"I hide behind aesthetics" -- Sarmad Khoosat

September 6, 2015

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat talks about his creative journey, from Humsafar to the explosive Manto, and how he’s handled the ‘gentrification’ of an impossibly raw, complex subject

It’s been a prolific year for the ‘new wave’ Pakistani cinema. Of the eagerly awaited, mainstream ‘films’ released over the summer, some turned out to be teleplays, others were three-hour commercials. Just two were deemed worthy of the title ‘film’.

Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto is exceptionally problematic because it’s wearing its differences on its sleeve. It attempts to explore the heart of darkness within the subcontinent’s most controversial literary genius and is a self-proclaimed biopic. The auteur’s last offering was the technically exceptional candyfloss Humsafar, a saas-bahu drama about cousin-marriage, vamps and misunderstandings in love. And Khoosat is candid about the fact that Manto was originally shot as a TV serial and later ‘converted’ to film.

Despite this, Manto is the most eagerly anticipated film of the decade - if the social media is any indicator.

What was Sarmad Khoosat thinking?

Instep: You exploded into the mainstream with Humsafar, as a very slick director with a very unusual narrative style…

Sarmad Khoosat (SK): I have no formal training; I’m self-taught. I started my ‘showbiz’ career by teaching film at Kinnaird; I was filling in for friends. But I started out very studious and academic. I wanted to be a doctor or a therapist so I did my pre-med and then a Masters in Psychology. But I withdrew from that for emotional and financial reasons.

From 1999, I started writing, acting, working on radio. I did sitcoms, some practical work and read up on films and filmmaking. And watching Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray, I was forced to explore a new narrative style.

Instep: But surely you had more exposure than most, being Irfan Khoosat’s son.

SK: As a child, I never used to go to film or TV sets. My mother was a broadcaster and we were a very normal family. At home, I saw them working terribly, terribly hard. I still remember, my father was shooting for a play the evening my sister was getting engaged. He came for a while, in full makeup, so we have family portraits of the engagement with my father dressed as a Sikh.

Earlier at Aitchison, on the first day of class, everyone got up to talk about what their fathers did - someone was a politician, a banker, a businessman. When I got up and said mine was an actor, everyone turned around in disbelief, as if to ask, "Is that even a serious profession for an adult?" Later in life, I’d just say he was an artiste and not elaborate.

The glamour and fascination came much later. Even when I started working at Abba’s ad agency, I’d wait for hours for Shaan, Reema and Meera… But the storytelling, the technical aspect of this business always fascinated me.

Instep: From Humsafar to Manto, how have you evolved as a director?

SK: Humsafar happened after I’d been working for 10-12 years. Earlier, I used to do either sitcoms or really dark stuff. My first serious play was a Bano Qudsia play with complex, psychological undertones. I then adapted (Rabindranath Tagore’s) Chokher Bali and (Daphne du Maurier’s) Rebecca for TV.

Humsafar was a melodrama; it was about understanding one’s audience and directing a hardcore romantic drama. And it was actually a very steep learning curve in terms of aesthetics, because I was coming from a Lahore burrow. I thought Humsafar was fantasy, not real. It allowed me to indulge in melodrama the way Shakespeare did.

But Humsafar helped me learn about the mainstream sensibility. I wouldn’t have gotten a Manto without having delivered a Humsafar. It is an industry at the end of the day. I’m not telling stories to a niche audience; it’s primetime television and I’m no Bergman or Ray. I used to be very self-indulgent in how I wrote and directed; now there’s a greater recognition in how to narrate for the mainstream. And that also has producers trusting me more.

Instep: Has Manto become politically acceptable enough for a mainstream film?

SK: Manto is acceptable to people who’re 10 years younger. My generation is darpoke (fearful). We grew up under Zia; we were taught not to question the Islamiat teacher. ‘Anti-establishment’ is only read as unpatriotic now; we were taught that it was right to be deprived of the right to question. We have self-censorship so strongly ingrained in us, we can’t be as bold.

With Thanda Gosht in the film, I’ve reinterpreted metaphors. Even the scene where Eeshwar Singh’s throat is slit, I hide behind aesthetics, I’m sublimating the essence of Manto. The audience loves the steam; they don’t want to feel the vapour. And I realised that with Humsafar.

Manto is now fashionable with literature festivals being in vogue. Vogue matters to us. The people who’re now connecting with Manto are those who have read only translations. But ‘khol do’ is untranslatable, ‘thanda gosht’ is untranslatable. A thandi aurat isn’t a frigid bitch; the former is very acceptable in our cultural context.

Instep: How was the film conceived?

SK: I’ve been obsessed, scandalized, awestruck by Manto since I first read him. I wrote and acted in a short film based on a story by Manto for Indus TV 12 years ago. Then I did Manto on stage, did some public readings.

In 2012, Shahid Mehmood Nadeem wrote a biopic on Manto’s life, interspersed with his stories, for TV. Simultaneously, Sarmad Sehbai called me up to remind me it was Manto’s centenary and Geo decided to support Shahid Mehmood Nadeem’s venture. It was a cosmic thing. I initially signed up as a director till Shahid sahib persuaded me to act as well.

Originally, I shot the (now) film as a 20-part teleserial. As an actor, it was hugely satisfying - you can’t offer an actor anything more: Manto is larger-than-life, angry, dying, tormented, anti-establishment, creative…

Instep: But purists insist that film and TV are irreconcilable mediums, that each has its own language. In fact, your film doesn’t really feel like a film in some parts…

SK: Since Manto himself didn’t fit the conventional mode, neither does the film. His content - as his life - is very cinematic yet very fluid, amenable to translation across various mediums. He wrote for film, for radio, for stage. He translated Russian literature, wrote biographical sketches, journalistic articles, three-liner short stories, film. And that’s the way I approached the project.

