“Who among all of you had never heard the name Manto before today?”, asked Indian actress and film maker Nandita Das to a room full of audience. Several hands went up and a discerning smile curled up at the corners of her mouth as she nodded her head. Perhaps when Nandita decided to make a film on the life of famous Urdu author Manto almost six years ago she would not have known that she would inadvertently become an ambassador of his work and beliefs to modern day readers and cine goers.
Saadat Hasan Manto was born in 1912 in Ludhiana, Punjab and later moved to Lahore, after the partition. Remarkably even though he died at the very young age of 42 he left behind a legacy of around 300 literary works including short stories, plays and essays. Manto was known to be mercurial, outspoken, an alcoholic and was tried for obscenity six times. His writings centered around partition, political corruption, drug addiction, prostitutes, sexual slavery of women among other socio-political issues of his times.
According to Nandita Manto was admired for his unabashed truthfulness that brought a rare sensitivity in his writings, a deep concern for people living on the margins as well as an unprecedented empathetic gaze for women’s issues. “Through his writing he talked about caste, religion, gender and human behaviour. I feel he is deeply relevant today because we are grappling with all these issues. We see artists silenced by authorities, by the moral police, or by the censor board and at times they themselves chose to not express their true feelings. That’s why I wanted to tell the story of Manto, who celebrated free-spiritedness, especially now,” she said.
An acclaimed actress, Nandita has to her credit several honours and awards. Manto is her second directorial venture. Starring the talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the movie traces the struggles in the life of the writer between the years 1946 to 1948, the time around which India gained independence. Due to the partition Manto who lived in Bombay, India was forced to move to Lahore, Pakistan. Nandita spent close to six years making the film, and started collecting research material a few years before that. To know the real Manto she spent time with his three daughters who live in Pakistan.
During the talk Nandita spoke about spreading the idea of Mantoiyyat or Mantoness. “It is the desire to be more honest. Mantoiyyat is that feeling that gives confidence to be strong about your convictions, which in turn gives the person courage to stand up for their beliefs. Manto wrote the truth about what was happening in the society even though every time he did he got into trouble with the law.”
Close to the end of the talk Nandita was joined on the stage by her eight year old son who also played a small part in the movie. In a Facebook post she wrote later that ‘her son was probably the only eight year old who had heard so much about Manto, and that it is never too early to hear about the importance of honesty, convictions and courage’.