Arbitrarily drawn borders and boundaries might define a country on paper but what really coheres a people is their journey towards a mutually agreed upon destination. We may not know every humsafar, yet our bond, forged of shared experiences, is such that we are connected forever, across time and space. Our sense of identity, Pakistaniyat, derives not from misplaced jingoism and empty slogans, but from the good, the bad and the ugly of all that was the past and is the present.
There have been fleeting moments of joy and pride, but by and large we’ve spent the last seventy odd years lurching from one tragedy to another. Poorly led by incompetent leaders, we’ve limped away from one crisis only to find ourselves blindsided by another looming disaster. Knitted into the bloodied tapestry of our nationhood are stories of separations, wars, needless bloodbaths, wasted geniuses, squandered opportunities… the list is endless.
This thori khushi ziyada ghum wala narrative, however, is not the one you find when flipping through pages of officially sanctioned histories. Rather than trying to constructively engage with the complicated collage of that which is essentially Pakistan, these texts propagate an ultra simplified teleological tale, one presented in terms of stark binaries etched out in bold black and white strokes.
Unlike the decidedly mournful tone of a people’s history of Pakistan the statist version is a triumphant one, all challenges and resistances resolutely shoved under the rug – out of sight out of mind. This single-minded sterilization is not limited to just texts but is also extended to ideas, institutions, people, anything and everything that appears, no matter how remotely, to question the status quo. Individual initiative, curiosity, creativity, and thinking out of the proverbial box are not looked upon too favorably in this beloved country of ours. Conformity and unquestioning compliance are expected, applauded and actively encouraged.
Buried under this oppression are liberties and rights those living in other parts of the world take for granted. Our historical slates have been erased and re-written so many times that now it is as if seeing a stranger reflected in the mirror. Growing up, our history books taught us Pakistan was for all of us irrespective of caste, class, color or creed, but one look at the news and that incredibly naïve notion is put to rest pretty quick. For questions that were supposedly settled at inception it is remarkable that after seven decades we are still fighting about that one fundamental issue – the right to be and belong. 1947 →1953 → 1971 → 2015. From where I’m standing it doesn’t seem like we’ve moved even an inch from where we started.
Falsified history, rampant terrorism, corrupt politicians, a crumbling economy, disinterested elites, a frustrated awam – we are a country at war with ourselves. Caught between a contrived past and a uncertain future, where do we belong in this muddied and troubled present? Silenced, oppressed, censured, how do we find a way out of this morass?
Such is the intensity of emotion and depth of introspection Manto invites; based on the last seven years of Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s life in Pakistan, the film is pretty fabulous in and of itself, but it is Sarmad Khoosat’s particular reading of the material on hand that elevates Manto to a whole other level.
Many have questioned the choice of turning the spotlight on Manto’s final, dark years, but think about it and it makes sense given the context of where and when the film is made. In as much as this is about Manto, it is just as much about our present day trials and tribulations as Pakistanis. Threatened, silenced, oppressed, murdered, all in the name of misguided honor, religion, morality, nationalism – there is so much here that hits home, even for those unfamiliar with the man and his writings.
The disappointed, bitter man we meet in the film is eerily familiar, his struggles with authority, even more so. Look closely and Sarmad’s Manto could be a stand-in for any one of us in today’s Pakistan, right down to how deeply affected he is by the deliberate and unprovoked violence he witnesses first hand. The lunatics in the asylum in Toba Tek Singh are as easily recognizable as those on the outside. Observe Sirajuddin’s expressions carefully, his increasing fear and despair as he goes around asking people about his daughter, Sakina; haven’t we seen similar expressions on faces of parents looking for news of their missing children after they hear of a bomb blast near their schools? The faces and names might’ve changed but has the senselessness of violence?
Manto’s scathing critique of bureaucracy and the mockery of law is again something so very relatable for viewers and readers. Upar Neechay Aur Darmiyan could’ve just as easily been a story about the games played by the elites today, but then again maybe not. Such a risqué story could not be published in 2015.
Manto grew up in a very different period, when despite his status as a colonial subject he could write what he felt, consequences be damned; it was this conviction, his right to write, that emboldened him to continue writing what was certain to create controversy. In sharp contrast, though we have more rights as a citizen than Manto ever did as a subject, thanks to our particular political history we’re hesitant and unsure; persecution for dissent is a certainty. Was this the promised tomorrow so many died for?
Needless to say there is a lot here for the viewers, literary and non-literary. Our generation has lived under so much censorship that there is bound to be stuff here that comes as a surprise to the younger sections of the audience, but then again hopefully this will prompt reflection and introspection; and this where the historical value of this brilliant film lies – it reminds us to not forget. In a country that chooses not to commemorate tragedies and unsung heroes, Manto serves as a site of mourning and memory for not just the present but also future generations looking to find meaning in their past.
That the visual narrative looks and reads brilliantly is what one has come to expect from Sarmad Khoosat, but to make so complex a film, imbued with layers of meaning, accessible to all kinds of viewers is a testament to his mastery of the craft and his indepth understanding of the story he sets out to tell. The artful blend of realism and theatricality, mixing fact with fiction is an interesting way to approach a historical figure who lends himself to various interpretations.
A gifted writer, a husband, a father, a humanist, a keen social observer, chronicler of history, a friend to people from all walks of life, a struggling alcoholic, Manto is not an easy man to capture and translate in one film, but Sarmad succeeds to a large extent in doing what he, I suspect, intended from day dot: Rather than approaching this project as an authoritative comment on Manto, he has this film be a starting point for a long overdue conversation- one that we need to have with ourselves and each other.
For too long now Manto has been relegated to realm of literature, history, and gender studies, and his work studied for its relevance to Partition, women, sexuality, obscenity trials, etc, but now thanks to Sarmad’s Manto, Sa’adat Hasan Manto is speaking to a whole new audience and is perhaps even more relevant today than when he was alive.
Thank you, Sarmad, for being buzdil enough to take the first step and exhorting us to ‘Khol Do’ – Dil Bhi Aur Dimagh Bhi.
Written by SZ~
P.S. This is not intended to be a review of the film, this is simply me sharing my impressions of Manto. The review will be up soon.