SZ: In terms of the movie you’ve chosen to focus on the last years of his life … was it a conscious decision to focus on his Pakistan years?
SK: To be honest that’s Shahid sahab… that’s his selection, of the era. It also makes more sense because if you are producing here in Pakistan then why not actually deal with it. I think its also like that essential slap that needs to be slapped; where people need to wake up and see this is the man who was here with all the genius that he had and that’s how we wasted him. It makes more sense to deal with an era that people shall probably connect better with rather than showing Bombay life and trying to create a shoddy Bombay here, so it just made more sense that we deal with the last five years to be precise.
We start with him in the mental asylum which was in ’51, and we have flashbacks in terms of some of the work we have used like Hatak and then there is a bit of Tavele ki Balla. So we have tried to incorporate some earlier works but by this time he was definitely more inclined towards writing about the scars of partition which is why Toba Tek Singh and Thanda Gosht and Khol Do are part of the narrative.
Who did the overall look and feel of the film, the styling and art direction?
With TV the max one can do is to get a decent tailor or fetch clothes from designer; with a project like this just to get the kurta right all that you had to do was to find the right photo and get the proper tailor. Basically it was a very small group of people and we didn’t have any fancy people involved. Since it was being done like TV earlier production also didn’t want to be too fancy about it. But yeah I had a bunch of really exciting young people with me. All the props had to be manufactured in a way, the cigarette case and whatever relabeling these little liquor bottles and things. It was pretty much like a workshop where everybody of pulled in, from actors to the little team that I had with me.
People who knew him say Manto sahab had a huge Punjabi accent, that he could never write a correct sentence in Punjabi and couldn’t speak in Urdu too fluently without having a little tarka of Punjabi. I have kept a little bit of that here and there, in some scenes where he is trying to be a little cheeky say with few characters, but overall did not want to create too much of dissonance with what a larger group of people will want to think of Manto as.
After a while I put aside all kinds of reproductions of whatever we know of him because it is not achievable. To begin with I could just loose weight as much as I could you in a given time, I should have lost another fifteen kilos to be perfectly honest. Madam Noor Jahan should have looked like more like Madam Noor Jahan. So in the end its just semblance. That is why its not like documentary realism but it’s realistic in approach.
Also we are showing Manto in about his early 40s and most of his pictures at even 43, that’s when he died, look like that of very old man. Here I took little dramatic license and greyed my hair a bit to look right in terms of age, with those three daughters and all those years of hardship, and it was Sania who suggested that we might just go that route.
SZ: Who did the makeup?
SK: There are no fancy big people involved. We had film makeup artists who used to help us out but after the fourth fifth day onward I used to take my 10 minutes and do my makeup myself. With the rest of cast, the idea was to not have any makeup actually so just a little bit of making them look like characters. The ’50s also was a safe era because quite unlike ’60s and ’70s it wasn’t heavy on fashion statements; the ’50s were quite a mixed palette so it was not too difficult to recreate.
SZ: Speaking of the ’50s could you talk a bit about the choice of music and poetry used?
SK: I just thought that that’s my idea of the the ’50s. An era where Geeta Dutt was singing and there was a kind of sweet little story telling going on in the song. In the film the Mahira and Azfar song provides a lighthearted contrast to the intensity. Manto had gone to Karachi for this court thing wrote that story on his way there. I wanted to do it like little Charlie Chaplin piece because that’s exactly how simple and banal it is. Manto sahab sees this girl boy encounter and he cooks up a thing little out of it and so and for that kind of slightly funny tilt and little take on it I got Hanif to write that song and he has written in brilliantly, tongue and cheek type sweet sounding. It’s really awami and has that funny sitcom-ish feel to it.
The songs in Manto are not really songs, they are more like narrations, because in the drama version we have this voice narrating these stories. Thanda Gosht for example is so graphic that I thought we cannot possibly narrate it on screen and so the Meesha song is cut to this story. I have tried to use supplemented imagery to convey the story. This is where film editing and whole process came in as I tried to incorporate more film like elements for an awaami audience. Hence these are the only two songs which come as songs songs in the film. The rest stay as commentary in the background.
With Aah Ko Chahiye its the whole ideological romance between Manto and Ghalib. Apparently Manto was also this rebel and quite arrogant; he didn’t consider anybody as great as himself, other than Ismat [Chugtai] who he thought had that spunk. So with Ghalib the selection just came very naturally. This ghazal is something that is so much about life and also very dark in a dark way, wasted life and all that Manto writes about. Initially I thought I should pick up something unusual but than we thought why shouldn’t we just pick something that’s already popular.
Shiv Kumar Batalvi is someone I felt should be there. I just feel so inspired by this man who was a Hindu but all his references are so Muslim and Islamic and then I really wanted a Punjabi number to signify that Manto sahab was you know very fond of Daman sahab and his poetry and so that’s how that came about.
SZ: From songs and singers to Noor Jehan, and we’ve earlier talked about us liking our heroes whitewashed… how have you approached her?
SK: For that, again let Manto sahab take the blame for it. Whatever events we have shown are pretty much based on the two essays that he has written, Noor-e Jahan and Suroor-e Jahan. She respected him, she loved him and she hated him also. She loved him for his guts and that’s what apparently the account is as per what he has written, so it’s just based on that. Also as I said earlier the written word and picture are definitely two extremely different scenarios so I have tried to not offend anyone with that. She is the woman that she was. She was fiery, she was feisty, and she was full of life. She is not a part of narrative too much, she is just there like any other supporting character and again that is my idea of making it more awaami because people would want to see madam Noor Jahan and she was a close friend of Manto’s. The film should be enough to justify that we did not take any vulgar liberties.
