Manto focused on the horror of partition as well as the lives of labourers, petty officials and women
ome writers and artistes become the subject of other writers and artistes’ work. Saadat Hasan Manto has been one such person. His life was no less dramatic than his writings. He was hounded for having written things that had explicit content and accused of sabotaging the narrative that a new state was in the process of constructing.
There was remarkable realism in his writings. He depicted the horrors of partition with a no-holds-barred approach. He was not afraid of making the dispossessed of the world - labourers, petty officials, self-employed workers and the women who plied the sex trade - his subjects. His has been one of the most humane of treatments meted out without romanticising sex work or condemning it. It is a treatment of them with the strengths and foibles that is the lot of us humans. This was resented by dogmatists, both of the Right and the Left. Manto felt alone and cornered and had no fallback position. Those were the heady days of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Manto was pressured to join it but he was too independent a spirit to conform to the lines that were laid down and insisted on maintaining his artistic freedom. He was, thus, bombarded from all sides. He became grist to his passion. His physical side gave under the pressure and he died at a relatively early age.
Most of all, he became a victim of the industry. Both publication and show business trades exploit the artiste/ writer. Pressed for money to feed his family and to keep the hearth warm, he felt constrained to undersell his writings. The publishers and producers made the buck without remorse while he silently killed himself working overtime.
Ghalib has been a poet who caught the fancy of the film writers and television playwrights. Much of his life, too, has been projected on screen, big and small. Interestingly, the screenplay for Sohrab Modi’s film Mirza Ghalib, made in the nineteen fifties, was provided by Saadat Hasan Manto. Both Ghalib and Manto appealed to producers and directors from across the divide and their lives were thought to be interesting enough to be made into works of art. Both Ghalib and Manto were not sold on slogans like freedom, independence, religion, patriotism and commitment but explored the other side and how it informed the human condition. It has been a more complex treatment. Such writers and artistes usually face the wrath of those mouthing ‘big’ ideas and brandishing statements. Both were anti-manifesto types, more concerned about the core human material.
Most of all, he became a victim of the industry. Both publication and show business industries exploit the artiste/ writer. Pressed for money to feed his family and to keep the hearth warm, he was made to undersell his writings. The publishers and producers made the buck without remorse while he silently killed himself working overtime.
Many of the works of Manto, too, have been made into plays or films. One reason for this could be that his writings were more conducive to being rendered on screen. Manto, during his years in Bombay, had worked for films, usually scripting the stories or writing screen plays. That must have sharpened his ability to write for the screen rather than just be a full time writer not aware of the requirements of the stage or the films. Manto was cherished by those espousing progressive causes and many of his stories were adapted for the stage by various theatre groups.
Initially, when Kamal Ahmed Rizvi suggested that Manto’s stories be made into teleplays in the nineteen sixties, Manto was still seen as a disgraced figure. His name carried a notoriety which the middle class respectability standards did little to accommodate. Badshahat Ka Khatama was played on the Lahore Arts Council stage in the early nineties sixties probably because Faiz Ahmed Faiz was heading the organisation after serving his second stint in jail and was made to hold a job that was not exclusively in the public sector. Later, Mantorama, televised from the Karachi Centre, was directed by Kunwar Aftab Ahmed. The lead role was played by SM Saleem, the famed radio artiste and broadcaster.
Sarmad Sehbai’s teleplay Naya Qanoon was handled with a great deal of fineness and brought out the hidden layers that underlie the many levels that Manto’s writings can be exposed to. Too often, the apparent starkness of his stories catches the attention and the subtle nuances that speak of greater and sympathetic understanding go unappreciated. Sarmad Khoosat’s film on Manto devoted too much time attention to Noor Jehan. Nawazuddin Siddqui’s portrayal of Manto, directed by Nandita Das, was much more sensitively handled. It allowed Manto to be shown with his human dimension and riddled with paradoxes.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore