"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto, and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing...
Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short-story writer: God or He.”
- Manto’s epitaph for himself
Over six decades after his death, the literary legacy of Saadat Hasan Manto remains as relevant as ever. Actress-filmmaker Nandita Das’ feature film Manto, which is set to release on 21 September and stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is a homage to a writer both celebrated and condemned for his fearless, honest writing.
Das calls Manto a “cosmopolitan Bombaywallah”, referring to the mix of Hindi and English words he used, despite being an ‘Urdu writer’. Manto stayed in Mumbai for a large part of his adult life, moving to Pakistan in 1948 post-Partition. While in Bombay, Manto was both an author as well as a screenwriter for films. In fact, the Hindi film industry greatly influenced Manto’s career — just as it did with many leading Urdu and Hindi writers of that era, including Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander, Qurratulain Hyder. These writers also spearheaded the Progressive Writers’ Movement in India. Manto, however, had reservations about the association and chose not to join.
Manto and his peers were unafraid of expressing the harsh realities of the times; voices of dissent, of course, have never had an easy time, and Manto found himself facing obscenity charges — both in India and Pakistan — for his stories (including Dhuan, Bu, Khol Do and Thanda Gosht).
His legal troubles and Partition took a toll. Manto became an alcoholic, and his home life deteriorated. He passed away on 18 January 1955.
For Nandita Das, the challenge was to depict not just Manto the man, but also his many literary characters. She also wanted to introduce the writer to those as yet untouched by his literary genius. Das spoke about her exploration of Manto and his 'Mantoiyat' (meaning, the spirit of Manto) through three phases of the filmmaking process: scripting, finding shoot locations and casting. These form the pillars of her upcoming film.
Das first encountered Manto’s writing while in college; she read the works in English. It was on reading Manto in Urdu that she awoke to the true meaning and essence of his words.
“When you start reading Manto’s works in their original form, you realise how poignant, pithy and perfect the play of words is. Yet it doesn’t feel like someone has laboured over it. It is absolutely raw, in fact, it is known that he never used to cut a single word,” says Das.
She also explains how being raised by a rather Manto-esque father — the renowned artist Jatin Das — helped her gain an insight into what it must have been like to be around the writer. “I grew up with a person who was a complete maverick. Like Manto, my father also never subscribed to the idea of selling art as a commodity in the market. They both didn’t have anything to with money, they were sort of purists in that sense. They were blunt to the point of being misunderstood and felt like misfits. Growing up with a father like that meant going through discomfort, and at the same time, feeling very proud and privileged to have the independence to live life on my own terms. These were not values from books, they were lived life ideals.”
After all, a film on Manto can’t just be about the protagonist; it is as much about the world around him.
Manto’s persona was developed through a detailed understanding of his relationships with others — the other Progressive writers; the film world which featured names like Ashok Kumar, Nargis, her mother Jaddan Bai; his closest friend Shyam; his wife Safia; his sisters; and his children. Das went to Lahore and met Manto’s daughters and other immediate family members (including Zakia Jalal, who was married to his favourite nephew Hamid Jalal). Hamid Jalal was a writer himself and wrote about his uncle; he took care of Manto at a time when alcoholism had reduced him to a state of penury.
“Their memories of him are very endearing. They remember Manto as a loving and engaging father. So when you collect all this information, you are finally telling a story that has the anger and outspokenness of Manto along with that undying love for his children and sensitivity towards his wife. Here was a man full of contradictions and you can’t take away that from him because it makes him that much more real. It was not an easy script at all. You need to understand all these emotions and depict those contradictions on the screen in a way that it is believable, which is a difficult feat to achieve in films,” says Das.
"Haqeeqat se inqaar karna kya hamein behtar insaan banayega? Main likhta hu jo main dekhta hu aur jaanta hu."
The shoot and location
Besides the performances of the main actors, a film like Manto also heavily relies on the mise-en-scène. Recreating the 1940s and incorporating every aspect of that era, including the people, places and events, was a daunting task for the makers of the film. Every detail was taken into consideration, and the list of historical influences is long: Colonial society, the freedom struggle, the Hindi film industry, men of letters, men on streets fighting over Partition and its aftermath.
Rita Ghosh, the art director of the film, explains how they executed the director’s brief and recreated that era. “Nandita’s brief to me was to create the period of the 1940s in a believable manner — the period of pre/post-Partition India. The film includes both the exterior as well as interior as spaces, so for me, it all started from research in terms of the look and feel for two distinct places — Mumbai and Lahore — and accordingly, the look for the architecture, props, costume, colour palettes, lighting, and so on.”
She says it was very challenging to shoot at two locations. “Maintaining the continuity was a challenge as we didn’t shoot in the chronological order of the story. Some parts of Lahore were recreated in spaces of Bombay, which included mostly the interiors. A conscious effort was made to show the space when Manto was in Bombay when he was in a better financial state, and when Manto goes to Lahore in 1948, where people were still trying to settle down after the Partition. There was still some tension in the air, there were riots on the streets, houses were burnt down, people were migrating. The detailing involved not only props but also altering the houses, lanes, market, lights and vehicles.”
Nandita Das’ Manto has been extensively shot in various parts of south Mumbai where Saadat Hasan Manto lived: Claire Road, Byculla, Grant Road, and Reay Road station. But because of the changes that the city has undergone since that era coupled with the inaccessibility of Lahore, she had to look for a place which still had the old-world charm, devoid of crowds of people, cables and cars everywhere.
