My first encounter with Manto took place at a bookstore in Karachi where I picked up one of his short story collections. The bookseller knew me well from my frequent visits and, therefore, on seeing the book I was holding, had no compunctions in telling me, beta yeh kitaab aap ke kaam ki nahin hai… Manto sahab ki kahaniyan mashhoor tau hain magar aap ke parhnay laiq nahin … koi aur saaf suthri kahaniyon wali kitaab lay lein…
Bas ji, that was that. The words saaf and suthri were enough to convince mommy dearest that her daughter was not gonna be going anywhere near Manto – at least not that day. Ba’d mein tau you all know – what the parents say no to the child must do …
Fast forward a few years and it took a class in South Asian literature, saat samundar paar, at an Ivy League in the US, for me to get re-introduced to Manto, this time formally. All those years later I was finally allowed to read Manto properly, without any subterfuge or guilt, with all the honor and respect that was and continues to be this literary genius’ due.
My two radically different encounters with Manto, I later realized, were very representative of the starkly opposite responses Manto had received then, and to some extent continues to invite even now. Loved by many but reviled by so many more, this man’s journey through life was not an easy one. But no matter what was being been thrown his way, brickbats or bouquets, the stabbing honesty of his words never wavered. He wrote about life as he experienced it, etched sketches of people as he saw them, and chronicled events as he lived them.
The brilliance of Manto’s writing, for me at least, lies in his understanding of the human psyche, his unquestioning acceptance of all people irrespective of divisions of caste, class and religion, his analysis of the social condition of society, his keen historical mind, and most importantly his courage to write about the brutal, raw and unvarnished realities, the kind we all would rather sweep under the rug.
There is a particular devil-may-care attitude evident in his writing; him not giving a damn about social niceties or worrying about pleasing others. Mind you, though, flippant and frivolous the man is not. So incisive is his political analysis and so pertinent his social commentary that his words remain just as painfully relevant today as they were then. Conversely the very qualities that defined Manto’s genius were the ones that landed him in hot water with the powers that be on more than one occasion.
Ever since its inception the Pakistani State’s relationship with Manto has been a rocky one, much like that of a straitlaced, uptight parent, never quite sure of what to make of their rebellious son being fêted far and wide for his “accomplishments.” Hence even as Manto continued to be celebrated in literary and niche circles, there is yet to be a wholehearted public celebration of his works, the kind that say a Faiz Ahmed Faiz enjoyed. Manto died in 1955 and it was in 2005, the fiftieth anniversary of his death, that Manto was commemorated on a Pakistani postage stamp.
Given this context when news came of a full-fledged tele-serial being made in Pakistan on Manto and his works, one didn’t quite know whether to be excited or concerned. That the script was being penned by noted litterateur Shahid Nadeem came as huge relief and the fact that my fave Sarmad Khooosat was helming the project meant that at the very least we were ensured of an aesthetically sound project with serious literary merit. Later we heard the proposed serial was going to be released first as a feature film, and this gave rise to more hows and whys. All these questions and doubts, however, were overshadowed by that interminable wait …. inteha ho gayi intezaar ki ….
And…. finally! The recently released teasers look fantabulous and make all that wait seem totally worthwhile!
There is a lot being said about the teasers and plenty of conversation swirling around whats in and what’s not in the soon to be released film, and so rather than wondering about the kab, kiya aur kyon, I thought to get the inside scoop from the man himself. I asked, and Sarmad was extremely gracious and accommodating, taking time out of his crazy all-night shooting schedules for a phone interview. What followed was an in depth, no holds barred conversation about the A-Z of all things Manto.
And this is how it went ….
SZ: Why Manto?
SK: Why Manto? I don’t know… my rebuttal to that would be: Why not?
But I think that a) We have really started kind of disowning our legacies… putting them in the shadows and not really owning them proudly. So that way I believe there are no great legacies that are owned in terms of literature or writing or story telling. With Manto, for one, quality is one thing, but in terms of quantity also we’ve not had that huge an icon in terms of fiction writing in Urdu. Also, the disowning attitude on state level and way in which the general conformative society had disowned Manto had always held some sort of fascination for me.So that intrigue factor had always been there. I started reading Manto quite early on, but later as I matured a bit in my reading taste, I realized he is a master story teller and quite matchless even in terms of world literature, and the short story is my favorite genre of fiction.
b) Manto is also a great screen writer and that is so apparent in his narrative style. I have always found his stories to be really really visual, other than of course the kind of scheme that they have or the kind of controversy they have, so he is a master story teller. In that way I do believe that Manto is some one who is sung in certain ways but also completely unsung when it comes to screen.
