Monday, 21 September 2015


By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan - Though much-rejected and scorned during his lifetime, the great South Asian short-story writer and iconoclast Saadat Hasan Manto is making inroads into the hearts and minds of a new generation of Pakistanis, thanks to a biopic by filmmaker-director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat.

Sarmad Khoosat talking about his film. (Photo: Z.T. Ebrahim)
Written by the playwright Shahid Nadeem, and with Khoosat playing the protagonist, the film “Manto” comes 60 years after the Urdu-speaking author's death. It focuses on the last four years of his tormented life, as he drinks himself to oblivion.

But while the film has taken Pakistani cinema-goers by storm, it has also left them bruised and disturbed.

The movie shows Manto’s life juxtaposed with some seven to eight of his short stories and screen and radio plays, where his characters come and haunt him. The scenes are then interwoven with appearances by an alter-ego (who understands his inner torment and agony), played by the celebrated actor Nimra Bucha.

Many say it was not alcohol but the tragic events of the partition of the sub-continent that killed Manto. He was born in what is now present-day India, but he left, like millions of others, for Pakistan in 1948. 

The Manto poster: the rebel, the writer.
Some of his finest writings chronicle the partition period, and they touch a raw nerve even today as they force readers to re-live that era through the writer's words.

Manto put human suffering above everything else, beyond religion and patriotism, and he scathingly laid bare hypocrisy and pretense. This and other factors make the film disturbing.

"It's too intense and there is too much blood," said Ali, a young lawyer coming out of the theatre.

But this view is not the only one. After watching the film, television actor Saba Hameed said in an interview: "'s the truth that really jolts you."

If this is so, half of Khoosat's job is done and even rewarded. On a recent promotional talk show, when someone in the audience got up to tell him the film had too many disturbing visuals, the director was in fact quite pleased: "I want the audience to be disturbed and if it was, it means the movie has worked," he said, adding as an afterthought: "Manto would have approved of the stress given!"

The film does not portray Manto as an iconic figure but instead humanises him - for the person he was with all his flaws and faults.

Samad Khoosat makes another point. (Photo: Z.T. Ebrahim)
He is shown as an arrogant individual, who knows he is a great writer, honest to the point of being hurtful, an alcoholic who, in his weakest of moments, buys himself a bottle rather than precious medicine for his seriously ill daughter. He is also shown as a family man in one scene, painting a wall with his daughters.

Manto is equally seen surrounded by showbiz types and celebrities but they don't interest him - the underdogs do: people like a horse-carriage driver, the men at a mental hospital where he was admitted, prostitutes, even pimps.

He is obsessed with writing and conveying the truth in all its severity. In fact, it seemed he could foresee that he had much work to do, much to show, but time was running out.

A book of essays by Manto.
He was just 43 when he died in 1955, leaving behind 22 collections of short stories, several radio plays, a novel, collections of essays and personal sketches, and many film scripts.

For Khoosat, whose love affair with Manto began at a young age, this "passion project" was like a "dream come true". It got better when he was asked to play the lead role. "Who'd want to miss this opportunity?" he asked.

Calling it an unbelievable, almost "cosmic" journey that he was destined to undertake, Khoosat said he worked on the film for three years and termed that time as "living with Manto". While it took him just three months to shoot the film, it took over two-and-a-half years on the editing table meticulously going through hours upon hours of footage which he said "wasn't easy". 

It took Pakistan's government 57 years to acknowledge Manto as a short story writer of the Urdu language when he was posthumously bestowed with a Nishan-e-Imtiaz (Distinguished Service to Pakistan award) on August 14, 2012, the year of his centenary. That same year the idea to make a film on him was born.

Now that the movie has been released, how does it feel for Khoosat to be sharing his creation with the public? "I want to share him without fear," the filmmaker said.

Samad Khoosat signs a movie goer's book. (Photo Z.T. Ebrahim)
Sania Saeed, who plays Manto's wife Safiah, interrupted saying that Khoosat was “slowly and dangerously becoming really Mantoesque", and she thought that this breaking away from the protagonist was much needed.

While Khoosat may have immortalised the legend, to Saeed the bigger victory is to be able to present the film to the public and see their acceptance of a non-conformist. "Today, people can identify him for the person he was - someone who thought ahead of time," she said.

Ironically, while India and Pakistan squabble over just about everything, for years neither India (where Manto spent most of his life) nor Pakistan (where he spent the last few years) deemed it necessary to own and claim  the sizeable literary treasure that he produced.

But today Manto lovers have found it in them to pay tribute to this giant of an Urdu writer in a befitting manner. The film is expected to be released internationally in the coming months, with screenings in the United States and other countries.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.