The Partition of India is replete with many tragic ironies but these tragedies pale before the incident that great short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto picks on as a metaphor for the mayhem — Toba Tek Singh.
When the newly-formed governments of the two countries completed the identification of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan’s mental asylums and Muslims left in such institutions in India, the governments decided to transfer them to the countries they were now deemed to be citizens of.
When Bishan Singh, a Sikh in a Pakistani asylum, was being transferred to India under police escort he learns that his hometown, Toba Tek Singh, has been left in Pakistan. Bishan Singh begins to walk in the opposite direction. The last scene shows him lying in no-man’s land. Let Manto end the story in his own words: “There, behind the barbed wire, on one side, lay India and behind more barbed wire, on the other side, lay Pakistan. In between on a bit of earth, which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.” This is just one of the Manto stories Nandita Das weaves effortlessly into her film Manto.
“Thanda Gosht”, or “Cold Meat”, another Manto masterpiece, becomes one of the film’s supporting columns. It provides occasion for a court drama where Manto defends himself against charges of obscenity. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, as a witness in the case, exposes the earliest fissures in the Progressive Writers Movement with which Manto too had flirted. In his testimony, Faiz describes “Thanda Gosht” as not the “highest form of literature” but clearly not obscene either.
The backdrop, once again, are the riots following Partition. A well-built Sikh, Ishwar Singh, has returned with jewellery after joining the looters. In fact, he has even murdered five men with his kirpan (sword). But when he is unable to make love to the passionate Kalwant Kaur, she, in a moment of suspicion and jealousy, slits his throat with the very same kirpan, demanding that he tell her who he has been with.
The story’s final climax is — it has many — when a dying Ishwar Singh confesses that yes, he lifted a “very beautiful girl” from a house, but when he laid her down, he realised to his horror that she was dead. “Thanda Gosht”. It is a metaphor about so much, including the post-Partition dehumanisation and frenzy when even the distinction between dead and alive gets blurred. Faiz probably found it too melodramatic, but then it is supposed to be based on a true story.
An effort to critique Nandita Das’ film has involuntarily meandered past the brilliant short stories which many readers must already be familiar with. There is a simple reason for my diversion. The succinct, vivid, picturisation of so many of the stories have made them more intimately accessible. Those who have read Manto will be enriched. And her selection of stories is uncanny. When a doctor asks his helper to “open” (kholdo) the window to allow some light, Sakina (recovered from a riot-affected area) gropes for the string of her salwar in a daze and loosens it. She has developed a Pavlovian response to the sound “kholdo”, so repeatedly has she been raped in captivity. There is a disturbing Mantovian irony attending the end. On this occasion, the instruction “kholdo” is for the window to be opened so that Sakina’s distraught father, who has spent days searching for her, can see her face. I can go on and on.
The extraordinary directorial success lies in what Nandita Das has avoided. Despite the world’s finest short stories at her disposal, she has refrained from creating a catalogue of Manto masterpieces, however seductive the idea may have been. The stories are in the service of the director’s primary purpose — to bring out the multi-layered life of a genius, struggling to keep the wolf from door, a difficult proposition when tight-fisted publishers buy a short story only for `20 against Manto’s demand for `50. He accepts the humiliation because he is in desperate need for money for his child’s medical treatment.
To be proud, sensitive and constantly in need is a lethal combination. Initially, Manto copes with the humiliation. He reminds me of Majaz Lucknowi.
“Banyeen sael e gham a sael e Hawadis/ Mera sar hai ki ab bhi khum naheen hai” (A gathering storm of tragedy and pain approaches/ But I have not bowed my head — the struggle continues).
Eventually, on a cold December night, Majaz was found in a coma on the terrace of a Lucknow country liquor shop. He died the next morning in Balrampur hospital, surrounded by comrades who happened to be in Lucknow for a Conference of Progressive Writers — Ismat Chughtai, Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi. Manto also dies of alcoholism, but his is a slow end, by attrition. Both died in their 40s.
One of the film’s arresting passages is the celebration of Independence Day, exactly on August 15, 1947. The cameo is a recreation of the evening exactly as it happened. The legendary songstress Jaddanbai sings for the occasion. Her teenaged daughter Nargis is standing behind her. Anyone with the slightest recollection of Nargis will find the resemblance uncanny. This is superb casting. There are so many characters one can recognise — K. Asif, for instance, the producer of Mughal-e-Azam, gruff and coarse.
The film’s other attraction is the portrayal of an era along two distinct tracks. One is the post-Partition mayhem, the breakdown of friendships relationships, Manto’s parting with friends like actors Ashok Kumar and Shyam.
Even more evocative are the occasional references to the Progressive Writers, Indian People’s Theatre, all given considerable boost by the innovative secretary-general of the Communist Party of India, P.C. Joshi.
It was under his spell that the progressive writers moved to Mumbai where many like Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi and Sardar Jafri changed the character of film lyrics. Manto’s realism clashed with the idealism of the Progressives. This was another pain he carried all his life....