Everyone’s Manto

September 25, 2015


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THE last time there was so much hype around Sa’adat Hasan Manto was when everyone was observing the 50th year since his departure from the world which he had so brutally exposed. Which is kind of surprising given that, apart from the sporadic sessions where ‘we’ would so devoutly play revolution-revolution with a select few progressive comrades, Manto happens to be one character from ‘Pakistani’ literature we are apparently proud of showing off in public and possessively clinging on to in private.

It would seem that the short-story writer was capable of inspiring a year-round-mela of his own populated by the right mix of the downright weird and the high-heeled, as opposed to the reality of someone finally being able to complete the bold act of making a film on him.

Interpretations vary. Every writer must strike a personal bond with their reader. Yet Manto’s reputation as a controversial chronicler of deep and dark sides to people gives the reader greater cause to cultivate secrets with him. The basic-instinct choices endear Manto to the reader. The bond is struck instantly and its premise is basic enough to guarantee durability.

Not everything that his stories stir inside are to be shared with the crowd. There is so much that shall remain between the two of us. It gives a reader all the more reason to guard against any attempts at encroachment of this personal space. There is ownership. There is exclusivity. There is jealousy when this space is stalked by outsiders.

The basic-instinct choices endear Manto to the reader. The bond is struck instantly and its premise is basic enough to guarantee durability.

Now it is a film by the Sarmad Khoosat-Shahid Nadeem combine which has brought Manto to centre stage — a film that is likely to leave many grappling, cowering under the various narratives the venture has thrown up.

This is a dangerous scene. So much has been written about the rebel writer in recent days, so many interpretations, layers of meanings have been paraded and discovered that a viewing of Manto inside a cinema creates the ultimate possibility of losing the Manto you, him, her and I — as individuals and not as a collective enrolled into a club of Manto lovers — have lived with over all these years.

Just as it is considered for anyone who is into words to acknowledge the genius of the most celebrated short-story writer here, there has over time emerged a formula understanding of Manto that has to be adhered to in analysis and nodded to in public. Yet there is a conflict between what is the public flaunted view and the individual’s relationship.

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat may get actually old explaining that link to all those who must ask him why, and why this way. In a media interview he chose to call this his ‘connect’ with Sa’adat Hasan Manto. He said he is selfish enough not to let anyone else play the expert storyteller.

Now there may be so many who would disagree with what’s born out of the Khoosat-Shahid Nadeem-Manto connection. Yet Sarmad’s assertion of the personal stands out and provides a scale to measure the criticism of the film on Manto.

So many others — everyone — believe that it is only their connection which can help expose Manto in his elements.

This is proof of the popularity of the proud storyteller who might have appeared too chirchira or irritated or angry in Sarmad’s projection of him — at least in the initial few scenes of the well-made film. That may have been a basic problem: the makers not apparently bothering to cleanse their version of Manto of human flaws.

Many in the audience might have preferred a more routine witty, ever sarcastic but less irritated and less angry model. Somewhat like the image of Ghalib as it has developed over the decades, to which Manto might have actually contributed when he wrote the story of a film on the poet more than 60 years ago.

There may of course be so many other points to be raised with the makers of the film, who were apparently concerned enough with some aspects of their production to delay the release by a few months.

Individuals are — will be — possessive about Manto because he is someone just too personal — someone who cannot be shared with the public at large. There are always some intriguing, half-revealed dark and not so dark parts of him that are not for sharing, no matter how great the urge to join the long procession of people boldly chanting by the great man’s side.

As far as it is possible, the feeling has to be overcome for that ‘must’ visit to the cinema. The Manto on screen has to be confronted eventually. The reviews, including some by those who had the privilege of seeing Manto in flesh, have to be set aside for a viewing in the context of the biases that have shaped the image of Manto in the minds of Shahid Mahmood Nadeem, Sarmad Khoosat and others. This is one aspect of the challenge faced by the makers of Manto.

They are beholden to those who had seen the writer, who had known him closely. Unlike in the case of Ghalib, for example, they did not enjoy the freedom of inventing at will, the disclaimer about it being a work of fiction notwithstanding.

There’s nothing to be afraid of. Shahid Nadeem’s version of him has been around for some time, frequently taking the stage in Ajoka’s plays. Your own little concealed, secretly nurtured Manto has survived that invasion of your personal territory. There is no reason to think that Sarmad Khoosat’s additions and modifications will destroy the idols that you have crafted out of the man and the myth that surrounds him.

Settle down, watch and note just how much of your own version of Manto has registered with the makers of this film.

Let’s see who has understood him better. Maybe you would still prefer him without the justification that’s inserted towards the end of the film. Maybe you would prefer Manto without the certificate of no-blame that he is given by his alter ego.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2015

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