I’ve been influenced by the Soviet Montage theory. It was so unconventional for TV: each part (of the teleserial) had a short story and I treated each story with a different narrative technique. Bits of the film are thus very technique-heavy, stylistically exaggerated, like Thanda Gosht is very Yoko Ono, 400 frames a minute, which is unprecedented for TV… But then, Woody Allen wouldn’t care about existing narrative structures; some Europeans filmmakers wouldn’t care about the protagonist’s arc.

Saba Qamar essays the character of Madam Noor Jehan but does she manage to do justice to the legend?

The language, grammar, syntax of cinema and TV is overlapping and this room for coexistence is very encouraging for people such as me. Gone Girl and the Silver Linings Playbook didn’t feel like cinema and Hannibal, Sherlock and Game of Thrones don’t look like TV.

In Pakistan, even our drama sensibility has a film-like tendency. The notion of mainstream is gone; you can redefine it anyway you like. We don’t know yet what animal it is and that freedom is very exciting. The important thing is to figure out the economics of this cinema/ TV and sort out the broader existential questions later.

Instep: After the blockbuster success of Humsafar, are you worried about how Manto will be received?

SK: I’m not scared of the box office, of how people will react. (Those who know their Manto) will realise my interpretation is diluted. I couldn’t, for example, take shots of breasts even though in Thanda Gosht, there are three solid paras about Kalwant Kaur’s (the female protagonist) breasts.

Instep: There’s a very deliberate eroticism - splayed toes, violent sexuality - in the opening credits. Are Pakistani audiences ready for this?

SK: That, in fact, is the first conflict in the film: he was accused of being a ‘vulgarist’, charged with obscenity, pornography but the film has been so gentrified, I had to jolt the audiences. (The rationale for diluting the sexuality is that) I thought the film may be able to run this way (without being censored) even though I was depicting Boo, Saugandhi, Kali Shalwar… The rest of the film is so deliberately vague; the opening credits are my apology, my compensation. Some of the references to Manto’s stories may be too obscure; (the opening credits) could even be seen as an item song… I believe some things one does for ‘them’ and some for oneself…

Instep: How difficult was it for you to play Manto?

SK: It’s not easy to identify with Manto; nobody has that genius or quality. Here was someone unashamed of his fetishes, armpit odour, humour…

I spent weeks with the family, trying to understand the man. I went to his house, which is soon to be demolished, and sat in his room - my pseudo attempt to be a method actor/director in the vein of Daniel Day Lewis. I practiced Manto’s signature so much, mine has changed and my cheques bounce often. (Laughs)

But we have this larger-than-life image of Manto, based on his work. And it’s very difficult to reconcile this image with the man his family describes. For example, the fact that one of the greatest Urdu writers used to speak in Punjabi at home or that he had a nasal, almost feminine quality to his voice. That he used to buy saris for Safiya, insist she wear sleeveless blouses and pluck her eyebrows. Or that he used to julienne vegetables for salads…


But this (irreconcilable dichotomy) exists mostly in our own heads and we try and distance ourselves from him by using, for example, the tagline we’ve used for the film ‘The writer, the rebel’. It’s as if we’re trying to say it’s not us who came up with this stuff; it’s him. But what Manto wrote actually transcends who he was.

Similarly, Manto’s writing also lends well to a more fluid interpretation; he isn’t Shakespeare. This, obviously, would also explain his ideological romance with (Mirza) Ghalib…

Instep: How difficult was it to direct yourself?

SK: I used to ask Sania (Saeed) for more takes so that I’d feel better. (Laughs)

When an actor directs, there’s nobody on the monitor. Accordingly, in the film, you see the performances are more contained in the stories as compared to the biographical bits. Sania is a very graceful actor and doesn’t compete. But when the director is in the frame, bias does seep in. I had to deliberately refrain from observing the other characters as a director would and instead, react to them as Manto. It’s very, very tedious; I wouldn’t ever do this double role again.

Instep: If not you, who?

SK: Nawazuddin Siddiqui. I chose to play Manto myself because I didn’t want any actor literalising him but retrospectively, I’d say it was a very selfish decision. Faisal Qureshi, Fahad Mustafa could have done it.

Instep: You got it wrong with Saba Qamar as Madam Noor Jehan…

SK: For me, it wasn’t about the physicality of Manto or Madam. The problem with period drama is that it often becomes more demonstrative than emotive - Muzaffar Ali got it wrong in Jannisar; Aamir Khan with Mangal Pandey. The oratory, the way of emoting, the body language all becomes part of the period. But yes, as a director, I could have explained more with a few actors; could have let Mahira and Sania interpret and introduce Manto to a new audience.

Part of the (distancing of actors from their characters) also has to do with Manto’s language and how embedded it is in a particular cultural context. You need to understand Punjabi to correctly emote Eeshwar Singh’s use of the epithet ‘ma yavva’ or Kalwant Kaur’s ‘syan’ as a term of endearment instead of ‘saiyyaan’. For example, Manto uses the word ‘randi’ so casually but I couldn’t put it on TV. For him, it’s more of a descriptive term than an evocative one but I wanted him to be accessible to a wider audience.

Instep: What next?

SK: I’ve just shot a 45-part period play called Mor Mahal. Now I plan to hit the festival circuit with Manto.

I don’t want to get fixed into any one genre, by either producers or audiences. I could have made a lot of money post-Humsafar by doing more of the same. But I’d rather be fluid and free instead.

"I hide behind aesthetics" -- Sarmad Khoosat