Manto's Brush with Bollywood Tribute to a Literary Genius
Manto once wrote, “This is also possible that Saadat Hasan (the man) may die, but Manto (the writer) would not die” – wish has certainly come true. His literary corpus has bestowed that elusive immortality, as his short stories are being filmed and a biopic is in the making, writes Sharad Dutt.
"Main Chalta Firta Bambai hoon". (I embody Bombay)
Saadat Hasan Manto made this revelatory statement at a literary meeting in Lahore, on October 8 of 1951. Manto simply loved the city of Bombay. When he ran away from Amritsar in his childhood, he had straightway headed for Bombay. This is where he took up his first job, befriended actors Ashok Kumar and Shyam, and married his sweetheart Safia. He didn't leave for Lahore after Partition and stayed on in this city of dreams for 12 years until January of 1948.
Born on May 11, 1912, in Samrala, in Ludhiana district of Punjab, Manto was convinced that his surname was derived from Kashmiri ancestry in which he took great pride. His father Ghulam Hasan, a session judge, belonged to a family of barristers. After his retirement, he moved to Amitsar and stayed in Kucha-e-Wakilan (Lawyers' Lane). Since his father was quite a conservative man with an authoritarian temperament, Manto could not be a carefree child and do all those fun-loving things in his adolescent years. He revolted against his disciplinarian father and became a rebel. But all along he felt neglected, longing for his father's love. That may explain why he dedicated his first collection of short stories to his late father.
Manto's mother Sardari Begum was the second wife of his father. Fully aware of her husband's indifferent attitude towards her son she showered all her love and affection. Manto's stepbrothers were much older to him and they were also indifferent to him. All these personal hurts were reflected in his short stories. Manto's literary proclivity was owing to the fact that he was a voracious reader since his childhood, as he would borrow books from the library and other book lenders.
Manto received his early education at Muslim High School in Amritsar. Like the rest of Punjab, Amritsar witnessed civil unrest and public activism, as the freedom movement was gaining momentum. Manto was barely seventeen in 1919, when the bloody massacre took place in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. Punjab was the hub of political activities, where Lala Lajpat Rai and Bhagat Singh were the icons of Indian youth. Manto was no exception, as he too was inspired by Bhagat Singh, and put up a statuette of Bhagat Singh in his room.
Hasan Abbas and Abu Sayeed Qureshi were Manto's schoolmates and childhood friends. This trio was fond of gambling, booze and watching films. Manto would frequent Lahore and Jalandhar to watch films and became indifferent to his studies. It was, indeed, ironic that one of the great Urdu short story writers of the 20th century failed twice in intermediate in Urdu. His life was like a rudderless ship, and at this point in time, the trio met Abdul Bari, a journalist who changed their lives. In Manto's own words, "I used to read crime thrillers. Bari Sahib introduced me to French and Russian literature."
Manto and his friends discovered the works of such illustrious writers like Victor Hugo, Gorky, Chekhov, Pushkin, and Maupassant among many others. During this period Bari encouraged Manto to translate Victor Hugo's 'The Last Days of a Condemned Man' into Urdu, which Manto accomplished under the title, 'Sarguzasht-e-Asir' (A Prisoner's Story). Bari was delighted to read the translation and asked Manto to translate some Russian stories as well, which were later published under the title, Rusi Afsane, in Lahore. Bari was editor of a daily newspaper, Musawat (Equality). He published some of the original articles of Manto in his paper. When Musawat was closed down Bari went off to Lahore. As for Manto, now his urge to write was compulsive. He penned his maiden story, 'Tamasha', based on the Jallianwala Bagh tragic incident. But he got it published with a pseudonym. Thereafter, he wrote a few more stories, which were readily accepted by reputed literary journals, and thus Saadat Hassan Manto had finally arrived in the world of literature.
Manto and Abu Sayeed Qureshi joined Aligarh Muslim University in 1934, but Manto left after nine months. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and after his treatment at Batote near Banihal, he stayed in Amritsar for a short while and later joined a newspaper in Lahore. In 1936 he got an invitation from Nazir Ahmed Ludhianvi to edit the weekly Musawwir (Painter) and left Lahore for Bombay. Manto stayed in the Musawwir office for some time and later moved to Byculla, where he did microscopic studies of different communities and people of lower strata.
Ludhianvi was aware of Manto's passion for films. Since he was close to Ardeshir Irani, the owner of Imperial Film Company, Ludhianvi helped Manto to launch his career as a dialogue writer in the company. The first film script Manto wrote for the company flopped and he moved on to obtain another job with the Film City for hundred rupees a month. Ardeshir Irani didn't approve of this move and persuaded Manto to rejoin the company. Manto agreed and now wrote the script of Kishan Kanahiya, the first colour film of India, for Imperial. In June of 1938, Manto again left the company and joined Saroj Movie Tone. He was fully preoccupied writing short stories besides his film work and editing Musawwir.