After an exhaustive search, she found an undisturbed village in Gujarat named Vaso that became Das’ Lahore. There is a sense of irony in finding this location. “Firaaq (her 2008 National Award-winning feature film) was filmed in old Hyderabad, as we couldn’t shoot in Gujarat. I feared there would be tensions and we wouldn’t be allowed to shoot there. During the screening, I had people come up to me and say that they recognised certain streets and houses in Ahmedabad. I said, 'I am fine with you thinking that you know these streets and houses. I am not going to go around proving that we shot all of it in old Hyderabad city.' Similarly, for Manto, after many recces in Lucknow, Bhopal, Pune, Mumbai, Amritsar and various other parts of Punjab, I finally narrowed it down to Vaso. So, Firaaq which was set in Gujarat was shot in Hyderabad, while Manto was filmed in Gujarat.”
Attention had to be paid not only to the location but also to the costumes of the people — real and the fictitious. Sheetal Iqbal Sharma who did the costumes for the film takes us through the whole process behind choosing the right texture, style and colour palettes.
“The costumes had to reflect the honesty of Manto’s thoughts and convey the gloom, grunge and grittiness of his stories. We delved into the lives of people across the social strata and researched the looks of the 40s extensively. A lot of the information came from meeting families who have still preserved the items from that era as heirloom, souvenirs or just remnants. We were thrilled when Nandita informed us about her associations with the artists and that they have offered to lend us their sarees out of their vintage collectables for us to use in the party scenes. Some of the collectables came from Bina Sarkar, Ila Arun and legendary actor Smita Patil," says Sharma.
The everyday look of the people on the streets had to be devised from extensive research about the dressing sense in those times. Sharma explains, "A lot of mulmul, cottons, khadi, floral prints, tweeds and handloom have been used to bring out the essence. As for the women in the film, we have tried to depict them as any other female character aiming for happiness, love and respect. There are only subtle variations of details that have helped to differentiate the characters: the style of drapes, long blouse lengths, short length loose salwars and pajamas over the traditional loose silhouettes of the kameez, puffed sleeves with short length, long sleeves with cuffs, plain cotton fabric with zari or gota embellishment, or khadi with a resham embroidered border, patterns of necklines with collars, laces and trims and styles of bindi as kumkum or chandan on the forehead.”
Since Partition was such an integral part of the film’s narrative, it obviously impacted Manto’s look and feel. Sharma says, “With regards to culture and costume history, the era of the 1940s and early 1950s cannot be divided in India and Pakistan. What differed was the approach to the transition of the film. Nandita presented the story as one film but segmented it well enough in terms of the feel of the frame."
While the pre-Partition stories have some of the refreshing, charming and glamorous vibe of Indian cinema and the Bombay Talkies, the post-Partition era needed to show a brutal saga of destruction and despair.
“The era of the Bombay Talkies has enchanting hues of deep reds, bottle green, royal blue and burgundy mixed with pastel browns and grey with slight hints of sheen to the frame, while post-Partition Lahore has been shown in ruins, with clothes tattered and the general feeling of loss and confusion in the air. So our colour palette was derived from the burnt and weathered backdrops of the refugee camps. Every single garment went through weeks of ageing, drying in the sun and washes in muddy water for texture. The costumes had to merge into the surroundings they were placed in to portray the melancholic stillness required in the frame,” adds Sharma.
Nandita Das has mentioned that while working on Manto, she always envisaged Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the title role. Casting Rasika Dugal as Safiya, Manto’s wife, was a result of both Dugal’s credibility as a performer as well as her uncanny resemblance to the real Safiya. Because the film industry features in Manto, there’s also a league of supporting cast members playing the parts of Bollywood luminaries like Ashok Kumar, Nargis, K Asif, and so on.
Finding actors to play these roles was a challenging task. Casting director Honey Trehan came to Das’ rescue. “Casting these iconic yesteryear stars cannot actually happen through a brief; we all know who they were, how they looked. When Nandita approached me, I asked for a week’s time in order to research and study these people. Though I didn’t want these actors to be caricatured in this film, their mannerisms and looks were really important. We’d never call out their names in the film. Instead, we wanted viewers to figure out who these people are through their conversations with each other,” says Trehan.
The actors who play film stars are Bhanu Uday (Ashok Kumar), Sahil Vaidya (K Asif), Ila Arun (Jaddan Bai), Indian-British actor Feryna Wazheir (Nargis), and Rishi Kapoor as a lecherous producer. A league of promising actors and veterans like Paresh Rawal, Gurdas Maan, Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta, and Vinod Nagpal essay characters from Manto’s literary world, including the short stories Thanda Gosht, Khol Do and Toba Tek Singh. Lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar also features in the film as Abid Ali Abid, a renowned Urdu poet and the principal of Dyal Singh College in Pakistan, who was called as a witness during the trial of Manto when he was charged with obscenity.
According to Trehan, Akhtar’s decision to play the role was the biggest form of tribute from one poet to another.
Trehan says that getting all these names on board was a result of the everlasting impact of Manto and his words. “About 90-95 percent of the actors in the film belongs to the theatre or have some literature background. And every theatre actor aspires to play a character from the world of Manto at least once in their lifetime; his characters are so full of honesty and they are real-life people. Of these actors, 90 percent worked in the film for free; they all came to pay their respects to Manto. Perhaps Manto himself chose the actors who would be part of his biopic, not me. Not Nandita. He is the true casting director of the film.”
— Still images from the film courtesy Viacom18 Motion Pictures. Storyboards and other pictures courtesy Nandita Das.