Manto, which is more of a remembrance of the literature, than the biopic of the man who wrote it found no space in the theatres of Jammu and Kashmir. Like his story Toba Tek Singh’s character, the movie created a space for itself in the no man’s land of Netflix.
Sadat Hassan Manto, a writer whose life was torn apart by the partition while his literature was shaped by it, belonged as much to the heart of Bombay as to Lahore. Directed by Nandita Das, the movie created a stirring reflection of the tortured genius by stringing his stories together and merging them into his portrait. But the question that arises out of this is:
Why is it that this creative masterpiece failed to create a space for itself in the theatres of Jammu and Kashmir?
The rise of mainstream commercial movies that rake up crores while artsy films that tend to create a separate path for themselves struggle in making ends meet makes it hard for theatres to risk their money on a movie that might not sell enough. But considering the history of Sadat Hassan Manto and the extent of the literature he wrote about India and Pakistan, his identity crisis of having his heart in India and body in Pakistan is much like the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The state of Jammu Kashmir has been in turmoil since partition with many dead on either side of the border.
The movie’s explanation of Manto’s identity crisis is profound enough to resonate in the hearts of every citizen of Jammu and Kashmir. But rising above that, the movie is one that brings both countries together through the works of a rebel with a cause. Manto’s stories held up a mirror to the society which is much needed even in today’s time. As such, why is it that despite people in Jammu and Kashmir claiming that they had been waiting eagerly for the movie to release here, the theatres remained devoid of the marvel that was premiered in the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
With Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s ‘Bol ke lab azaad hain tere’ instilling life into the movie, Nandita Das talked about how she intended for the movie to be an eye-opener in today’s time when right-wing forces censored and oppressed the free-thinking artists. As the movie received appreciation in the rest of the country, she tried to even get the movie released in Pakistan. Yet, Jammu and Kashmir, though an important interlink between the two countries was overlooked in this attempt of bringing creative freedom to the limelight. The creative heads of Jammu and Kashmir, prominent writers, directors and theatre-director voiced no opinion at such an oversight of all those who worked hard for this film.
Perhaps, considering the sensitive circumstances prevailing in Jammu and Kashmir, the decision was made on the basis of intolerance rather than commercial aspects. But that makes one think about the message that the movie intended to give. During the time of partition, Manto’s works were considered obscene and censored heavily for its ability to conjure up emotions in the readers for self-reflection. The entire story of Manto revolves around the mind of a tortured genius torn apart by the ripping of two countries. Isn’t that something most people in J&K could relate with? And is relativity in such context really a bad thing?
Where it is believed that the voices of plight are kept suppressed by those in power, art frees the minds of those in chains.
The movie was released in India on 21st September with a few glitches on its first premiere and has gotten a platform by Netflix India on November 30th.
Manto starring Nawazzuddin Siddiqui began with one of Manto’s stories, later shaping the scene into it being discussed by Progressive Writer’s Association. Manto is seen having a thick friendship with other revolutionary writers among whom is Ismat Chugtai. She is also facing an obscenity charge at the time. Even the beginning of the movie marks the essence of Freedom of creative expression which it hopes to uphold throughout. Manto’s closest friend, next to his supportive wife Safia is Shyam Chaddha. One thing worth noting is the portrayal of India during independence. Neither Safia nor other Muslim women in the movie are seen wearing Burkhas or Hijaab as it was rarely an actuality during the time.
Another scene that shakes one’s core is when Manto mistakes a crowd of Shyam’s fans as a threatening mob. Such is the atmosphere created by communal polarisation during the time, following which Manto decides to leave the land where his parents, as well as his first born son, was buried. The migration of a writer much loved in India, leaving behind his friends and notably the land of inspiration Bombay creates a realistic and brilliant premise for what is to come afterwards. The shift to a different geographical location led to such a shift in his writing that he wrote bold and brutal prose which marred the ‘moral codes’ of both India and Pakistan. While being adored by those who understood it to be influential literature, he was often rejected by magazines and looked down upon as an obscene writer.
Manto was a maverick who concatenated such literature that was courageous and fearless, yet it invoked fear in those who closed their eyes to the realities of the society. In his own words, “If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.”
The movie moves in parallels with Manto’s life as a writer and his deteriorating personal life because of alcoholism. Manto regards his vocation above all else. That is represented in many scenes like the one where he tears apart his column when he doesn’t receive the money for it and drowns himself in alcohol, forgetting his sick daughter’s medicine. The agonising state of Manto is summed up in Ghalib’s words “nah gul-e naġhmah hūñ nah pardah-e sāz maiñ hūñ apnī shikast kī āvāz” (I am neither the rose of melody nor the frets of a [musical]harmony. I am the sound of my own defeat.)
Having struggled all his life with his soul belonging to Bombay and his work being shaped up by his experience in Lahore, Manto was no land’s man much like Nandita’s reproduction of him which now finds its way on Netflix which is no man’s land that gaps the crack between mainstream commercial movies and creative masterpieces.