Why the Manto ban is bad

Updated January 24, 2019


I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE ban on the film on Manto made in India by Nandita Das must be rescinded because it is a bad and indefensible action on more counts than one.

First of all, banning a work of art is a serious matter and it should be resorted to as rarely as possible and only in extraordinary situations. These conditions have not been observed in the present case. Nandita Das has exercised her right, which belongs to anyone who wishes to make a film on Saadat Hasan Manto, to interpret the celebrated writer’s life and work in a way that appeals to her. She has emphasised Manto’s commitment to telling society the truth it does not want to face. For explaining Manto’s art as a storyteller she has offered dramatised versions of his three short stories and the method has worked.

She is also keen to present the loving human being Manto was, and how much he cared not only for his wife and their daughters but also for the hungry, dirty street urchin. She has made a film that, despite some awkward moments here and there, holds the viewer in its grip from beginning to end. And Nawazuddin has done well in the title role. Perhaps somebody else will deal with this subject better. What all this means is that the film is commendable cinema that does not deserve the axe.

Two reasons have reportedly been advanced to justify the ban. First, it is said that the film questions the creation of Pakistan. This is an utterly preposterous suggestion. There is nothing in the film that is not included in the printed works of Manto and there is no evidence that Pakistani people’s allegiance to Pakistan or whatever is meant by its ideology has been undermined by Manto’s writings. The questions Manto asked himself as a person born and bred in India, who wrote stories and film scripts there and then came over to Pakistan, were asked by most sensitive persons who migrated around the time of Partition from or to India as adults. Even the Quaid faced similar questions and entertained the idea of spending his post-retirement years in his house in Mumbai’s Malabar Hills.

Censorship has always been defended in terms of a need to protect impressionable minds.

Secondly, it is said that the film includes obscene scenes. Are the scenes in this film anymore obscene than what is offered in imported and indigenous action thrillers? Censorship has always been defended in terms of a need to protect impressionable minds. One hopes Pakistani audiences are not as vulnerable to adult cinema as they were when the Cinematograph Act of 1918 was enforced.

A much weightier criticism of the ban on the Manto film is that it denies the importance of saving the Pakistani and Indian people’s shared literary and cultural heritage. The partition of the territory of India had presented a challenge to people on both sides — in terms of the bisection of their literature, music, fine and performing arts, and syncretised culture.

In moments of anguish and anger at the Partition bloodletting, many answered in the affirmative but such ideas were soon abandoned. If Bare Ghulam Ali found that Pakistan could not sustain his art he thanked heavens that India could. Every time Indian poets, historians and artists have come to Pakistan and every time Abida Parveen, Farida Khanum and Ghulam Ali have enthralled large audiences in India they have not only paid tribute to the subcontinent’s common cultural inheritance but have also built bridges to peace in the region.

Recently, a mushaira to celebrate the birth anniversary of Ghalib was held at the President House in Islamabad. Ghalib’s poetry is one of the bonds of friendship between the peoples of Pakistan and India. We are happy that a former judge of the Supreme Court of India attended the swearing in of the new chief justice of Pakistan because a special relationship exists between the judiciaries of Pakistan and India. Each side has to deal with the challenges of the 21st century with the help of civil and criminal codes devised by the colonial rulers over a century ago. Regular interaction between jurists should promote understanding between the two countries.

Pakistan should be happy that Manto has become a link between the two people. What could have persuaded Javed Akhtar to assume the persona of Abid Ali Abid or Rishi Kapoor to appear as a studio Shylock except for a desire to honour Manto, who belonged to both Pakistan and India. After all, Manto spent 36 of the 42 years of his life in India and barely survived for six in Pakistan, though in those six years he produced some of his best stories and also his scintillating warnings against the threats from obscurantism and Cold War policies. Films like Nandita’s Manto will generate a dialogue between the peoples of the region.

Further, the censors have harmed the efforts their government is making to normalise relations with India, the only sensible course in the mutual interest of both countries. Pakistan has an open mind on allowing the Hindu and Sikh communities to visit their sacred places in this country and we hope India will stop restricting Pakistani pilgrims’ visits to Muslim shrines in its territories. Much importance attaches itself to the creation of the Kartarpur corridor. The legitimisation of people-to-people contacts by the Gen Bajwa-Sidhu embrace cannot be ignored.

There is little doubt about the role friendship between the peoples of India and Pakistan can play in persuading their governments to abandon the path of mutual destruction and reckless confrontation which is meaningless as Manto himself demonstrated in his magnificent story about the dog from Tetwal. The ban on the Nandita Das film is unacceptable as it undercuts the efforts to establish peace and goodwill among the luckless people of South Asia.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2019