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Saadat Hasan Manto: From the man to the movie

As Nandita Das's biopic of Manto releases in India, his grandson recalls how his illustrious grandfather's life and legacy were captured on film

Manto with wife Safia (left), sister-in-law Zakia Hamid Jalal and baby Nighat in Mumbai. Photograph courtesy: The Manto family
Manto with wife Safia (left), sister-in-law Zakia Hamid Jalal and baby Nighat in Mumbai. Photograph courtesy: The Manto family

The release of Manto, the biopic about Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-55), directed by Nandita Das and with Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead, is a momentous event in the life of the great Urdu writer’s family.

Three years in the making, this is the second such movie on Manto since his birth centenary celebrations in 2012. The interest in the writer’s life and work grew manifold when Pakistani actor Sarmad Khoosat released a biopic (also called Manto) in 2015 to critical acclaim. But Khoosat’s Manto was devoid of any input from the Manto family, and some portions of it were misrepresented or entirely fictionalized. For instance, after watching it, a familial source confirmed that a scene showing Manto’s wife, Safia, taking money from a courtesan for her husband’s medical treatment never occurred in real life.

Das, however, took the family on board at every juncture and worked in tandem with those familiar with Manto to ensure her depiction was a true reflection of the writer’s life. Das’ relationship with the Manto family was cemented during the making of the movie and she worked in close collaboration with Manto’s daughters Nuzhat Manto and Nusrat Jalal. Her visit to Pakistan in March 2015 kickstarted what was a Herculean project to initiate in-depth research into Manto’s life as a scriptwriter in the Mumbai film industry and the challenges he faced there. Das stayed at Nuzhat’s place in Lahore for a few days. “She made us feel she was a part of our family and not a guest," his middle daughter Nuzhat says.

As Manto’s grandson, I had an opportunity to meet Das during her stay at our place. Observing her work from close quarters and interacting with her was a memorable experience. During her visit, Das also met Safia’s sister Zakia Hamid Jalal, who had seen Manto up close till his untimely demise. Apart from gleaning crucial insights into the writer’s family life, she also learned about the affectionate father he was to his daughters, the financial tensions that had gripped the family in those tumultuous years, as well as his intellectual arrogance.

Apart from Zakia Hamid Jalal, Das was regularly in touch with Nuzhat during the filming process via email and WhatsApp. Whenever she needed any information, Nuzhat provided whatever knowledge she had about her father. If Nuzhat was unable to verify a fact or clarify a question, she reached out to the extended family to corroborate it. The communication between Das and Nuzhat was frequent, which culminated in the sharing of the final script, which the family was asked to review. Shahid Jalal, nephew and son-in-law of Manto, read it and praised it for its depth of character and powerfully structured narrative.

In making this movie on Manto, Das wanted to show that he wasn’t merely a writer, but a husband, father and a complete family man. The stigma of controversy, the contentious nature of writings, the grisly realism and the bitter truths of life he wrote about, inspired Das to take up this challenge and deliver something memorable.

Nandita also saw shades of her own father, artist Jatin Das, in Manto. In an interview with Hindustan Times last month, she said, “When I read Manto’s essays and what had been written about him, I wondered why he sounded so familiar. I realized that I have grown up with a person like him. My father, a painter, definitely has a lot of Mantoiyat in him. He has never really been part of the ‘art market’, much like Manto, who was such a progressive writer but never joined the Progressive Writer’s Association. Both of them anyway had nothing to do with money in the sense they were never motivated by it, even though they earned a living through it. They were both passionate about their work and beyond that, deeply sensitive human beings."

In an earlier piece for Lounge (“Saadat Hasan Manto, the family man", 20 January), I had written that Manto’s towering legacy was still shining, 63 years after his death. His stories resonated with the reality of his time, portrayed the struggles of common people, the discrimination and miseries they suffered. His penmanship was undeniably sharp, it breathed fire and caused a furore among those who couldn’t digest too much reality. Das has tried to capture Manto’s life and work in all these complexities.

After the movie was shot, Das screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May. It received an overwhelming response. A thrilled Das sent a WhatsApp message to Nuzhat about the movie’s rapturous reception.

Nuzhat, who was in Mumbai and New Delhi to attend the premiere of Manto, was happy to see the film. Since Mumbai featured widely in Manto’s writings, his daughters had always felt nostalgic about the city where their father had spent a large part of his life. Safia spoke fondly of their days in Mumbai, in the early to mid-1940s. Their mother’s remembrances encouraged his daughters to make their maiden trip to the city, and that too on the special occasion of the premiere of a movie about their illustrious father. “Following one’s heart is not easy in this age of commercialism," as Nusrat Jalal says, “Nandita wanted to highlight Manto as a family man, besides being a renowned and much maligned writer, and has succeeded in doing so."

Manto released on 21 September.

Mohammad Farooq is a senior sub-editor at the business desk for Profit by Pakistan Today


Reading Manto right

Manto Saheb—Friends And Enemies On The Great Maverick (2018)

Translated by Vibha Chauhan and Khalid Alvi

(Speaking Tiger; 450)

This recent offering by Speaking Tiger provides a rare glimpse into the life of Saadat Hasan Manto, coloured by the voices of those who intimately knew him. The omnibus features accounts by Manto’s literary contemporaries like Ismat Chughtai, Balwant Gargi and Upendranath Ashk, as well reminiscences by his family. The book reveals Manto as a complex character: a fiercely vocal writer, chronic provocateur and alcoholic, doting father and husband.

The Pity Of Partition—Manto’s Life, Times And Work, Across The India-Pakistan Divide (2013) By Ayesha Jalal

(HarperCollins India; 650)

Historian Ayesha Jalal mines Manto’s oeuvre of stories, essays and his private collection of letters to explore the tragedy of Partition. The grand-niece of the literary great, Jalal breathes life into the characters, incidents and locales that inspired Manto’s writings.

Bitter Fruit: The Very Best Of Saadat Hasan Manto (2008)

Edited and translated by Khalid Hasan

(Penguin India; 650)

Khalid Hasan’s 700-page anthology encompasses over 50 stories written by Manto, essays, one play, sketches, as well as a selection of biographical portraits of those who inhabited the world of cinema. The title for the anthology was borrowed from a piece by Manto called Manto’s Prayer. The anthology features sketches like Jelly, an 80-word vivid description of congealed blood, as well as other favourites like Toba Tek Singh.

— Radhika Iyengar

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