Manto is timeless, definitely very avant garde when it comes to the kinds of stories he picks, and is extremely contemporary when you read him. I completely disagree with the watered down, koshered version of Manto we’ve seen in theater or on TV. I’d also thought that Manto had been depicted in a very sort of a dry manner, and that there was so much spunk and flair that could be turned into exciting visuals. I had adapted Manto much earlier on for TV as well. So I would say a lot of things had been sitting with me for quite a while, so when Shahid Nadeem and AnB Productions proposed this idea I didn’t even wait a wink to just give the nod.
SZ: How did this project evolve?
SK: Its very very uncanny that within a span of say a few weeks I got calls from both Shahid Nadeem and Sarmad Sehbai. It was Manto’s centenary and both of them contacted me for some strange reason; one of them wanted me to direct and the other one wanted me to act, and they both had these Manto projects. So yeah it was very surprising that these two great writers suddenly thought of doing a television version of Manto’s work, but Shahid sahab had contacted me first.
SZ: How much of an editorial input did AnB have in this project?
SK: With Manto they were sure of the kind of people they wanted to pick. From the production point of view they respected whatever had been written. With editing I would say, no, there was lot of creative freedom, and between me and Shahid sahab too. As far as Manto’s own life story was concerned Shahid sahab had sketched it out very elaborately and the screenplay and dialogues were brilliantly written, but the short stories that we fused we kept them flexible. With some of the short stories that have been executed, I discussed those with him asked if we could incorporate them, and he gave me a free hand and helped me in kind of fleshing out screen play. Also, as I’ve said before, Manto writes so tonally that it did not really need a of lot of work, so content wise its stayed between me and Shahid sahab.
SZ: Would you say you worked with Shahid sahab on the screenplay?
SK: The serial he has written entirely on his own, but with the short stories that are incorporated, yes I did. But with the film, yes, because the film is like another version of same long narrative, so with the film it primarily boiled down to making it more concise but yet not like a summarized part of a bigger story. So its all his writing, but when it came to the editing of the narrative that’s where I think I had to take the front seat; it was not only about how it had been written but also about knowing what had been shot more excitingly or what would translate better as a story from director’s point of view. Film version definitely has a lot more editing done by me, but the actual basic entire structure is Shahid sahab’s. In the film, for example, I also had to incorporate all this music, incorporate another kind of sound design, editing techniques. It was for more than a year and a half that I had to live with this content, with all the footage, re-shooting a few bits, trying to find a slightly more cinematic edge to the whole thing.
SZ: Manto started off as tele-serial at what point did it evolve into a film?
SK: Yes, this was meant to be a serial and that’s how it was written. After I’d shot it and cut out a 20 minute presentation reel, quite unanimously whoever saw it thought that it had the cinematic feel to it. I had also asked my producers to allow me to cut a film version once the serial was out and aired, making it easier to share with literature enthusiasts or travel with, to film festivals etc. Then Geo Films got on board, saying that by that by the look of the presentation they’d thought it to be a film, and that was very encouraging for all of us, as it is a very unconventional format for a tele-serial also. Finally, Manto, I mean the man himself, the content itself, is so larger than life and it has all those inherent cinematic elements without any of us having to do anything consciously about it.
SZ: How different is the film from the serial?
SK: With the film I had to take a whole new approach; I had to sit down and edit it myself such that it became like another kind of an organic reverse process, where instead of starting with script, here I was dealing with a lot of footage. Some of the narrative was very TV type, in terms of the length of the scene or the way it had it had been executed, and that we had to re-shoot, and also had to re-write some parts. Also, with Manto being the story-teller we used the tool of his voice, so a lot of cinematic techniques were being employed much more easily here.
SZ: How long is the film? Does it have subtitles?
SK: It is 123 minutes, with subtitles for sure. We are planning on an wide release, so I think the Urdu is a little difficult for international audiences and also for the new age kids. Although its not like Manto’s is a difficult language; again, one of the misconceptions about him is that he wrote difficult Urdu, like that of the poets, Ghalib and Faiz type. But no, Manto was extremely colloquial, extremely Punjabi-esque, coming from Amritsar having seen the Bombay of the olden times. He really spoke like a very colloquial metaphor and his idioms were extremely street life like. So he is very easy, but again there is a that distance that I think the audiences might feel.
