Manto and the outrage industry
“I feel like I am always the one tearing everything up and forever sewing it back together,” Manto had once written.Updated: Sep 23, 2018 06:43 IST
Guess what short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, actor Salman Khan, model Madhu Sapre and author Twinkle Khanna have in common? They’ve all been charged with obscenity.
How would Manto have reacted to being in a list with these celebrities? Would he have found it amusing that the subtle savagery of his fiction was being clubbed with an ad showing a model wearing a python, a wife cheekily unbuttoning the top button of her husband’s trousers at a fashion show and the antics of an ageing actor in a reality show? Or would he have despaired that our freedom of expression has been reduced to a joke by the outrage industry?
Of course, the difference between the recent entrants to the list and Manto is that most of their transgressions are flotsam and jetsam of pop culture. Manto, in contrast, makes you sit up and his writing remains relevant even today.
Take, for instance, The Licence, in which a woman named Niti falls in love with Abbu Coachman (a tonga driver). Society refuses the couple their happiness because they, particularly Niti, violate too many conventions. Sound familiar? Tongas may be resigned to history, but punishing those who break caste, class and community codes remains a defining feature of our present. “I feel like I am always the one tearing everything up and forever sewing it back together,” Manto had once written. Sixty-three years after he died, Manto remains both disruptive and a truth-teller, thanks to his stories.
The day before the release of Nandita Das’s film Manto, the producers of Manmarziyaan put protesting minds at ease by snipping three scenes that showed Sikh characters smoking in the film. Apparently, they were an affront, so certain Sikh groups demanded the film be re-cut. Because if you can’t tackle Punjab’s drug and alcohol addiction problem, you can at least get Manmarziyaan re-edited so that those watching it will think Sikhs in Punjab don’t smoke. The world is now a better, less vice-ridden place. Phew.
The real disappointment is that producers Colour Yellow Productions and Eros International chose to submit to these inane demands. Manto probably wouldn’t have been surprised.
Writing about Bollywood in the 1940s, he had said, “The people in charge of movie making here are old fashioned and simple-minded. They have neither the desire nor the intention to progress. No art can come of this lot.”
Aanand L Rai of Colour Yellow Productions issued a statement in which he said the cuts don’t “compromise” Manmarziyaan, ignoring the detail that if the scenes are insignificant, they shouldn’t need self-censorship. The moment they become worth cutting, they also become worth fighting for.
“In the current situation, we have to be practical,” wrote Rai. He didn’t explain what it is about the current situation that makes it practical to let attention-hungry outfits and the scissor-handed Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) know the film industry can be easily arm-twisted to give up their right to free expression.
Delicate sensibilities have felt assaulted since time immemorial, but since the 2000s, it feels like the outrage industry has really discovered itself. Practically every film manages to offend someone (particularly advocates, which makes you wonder what’s going on in our law schools). Net result: Few things scare Bollywood as much as the words “stay order”.
The most obscure group of placard bearers will find political support and the next thing you know, from guards at cinemas to top executives in film studios, everyone’s sweating bullets.
We may laugh at them because their complaints are laughable, but rather than a joke, these protests are throttling us as a society. Our artists know fear and self-censorship more intimately than inspiration, they’re more inclined to conform and less eager to question.
Manto – who famously asked a prosecution witness who objected to the word bosom, “What else do you expect me to call a woman’s breast? Peanuts?” – knew no matter how silly the charge, it had to be countered and the story needed to be defended. Perhaps the film named after him will remind others that when freedom is at stake, nothing is trivial.