Olomopolo Media’s event Absolute Manto at Al-Hamra I was received by a full house. The event featured performances from Mira Hashmi, Sarmad Khoosat, Sania Saeed and Feryal Gauhar, with photography from Nariman Ansari providing the visual backdrop. Olomopolo’s house band Mousiqar played sets before and after the event.
Absolute Manto kicked off with Mira Hashmi reading her Urdu adaptation of Mohammad Hanif’s satirical article “Our Case Against Manto”. The mildly Manto-esque article delivers a scathing critique of a hollow and hypocritical society under the pretense of questioning Manto’s literary fixations. The article highlights the unapologetic obscenity of Manto’s stories, his disaffected demeanor and his succinct linguistic expression.
Mira Hashmi brought the article to life on a minimally set stage. She was speaking from behind a desk adorned with a few books and other miscellaneous accessories, while an empty chair had been placed across the stage to symbolize Manto’s presence. Her reading was animated, even charged in places, but the illusion broke down on occasion because she was reading off a script.
Sarmad Khoosat followed with a dramatic reading of ‘Thanda Gosht’. The story offers a harrowing glimpse into the horrors of partition through a squabble between Ishwar Singh and his mistress Kalwant Kaur. Khoosat’s enactment of the dialogue was evocative, but his reading of the narration seemed monotonous. Despite his theatrics being impressive, one felt he could have done more to portray the visceral sexual tension and violence of the story.
A music video masquerading as a teaser for Khoosat’s upcoming film on Manto served as an intermission. The placement of the trailer right after Thanda Gosht interfered with the impact of both. Meesha Shafi’s rendition of ‘Mehram Dilan De Mahi’ was haunting. True Brew Records have done a great job with the music and the trailer left me with high hopes for the film’s soundtrack, even if it revealed little about the film itself.
After this, Sania Saeed delivered a delightful performance of ‘Yazid’. Her portrayals of Karim Dad and Jina were endearing and convincing. However, her jocular treatment of the absurdity Manto uses as a satirical device drew laughter from the audience where it should have raised questions. For example, Jina’s silly remark expressing disbelief concerning the damming of a river, while humorous, serves as a stark reminder of the innocence and ignorance of people most affected by such events.
Khoosat then read from ‘Siyah Hashiye’ accompanied by a slide show of Nariman Ansari’s photography. ‘Siyah Hashiye’ is a collection of very short stories that present the horrific massacres of partition in a darkly humorous light. The juxtaposition of the aural and the visual failed to shock and disturb the audience, and instead elicited rounds of laughter. Khoosat’s delivery certainly did not help as his manner seemed to betray his own amusement at the material.
Her Gujrati accent was authentic and believable, even if hard to follow at times
Next up, Feryal Gauhar amused with a haughty characterization of the Gujrati businessman of ‘Shaheed Saaz’. The story details the exploits of a shrewd and extortionate businessman who, upon migrating to Pakistan, finds opportunity in people’s zeal for the idea of martyrdom. The first person narrative sketches a vivid picture of the plight of the migrant class in post partition Pakistan. The performance was alive and engaging. Gauhar’s reading, infused with nuanced mannerisms and antics was very well received by the audience. Her Gujrati accent was authentic and believable, even if hard to follow at times. The irony of the story itself, however, seemed to be lost on the listeners.
With refreshingly crisp cinematography and sound design, the film holds a lot of promise
The event closed with another trailer of Khoosat’s film ‘Main Manto’. This second trailer showed a lot more of the film. Scenes from Manto’s life and stories were set to music and the trailer was impeccably edited. With refreshingly crisp cinematography and sound design, the film holds a lot of promise and will hopefully be an honest and moving portrayal of the iconoclast.
Overall, Olomopolo’s production was well polished, but one couldn’t help the feeling that it was a bit rushed. Every performer was reading off of sheets of paper, despite which they still managed to slip up on occasion. One couldn’t help but feel that one was attending a dress rehearsal. A segment discussing the life and work of Manto and his relevance today would have added value to the event.
The effort was commendable, but the event itself seemed like a remembrance of Manto’s life and work in letter rather than in spirit. Manto wrote about the world around him exactly as he saw it, and made no pretenses about it. His satire cuts sharp, and often catches the reader by surprise, and I believe his masterful use of double entendre interspersed with subtle absurdity does not lend itself well to theatrical production. The dramatization of his stories only dilutes their impact. This was all too apparent in the performances of ‘Absolute Manto’. It is also evidenced by the fact that the audience, myself included, was able to laugh at even the most somber and discomfiting moments.
The event closed with the same lines it had opened with: “If you cannot tolerate these stories, it means you cannot tolerate these times. How can I undress a society that is already stark naked? I do not wish to clothe it. That is not my job, it is the dress maker’s”.
‘Absolute Manto’ showed us that we, as a society, have managed to play the part of dress maker rather well. One wonders how a wider audience would have received such an uninhibited presentation of Manto’s work. The largely liberal crowd present at Al-Hamra tolerated it very well.