SZ: When will Manto release internationally?
SK: I am bringing it to Harvard in October, and London in November. Geo Films is planning on releasing it internationally; but I also know in the heart of my hearts that its not one of those films that can hit commercial theaters, so it will have to find its own place here and there. It is a small film, a medium scale film. It is also a very intimate, because we are dealing with what’s happening inside his mind. Hopefully once Geo solidifies the deals with its partners it will be released internationally soon, because I also believe that it might have a larger audience abroad.
SZ: In Pakistan art and commercial cinema are generally viewed as two separate entities; how strongly do you believe in these distinctions, and how would you categorize Manto?
SK: Yeah, this is quite unfortunate. With films like Gone Girl, Silver Linings Playbook, and with a lot of other mainstream Hollywood stuff, the narrative style is such that the lines are gone. And so has happened with Bollywood as well . But for that I would also not blame the audiences. Look at TV, we do any kind of regressive idea or approach and it is blamed on the audiences and justified as that’s what they want, so the audiences have to be allowed to mature. Then its also very expensive for our economic groups. This cineplex culture is definitely a very urban thing, for a very specific target market and a certain income group. So I wont blame them, but that is why I wanted to tantalize them with the all-star cast.
When it came to stars like Mahira, Imran Abbas, Maria Wasti, and lot of other people in the extended television version, I actually wanted these people on board. Though visually I had fleshed it out, I allowed them their interpretation of the text. I am sure the way I have interpreted stories too a lots of enthusiasts might find that too divergent from the actual essence of it but at the end of the day it is literature and it should be open to any and all interpretations. So in that way I do believe that there has been a conscious effort on my part, on the production’s part to make it easily accessible, and I wanted to use popular icons in it, people who they generally would not be associated with something like Manto.
I also wanted to change how Manto has been perceived. I really think there is this huge disconnect. The authentic Manto publications have dull covers to books, also whenever he is portrayed, he is always shown as an extremely shabby person, this whole cliched icon of a distressed writer, a tormented soul. All that was happening, yes, but despite that he had that really great sense of humor and there was really great sense of being alive, which I have tried to show. I have tried that it should not become like specifically niche thing and it should be able to kind of break that mold, but, yes, if somebody is not interested in Manto, if somebody is not interested in the torment of a writer, then yeah, the movie will not get that kind of an audience.
SZ: Why should the common man off the street come to see Manto?
SK: See the stars. That is whole idea to give them the stars that they are familiar with and want to see on the big screen, but other than that I do not want to mislead too much with promotion either. Mahira, for instance, has a cameo in the film and she is not the main lead. Other than that I really think whoever would have a little interest in this kind of cinema would come to it. I have actually tried my best to make something which is coherent and is fairly exciting.
SZ: So would you say Manto is a mainstream film?
SK: Yeah. Its extremely commercial; like Mohammed Hanif says Manto was really awaami. There are the kind of things he used to write about, things that become like everyday little news strips. Imagine the story that he wrote back in day called Yazeed, a story about a Shi’a family who decide to name their son Yazeed. Then there was Shaheed Saaz, which is a black comedy take on this whole suicide-bombing, terrorism and all of this Talibanization. Manto really did talk about everyday stuff and it is quite unfortunate that his work has been portrayed so differently. So I would say yes, if people were to look at it they would find their own story somewhere in there and relate to it.
SZ: Given Manto is not a hero in the commonplace sense of the word how do you approach your central character?
SK: With Manto, people do not even know what they want to treat him as. In the film also we are not celebrating him as a hero really. We are being very objective that here is this man with all his vices. In a few literature gatherings people asked as to what’s the great deal about this narrative: he dies of cirrhosis and was not the best of husbands nor a great father.
But honestly, if I were to give a real rebuttal slap to that, then if the subcontinent can celebrate a loser like Devdas who ruins the lives of these two beautiful gorgeous women; ruins everything about life in and around him, becomes a drunkard and dies without being of any benefit to anyone and still gets to be celebrated as a great tragic hero … so if we can celebrate Devdas we should be able to celebrate Manto as well.
SZ: From the teasers it is evident this is neither a hagiography, nor a biography, a documentary, or fiction… how would you describe Manto?