At Saroj Movie Tone, which is Hindustan Movie now, Manto wrote a story, 'Keechad' (Mud). The film was a hit at the box office. Actor Nazir, who performed the role of a labourer in this film became Manto's friend during the shooting. But in 1941 Manto quit the film world and joined the drama section of All India Radio in Delhi. He remained there for one and a half year and made an amazing contribution of one hundred radio plays. Once he was asked to make some changes in a play, he got annoyed and quit All India Radio. In the mean time, he received a letter from Nazir Ahmed Ludhianvi that Shaukat Hussain Rizvi who had directed a successful film, 'Khandan' in Lahore, was in Bombay and staying with him, and he was keen that Manto should write a film script for him. Manto reached Bombay again in 1942, met Rizvi, and wrote the story and screenplay for the film 'Naukar'.
Bombay Talkies was a big banner that produced popular social films like Achhut Kanya, Jhoola, Bandhan and Kangan. Devika Rani and Leela Chitnis made a great pair with Ashik Kumar. Another film, Kismet, starring Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Sahanti, broke all the records at box office in those days. After the death of its founder Himanshu Roy, Devika Rani took charge of Bombay Talkies. S Mukherjee and Rai Bahadur Chunnilal were not comfortable with the working style of Devika Rani. They left Bombay Talkies and set-up Filmistan. Ashok Kumar, the brother-in-law of S Mukherjee, left Bombay Talkies along with sound recordist Savak Wacha, director Gyan Mukherjee, and poet Pradeep.
Manto was looking for work and worked with Baburao Patel (editor of Filmindia and the most feared journalist in the Indian film industry) for some time. And a chance meeting with his friend Shahid Latif of Aligarh days, who was also working with Filmistan, led Manto to join it, and he soon became very friendly with Ashok Kumar. He wrote 'Chal Chal Re Naujawan' for Filmistan and Ashok Kumar asked him to write another film for him. This is when Manto wrote 'Eight Days' and also did a cameo in this film at Ashok Kumar's behest. Manto was paid a handsome sum of twelve hundred and fifty-nine rupees for scripting Ghar Ki Shobha. Manto was at the peak of his popularity in Bombay and struck a friendship with many eminent people in the film industry. Later, he wrote beautiful sketches of the film personalities.
K Asif of Mughal-e-Azam fame wanted to make this film in the '40s and had asked Manto to write the screenplay, but this venture was abandoned since its producer Hakim Ali Shiraz went off to Pakistan and never returned. Nevertheless, Manto was having a comfortable time in Bombay with a monthly salary of fifteen hundred rupees. Now that Devika Rani had married a famous Russian Painter Svetoslav Roerich and left Bombay Talkies, the clock turned back as Ashok Kumar was very much attached to Bombay Talkies, having commenced his career there. He, along with Savak Wacha, Shahid Latif and Kamal Amrohi left S Mukherjee and revived the old Bombay Talkies. Manto also accompanied Ashok Kumar.
Meanwhile, Partition had taken place in August 1947 and communal tension was escalating in Bombay. Manto's family had left for Pakistan but he chose to stay back. He got an offer from director Moti B Gidwani for one thousand rupees in Lahore. But due to his loyalty to Ashok Kumar, he declined the offer. In January 1948, Manto left for Pakistan. A lot of reasons were attributed to his sudden departure, as Bombay Talkies decided to produce a film on Kamal Amrohi's story, 'Mahal', and Ismat Chugtai's 'Ziddi'. Manto felt sidelined and slighted. He quarrelled with director Nazir Ajmeri who complained to Ashok Kumar and Savak Wacha. Both of them stood by Nazir Ajmeri. This unbearable humiliation had clinched his decision to leave for Pakistan.
But in Pakistan, he lived in great penury. His alcoholism further steeped him in debts and he wrote a story a day to buy his bottle. And he wrote some of the best short stories in Pakistan, while in India he had written a hundred radio plays and scripted highly successful films, he did not get any offers in Pakistan Radio or the film industry. Earlier Manto had written a screenplay on Mirza Ghalib's life, his favourite poet. And Sohrab Modi produced an immensely successful film, Mirza Ghalib, based on Manto's screenplay. It was a true travesty that Manto breathed his last in Pakistan on January 18, 1955, at the age of 42, when Mirza Ghalib was drawing packed houses in India.
Manto was buried in Lahore and he wanted the epitaph on his grave that he had autographed in a book for one of his fans in Rawalpindi:
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing… Under tonnes of earth, he lies, still wondering who among the two is a greater short story writer: God or He.
Manto might have kept wondering but he wrote once, "This is also possible that Saadat Hasan (the man) may die, but Manto (the writer) would not die." That wish has certainly come true. His literary corpus has bestowed that elusive immortality, as his short stories are being filmed and a biopic is in the making.