26 May 2014

Manto's moviedom, moviedom's Manto

Sa'adat Hasan Manto may be long dead, but in his writing, the 1940s Bombay film world remains brilliantly alive.

Manto wrote himself an epitaph to rival all epitaphs, "Here lies Sa'adat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of storytelling... Under tons of earth he rests, still wondering who among the two is the greater story writer: God or he." But Manto's sister decided that his grave could do without unwelcome attention from God's little soldiers, and had it replaced with a Ghalib-inspired line - something to the effect of not having been the last word upon this earth. It is deliberately innocuous, quite the opposite of Manto. 

Whether Manto was or was not a greater story writer than God, I think he is the greatest writer to have written about the world of Bombay cinema. This is no small thing, given that the pieces I'm referring to - published in Urdu as Ganjey Farishtey, translated into English as Stars from Another Sky - were written between 1948 and 1954, over sixty years ago. 

Their world is one Manto had himself been part of, as a journalist and a studio screenwriter. When he first moved to Bombay in 1936 to work at Nazir Ludhianvi's weekly film newspaper Musawwir (The Painter), he was 24. Over the next decade and a bit, he worked as Editor of Babu Rao Patel's film magazine Caravan, and at the Imperial Film Company, Film City and Saroj Movietone. From his own references, it seems he also worked on films for Filmistan, Chitra Productions and Hindustan Cine Tone, among others. 

In line with the archival abyss that we Indians live in, very, very few of the 2000-odd films made in the 1930s and 1940s have survived - and none of those Manto was part of. How wonderful it would be to read what Manto wrote in Musawwir and Caravan - reviews of contemporary films? - but I doubt any of those exist either. 

But what we do have in Stars from Another Sky are sparkling accounts of some of the people Manto knew, and through them, a picture of the Bombay film industry that feels warmer, more intimate and acute than pretty much anything that has been published on it since. And none of it is touchy-feely. Some of the people Manto writes about remain instantly recognisable - Nargis, Ashok Kumar, the golden-voiced Noor Jehan and kathak danseuse Sitara. The latter, whom Manto labelled 'Dancing Tigress from Nepal' and who lives into her 90s as the venerable Sitara Devi, was the subject of his most unabashedly sensational piece. But here, too, Manto exhibits what I can only call his unique charm. Having gone on about her sexual appetite and her relationships for several pages, he ends, "Sitara, of course, would be angry, but after some time, she will forgive me because...she, too is a bighearted woman... I do not know what she thinks of me but I have always thought of her as a woman who is born once in a hundred years." Believable flattery is a very rare thing. 

The Nargis piece is one of my favourites: a remarkably unforced portrait of someone forced to live two lives. On one hand she is the naive young woman who enjoys girlish gossip, comparing notes about convent school life and asking for recipes for "toffee with raw sugar" (this turns out, in my Devanagari version, Meena Bazar, to be called gur ki bheli). Almost the whole piece is devoted to this unstarry Nargis, so starved for the company of ordinary girls her age that she actually seeks out those she encounters via an anonymous phone call (these happen to be Manto's saalis). But then it swerves, as if without premeditation, into a different space: Manto takes some visiting young men to Jaddan Bai's house to see Nargis. She emerges reluctantly, and her manner with these admirers is completely at odds with what we've seen so far. 

"Nargis's entire conversation was pure artifice. The way she sat, the way she moved, the way she raised her eyes was like an offering on a platter... It was a boring and somewhat tense meeting." Later he describes her talking money. The piece is among the most vivid portrayals of a star persona ever - alternately lonely and haughty, childish and businesslike. 

Other pieces describe personalities largely lost to public memory, like Rafiq Ghaznavi ('The Ladies' Man') or Neena ('The Inscrutable Housewife'). But Manto's unabashed narratives are not only about these protagonists - they are full of drinking sessions, tangential affairs and breakups, and the everyday life of the Bombay film studio - writing sessions, shooting hazards, comic interludes. 

Perhaps the book's most moving essay is about the actor Shyam, Manto's close friend who had died. But it is not Shyam's death that makes the piece moving. It is the fact that in writing it, Manto relives the events leading up to his 1948 departure from Bombay "where the communal atmosphere was becoming more vicious by the day". He describes advising Ashok Kumar and Vacha to dismiss him from service because "the Hindus thought" he was the one getting so many Muslims into Bombay Talkies. His description of his relationship with Shyam as Partition riots erupt is among the most powerful accounts of how individual lives can get folded into wider - that is narrower - identities. Nothing happens - it is just the inescapable feeling that it could. 

If Manto had lived, he would have turned 102 on 11 May, 2014. He died ridiculously, sadly young at 43, having spent his last six years in sorrowful exile from his beloved Bombay. May Bombay's moviedom keep his spirit alive in our difficult times.

This column was published in Mumbai Mirror.

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