SK: With Manto, at times his life does seems very fictional, but no, I have refrained from that. But again it is a very talkative film; it is about a writer who talks a lot, he narrates stories. It might seem like it kind of borders somewhere between like a drama and a docudrama but then all biopics do that. And, I didn’t want to sensationalize everything about his life. He had a tragic end and there we have taken a bit of a dramatic license, but since we have some real life characters around him as well we could not take too much liberty. So there is the realistic element to it but this is not really a documentary.
SZ: We as a people like to see our heroes whitewashed, with haloes on; given how controversial Manto is, how concerned were/are you about public reception?
SK: With that again, inherently speaking one should not do Manto if one were to think about all these things. That said, the film version definitely has made me a little bit conscious and that is why we take the route of making it slightly more palatable. With the drama, when I shot it I didn’t care a bit about what people might think, because I thought I need to just feel the way this man could have possibly felt at least at a few points in his life, if not entirely. The idea was to be fair to him and his writings.
Also, for me the written word and the executed picture are completely different worlds. Words that he uses, like for instance nanga, it cannot be translated as naked, or as a naked person. So that is where the whole aesthetic thing was at the back of my mind, but it was not about feeling restrained or anything. I did censor a few words here and there but that happens because we are not reading the story we are seeing the story now, but that was the only thing. I wasn’t too conscious of how it would fare with the audiences, and if somebody has to get offended then I am sure Manto has done that already. People were offended by him, are offended by him and will be offended by him. Its not about selling another version of the man. Its him, its his work and its reinterpreted by another person or bunch of other people for that matter.
SZ: In terms of storytelling one can either forefront the context and have the character situated vis-à-vis that context, or have the character be the center and provide the context for the story; how have you approached Manto?
SK: I would say Manto definitely, he is the narrator, he is the context, he is the center and so that is also in a way a justification that this is his point of view, Whatever take we have on things, the way we are looking at the world, how distorted or how disgusting it looks, how ever it may appear to anybody on the outside, its all him. I think in that way, the character is center where he basically is the context himself, and a lot of it is happening inside in his head only.
SZ: Is this where Nimra Bucha comes in, where you have separated Sa’adat Hasan and Manto? Could you tell us a little bit about her character?
SK: Yeah, that too is based on his own autobiographical piece, and that’s all Shahid sahab to be honest, that’s his genius completely, that particular character. This character excited me so much and then when I met Manto’s family, they told me about this strange unknown to public aspect, an extremely bright side to him, which people would conveniently label it as the feminine side to Manto sahab; he plucked his wife’s eyebrows himself and used to make salad at home.
SZ: Have you shown all that?
SK: We did, we did… I tried to. And how that justifies how he actually thinks that his alter ego is the Yin in him, its a woman, that brighter side, that capacity to produce, to create, to reproduce. That was all Shahid sahab. But it helped a lot with understanding everything; his posture is so odd, perched upon a chair, and how he had this OCD about clean feet.
SZ: How did your knees fare in this process? How was the shooting experience overall?
SK: It was very indulgent to be honest and so satisfying a process for not only me, but everybody around me. Take Sania [Saeed] for example, Safia Manto is not a great character to play, she is very plain woman; because we are dealing with the post-partition years, by then she has suffered so much and almost like given up on lot of things. But just by having her around was like this great energy; I was directing myself so in most of the scenes I would ask her to keep an eye on me too. And so she became this support system, a woman who is there but not too visible. Along with her, Nimra Bucha, with Saba Qamar bringing in that whole fire of Madam Noor Jahan… somehow I do believe that the process was so satisfying for most of us that we didn’t care.
There were instances when I thought about TV censors and what not and how audiences would react to his alcoholism and excessive smoking, but then to round it off properly we are showing a very tragic end, and not projecting it or promoting it as something that is cool or should be adopted by the young ones. We also did do the dying bits or the hospital sick bits quite graphically. At times I would fill myself up with all sorts of odd things like edible paint and ketchup and just throw up and Sania would instantly come and collect it in a bowl and spill it all over, so throwing up on another actor and that actor being completely okay about it, or actually not really thinking about it, but just going with the flow, that kind of comfort and that kind of satisfaction was definitely there.
There somehow became this weird organic world in and around Manto. We had three little girls who were real life sisters and that was so brilliant… they became very friendly with me and Sania. That whole intimacy between the father and daughters just came so naturally with these adorable three little things roaming around on the set, and I had a lot of scenes with them and I am generally extremely nervous when working with children. It is somewhere I think one of those karmic thing where things were sitting in their place; people were excited and they wanted to run all the extra miles that I wanted them to…
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