SZ: On vulgarity, we have Manto and his tawa’ifs, and we’ve seen teasers of the lovely Arjumand Rahim doing a mujra… how carefully have you walked that path?
SK: Again luckily enough since we are not dealing with the Bombay years, that’s when he wrote Saugandi and Sultana and Mummy, we are not dealing with any of that. Also this is Shahid sahab’s take and there are a few moments where Nazneen, Arjumand’s character, in the serial at least, embodies a lot of these women that he has written about. Nazneen was just an encounter. She was obsessed with his writing, we have a very interesting connection which does not really come across in the film, that there is this little bookshop which rents out books and this prostitute likes reading books so her agent gets her some Manto books that she gets obsessed with and so that is primarily about it. In that particular sequence she is actually singing a song from Mirza Ghalib, the film that Manto sahab wrote. Of the others, Nadia Afgan doing the Hatak bit and Sawera is doing License, Hina is the Begum from Upar Neeche Darmiyan and Rehan is playing Miyan sahab.
SZ: So you do deal with court cases as well?
SK: We do. Upar Neeche Darmiyan was the big controversy and that was the big court case that he had to deal with because apparently this man was a big politician/socialite of his time.
SZ: Given that Manto is so political how much of the actual politics do we get in the film?
SK: Again, in a very emotional and a personal context we have a lot of politics, you can not separate it from Manto’s writings. The greatest thing is how his politics are so subjective in a way; it’s about how he is looking at things and that is certainly not a journalistic point of view at all. But yes of course there is strong political comment, I’ve not really highlighted it but its there … I would really want to say that we should now be grown up enough its been too long now we’ve been tucking things away, tucking things under the rug too long.
SZ: Much like the man himself the movie too seems to be pushing the envelope, how do you see this one faring in terms of public reception: mainstreamed, marginalized or dislocated?
SK: I don’t know. I would say that dislocation is something that is a safer place to be; being dislocated at least sort of borders on fantasy and imagination. So for a film like Manto dislocated is a good place to be because then at least it would kind of tumble and meander through and find its own little little nooks and crannies. Yes, certainly I would really really want it to be mainstream but again the name itself – Manto. People hear the name and a lot of them ask me what does it exactly mean, who’s that. That’s your larger audience … I’ve had a lot of people asking me tau Manto sahab ne is ke ilawa kaun sa serial likha huwa hai?!
Again I can just crack a joke about it, but then I also empathize with all these people… the kind of environment they are in and have been brought up in, they are not exposed to so many things they are not even aware of lot of our own stuff. So yeah I would love for it to be mainstream but I think no …
Also wherever as a director I have to deal with a period or a distant time I think I would rather take the creative license and actually approach wise also dislocate the narrative rather than really place it in a context where people are looking for little little details that have gone wrong.
SZ: How long have you lived with Manto – from the initial phone calls to today?
SK: Now, it’s almost been three years…
SZ: Are you done with Manto after this or are we going to see more from you?
SK: Not for a while I would say… this did take me places from where it would really difficult to come back from, personally speaking. There was a point when it really did take over, and again its so unlike reading him and so unlike even say embarking on writing something about him or about his work. Also, film is such a complicated process and has so many phases where it just becomes so boring and technical only and that phase did last too long, like sound design and what not. So it wasn’t even that Manto I was living, it was just some odd world where I wanted to be under the delusion that it was still life with Manto but it wasn’t… it was just a film that entertains..
SZ: With the film all set to release, at the end of the day who is more satisfied: Sarmad Khoosat the man or Sarmad Khoosat the film maker?
SK: I would say the filmmaker, because on so many levels I do look at it as a chance of a lifetime. There is so much more that I would have liked to do on personal level with Manto sahab and his works, but as a film maker you are so bound by technique and driven by so many other factors and there is this collective labor involved… its not like writing a story or painting something. So the filmmaker still I think is little happier, or more happy that despite all the constraints and limitations that we had we still manage to pull it off and reached a certain point where most of us are fairly happy with it. Me, I would still think there is so much more that could have been done, there is so much more than I would have like to do.
SZ: And finally, what’s next for Sarmad Khoosat?
SK: Mor Mahal… we finish filming by the end of August we’ve be filming that for the last six months now, I want to edit that and then take a long sabbatical after this.
And thus ended our conversation on all things Manto. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this detailed behind-the-scenes look at the project. From the very first phone calls to the inside scoop on what’s in and what’s not, from the nitty gritty of the selecting poetry to making decisions about the overall design of production, and from the difference between textual and visual storytelling to the dilemmas of editing, we discussed it all.
As I now read this interview I find the writer and director’s depth of understanding and their attention to every single detail, no matter how insignificant it might be, and their commitment to the man himself, very inspiring. From talking to Sarmad it is quite evident that this was not just filmmaking for the sake of making a film but that Manto was truly a labor of love, not just for him and Shahid sahab but for the entire cast and crew as well.
All things remaining equal Manto is all set to be released in Pakistan on 9/11. Given the significance of the date and keeping in mind the politics of the man I cannot help but wonder if this film serves as Manto’s tenth letter to his Uncle Sam. Given the political salience of his nine earlier letters one can only imagine what all Manto would’ve had to say to our beloved frenemy. Or maybe not. Perhaps this time around Manto is writing much closer to home. The sharp stab of his pen forcing us to face up to the intolerance, hypocrisy and depravity that have become so routine that we don’t even see them anymore. In view of so much that has been in the news just recently if ever there was an apt time for Manto it has to be today, here and now.
How Manto fares with audiences is a question time only can answer but the four song videos and the recently released theatrical trailer all point to Manto being a fittingly brilliant tribute to the genius of Saadat Hasan Manto.
And finally, before I sign off, a HUGE thank you to Sarmad – you are truly fabulous!
Written by SZ~