorality, doesn't really interest me.

Her talent and art are not related to the kind of human being she otherwise might be.


Updated Date: Nov 16, 2012 13:39 PM

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