By Sonya Rehman
Slated for release this month, the trailer for the Pakistani Sadat Hassan Manto biopic, Manto, is intense and riveting. Directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat (who also plays Manto in the production), and written by Shahid Nadeem, the film focuses on the writer’s last few years in Pakistan before Manto’s tragic demise.
This week, the renowned playwright and director of Ajoka Theater, Shahid Nadeem, speaks with Masala! about the tribulations of being a courageous writer in a society at odds, and how Manto’s story left a deep impact on him.
I have been studying Manto for quite some time. I adapted several of his stories for Ajoka including Toba Tek Singh and Naya Qanoon. Then on the occasion of his birth centenary, I wrote Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh which interwove Manto’s own life story with his short stories and essays.
Manto, the movie, has been inspired from the stage play. I was originally commissioned to write a 20-episode serial on Manto, which I thought was a big gamble. Making a film on Manto was even a bigger gamble. Now that the film has been watched by the censors and critics, I can say that the gamble may very well pay off. Researching Manto was a voyage of discovery. The person Manto was, was so different from the characters of his stories or even from his self-depiction in his stories. Like his characters, the fictional Manto was dirty, devious and immoral. But the sensitive reader soon realizes that his apparently dirty characters are the cleanest and morally upright, even saintly. I also discovered that he had an astute political vision (see Letters to Uncle Sam) and a great sense of humour too (read his essay, Noses).
What was the process like?
It was tedious, especially reading the nonsensical writings on Manto: some trying to prove that he was a great patriotic Pakistani and some proving that he was a die-hard communist. But reading his own lesser known writings was most insightful and rewarding. A long time back, when researching for Iqbal’s Centenary documentary, I had discarded all writings on Iqbal and got myself submerged in his own prose and poetry and came up with a very real, very human Iqbal. The same happened with my Manto submersion.
Is there one particular work of Manto’s that truly stands out for you?
I will mention two pieces: Pas Manzar, in which he has two characters charge sheet him and part to God to condemn him to the worst stage in hell – but you see him merging from the dirt thrown on him as pure as a newborn. It is a beautifully crafted piece. Then there’s Manto’s satirical essay, Burqa Darhi Moonch Unlimited that depicts his prophetic vision. He could see the drift of the establishment and inevitable consequences of a state with a religion.
Manto’s financial woes represents the struggles of each and every writer who earns his bread and butter through his/her work – in your opinion, has anything changed regarding the respect and regard for writers today?
Well every writer does not suffer like Manto and his likes did…only those writers suffer who are too honest and too committed to their writings, who do not compromise and who are willing to expose the injustices and contradictions in society. Today, you have writers who are minting money and getting awards but at the cost of their conscience, they have to sell their souls either to the rulers or the powerful media moguls. I have survived and maintained my writing sting because I have not depended on my writings to make a living. Writers as such, don’t have much regard in the society, only the rich writers can afford to have a fan-following. The written word has lost its respect.
Did Manto’s despair in those trying last years in Pakistan bring out the best in him as a writer?
The fact that Manto produced some of his best work in his last years in Pakistan does not minimize the suffering and humiliation inflicted on him by an insensitive and intolerant establishment and dehumanized society. Yes, oppression and suffering brings out the best in a great and brave writer, but he has to pay a very heavy personal cost for it and in Manto’s case, it was his wife and young daughters who had to share that pain.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film once released this month?
Whatever expectations the audiences may have, they are in for a big surprise. Manto is very different from any Pakistani film – it is Pakistan’s first art film, but at the same time, it has high drama, superb acting, excellent direction and an extraordinary story. It will give a big boost to the fledgling new Pakistani cinema.
Did the research have a profound effect on you?
Yes indeed. I found the man a soul mate. His defiance in the face of so many challenges was so inspiring. I have written about depressing, gloomy subjects and some people have asked me why I don’t write about happy stories…Manto reasserted me that you can write about depressive stories and still make people smile and give them hope.