Nandita Das’ biopic on Manto is going to bring lot of attention to the South Asia’s most famous storyteller. Saadat Hasan Manto , or Manto as he is known to most of his fans, was an Urdu writer and journalist born in British India state of Punjab and made his name in literary world when he translated Victor Hugo and Russian writers books in Urdu. Most known for his short stories and essays, he is also credited for Radio plays that he wrote for All India Radio, Novel and screenplays for hits he wrote for yesteryears film studios like Bombay Talkies and Filmistaan in Bombay.
Manto lived in two stings in Bombay where he worked as film journalist and movie writer and contributed in the early years of the film industry, He has documented his Bombay in two books – “Bombay Stories by Manto” is collection of short stories written during his time there- stories from the Chawls, brothels and film studios is explicit and unveiled portrayal of the city’s confused and unseen.
The second book, “The stars of another sky”- is the collection of essays written during the early days of Film industry featuring some of popular known stars like Ashok Kumar, Nargis and Noor Jahan and some of lesser known stars like Kuldip Kaur and her relationship with Pran. These stories are so personal and candid that you almost feel you are part of those mehfil, drunken madness and creative discussions in the book. The charm of Manto’s writing is his straight forwardness and honesty. During his writing career, he has managed to offend everyone he knew and also invited court cases both in British India and Independent Pakistan for Obscenity in his writing. His stories during partition were appreciated as he changed the focus from the division due to religion but the common things across both borders- inhumanity, greed and lust.
Coming back to his writing on Bombay’s film industry, Manto brings back the memories of the infant years of the industry. He shows how the bonds between Urdu- Punjabi speaking artists shaped the linguistics of films and you can interject how this community continues to dominate the creative side of the business. Another community that ruled the films in India was the Bengali artists. During that era, outside Bombay, Calcutta was also big film hub and many regional cinemas especially Punjabi films were produced there. One of the first stars from the era- Ashok Kumar ( birth name- Kumudlal Ganguly) gets a generous chapter in the book where Manto discusses about his friendship with ‘Dadamuni’ and Ashok’s rise to fame during the early works with Bombay Talkies studio. Ashok’s sister was married to Sashadhar Mukherjee, who worked in Bombay Talkies introduced the Ganguly family to the industry (Kisore Kumar, the most popular playback singer in India was the youngest brother of Ashok Kumar). Ashok Kumar worked as the lab assistant before he was tried for screen test later to the surprise of many because of his unconventional looks.
Another interesting chapter in on Nargis ( birth name Fatima Rashid), who was still referred as ‘Baby Nargis’ by her famous mother Jaddanbai who was a prominent film personality herself. Nargis became extremely popular during the early days of industry but she was still a curious teenager back then. One interesting incident that Manto shared in the book was an encounter between Nargis and Manto’s wife and sisters where Nargis accepted their anonymous invitation over phone to visit Manto’s Byculla flat. Her mother Jaddanbai , who before was ‘tawaif’ (Mughal India’s equivalent to Japanese Culture of Gheisha. However later were wrongly used words for prostitutes) in Allahabad region who contributed as singer, music director and actress in many early projects. She was also the illegimate half sister of Independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawahal Lal Nehru. She starred in the movies like “Madam Fashion and Talashe Haq (where Nargis played as a child artist and was introduced in casting as “Baby Nargis”). This shows that many early contributors in the industries came from the traditional gharanas of Indian performing arts. This is why Qwali, mujara, sher and khatak were important part of the films back then (wonder why our movies were and are always musicals) . Manto also mentioned the early contribution of famous poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Noor Jehan , both of them migrated to Pakistan after the partition, were one of the most talented artists from South Asia.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is staring as Manto in the film produced by Nandita Das has recently, said that it is his most important role yet. I have also seen a Pakistani film called “Manto” (highly recommended) in Mumbai International Film Festival that was based on his last years fighting court cases, alcoholism and doing his time at mental asylum (few chapters of the book- Stars from Another Sky’ is also written during his stay in asylum). In one of his last literary work, Manto questions through his lead character in Toba Tek Singh on the state of affairs between both countries. Some of the hindu and Sikh Lunatics were transferred to India after the Independence and it was the perfect political satire that questions the very concept of division. Manto claimed his stories were the mirror through which society can see themselves and with his these two books (Bombay Stories and Stars from another sky ) are the mirror of those days of Bollywood when our Grandparents were kids and films were far and few.
Recommended Readings in the Post –
- Toba Tek Singh
- Stars from Another Sky
- Bombay Stories by Manto