Last week, the city audiences saw a brilliant production by Kolkata-based veteran theatre director Usha Ganguly. It was ‘Badnam Manto’, based on the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto (1939-1955). The coming week, Chandigarh’s own theatre director Neelam Mansingh is staging ‘Naked Voices’, once again inspired by Manto’s fiction, with the final-year students of the National School of Drama in Delhi. This is not all; there is an intense Manto revival on both sides of the border -- in stage and also in cinema. The great interest that litterateurs and historians started showing in Manto’s literary work some three decades ago is growing on both sides of the border.
Manto becomes the source material for many stage productions and in Pakistan last year ‘Manto’, a feature film, was released, starring Sarmat Khoosat. A serial, ‘Main Manto’, was also telecast in Pakistan last fall. This great revival is significant and also ironical for a man and writer who was shunned by polite society and faced any number of obscenity charges before and after the Partition. Post 1947, Manto was admitted to the mental asylum in Lahore twice. He died a forlorn alcoholic and till his death his writings were banned on Radio Pakistan. What then makes him an icon now? The obvious answer would be the truth and power of his writings on the dark side of human nature especially to the communal frenzy at the time of the Partition, which was to leave torment of the writer’s psyche. However, even historians chronicling the Partition concede that where academics failed, Manto intervened and his writings have been a valuable source for history of that time.
Neelam, who has worked on the stories of Manto in the past too, says: “Saadat Hasan Manto does not tell polite stories. He was constantly challenging the deceptions and hypocrisies of the society he lived in. In an environment seething with rage, ruptures and exploitation, he forced us to ask questions.” She adds that although hers is not political theatre ever, yet in the images that are formed by the stories she sees shades of Kashmir or faces of Syrian children.
Sarmat, who played the author in the Pakistani film ‘Manto’, says that people are greatly being drawn to Manto because they have become bolder and braver in the past few years. “People are trying to explore more of what they’ve got, their own indigenous literary heritage, and Manto is inescapable.”
Usha, who took three of Manto’s red-light heroines for her play ‘Badnam Manto’, says that even in changed times, women of the slums still come out and stand beneath lampposts to trade their bodies. In fact the late writer had touched the humane in these women saying: “Every woman is not a whore, but every whore is a woman.” It goes to writer’s credit that more than half a century ago he had asked for a child to get the mother’s name.
In fact, Manto had said in defence of his own writing: “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty.” It was this brutal truth, at the cost of his own well-being, that has not allowed Manto to become a cliché.