She first saw Manto, the film, at an early private screening. Scenes from the movie were reflected in her eyes as she looked at the characters on screen; the man playing the protagonist was her father, Saadat Hasan Manto. Nuzhat Arshad was seven years old when he passed away. I wonder if she felt a fleeting sense of affinity with the character played by Sarmad Khoosat, who lovingly called his daughter Nuzhat, “Nuzhi”.
There are various scenes that show Manto’s affection for his daughters. In one scene, he plants an affectionate kiss on his eldest daughter’s forehead when she’s sick. This was also the time in his life he couldn’t write. There’s a scene where Manto, in sheer frustration, breaks a bottle of alcohol in resentment for having failed his wife and children. Manto’s stark vulnerability and love for his family, social angst and passion for writing all come together and work parallel to one another. The movie focuses on the post-Partition struggles Manto faced, but many are arguing that his character evoked sympathy, and that is not the essence of the real Manto.
“I may be a writer of obscene stories, a sensationalist, a clown, a reactionary, but I am also the husband of a wife and the father of three girls”
During Manto’s private screening, Nuzhat sat across from the screen, observing the screenplay, the direction, the editing. She came and left as part of an audience. A few days ago, I asked her what she thought of the movie. Her hands in her lap, she looked at me steadily and said it was nice. “I just wish they had done thorough research. The script had already been prepared before they came to us for permission,” she added.
Her son, Mohammad Farooq, sits on the other end of the room and nods silently before voicing his opinion. “It is a lack of empirical research. What counts is to ensure readings from this writings from a variety of angles. The movie may be great, but some deficiencies and fabrications are obvious. I believe fabrication is equivalent to misleading the public at large,” he says. Farooq believes there is a wealth of information available in books, and that many matters were not verified despite the presence of Manto’s family. He suggests reading The Pity of Partition by Ayesha Jalal, as the book holds the key to unlocking Manto’s life struggles and vicissitudes.
Although most movie adaptations include some fictional elements, Farooq believes Manto is a biopic that deserved in-depth research. According to Farooq, some scenes in the movie are purely fictionalised. For instance, Manto never worked in an ice factory and he never rode a bicycle. The movie also shows Manto entering a mental asylum several times when, in reality, he was sent just once for rehabilitation purposes. Nuzhat wonders from where the film’s producers got these details. “As far as we know, he did not do any of these things, and I don’t know why these elements were included,” she said.
Farooq is also bothered by the scene where Safia, Manto’s wife, takes the money sent by the courtesan. For him, such changes don’t do justice to the moral character of the person. He believes that doing thorough research means staying in touch with the family to ask questions, similar to what Nandita Das is currently doing in India while researching Manto for her movie. “She calls and asks questions, she reads and clarifies not just with me, but with all the sisters and family members,” says Nuzhat.
A biopic is essentially a biographical account of a person’s most important years. Ironically, the dramatization of factual events often translates into an approach that is based on perspective. Despite the fictionalised insertions, which were perhaps included for artistic or narrative purposes, Khoosat’s creative vision succeeds in delivering a profoundly human side of Manto, garnering not just sympathy, but also tears for his character.
However, Nusrat Jalal, Manto’s youngest daughter, is pleased with how the movie turned out. “The changes made to the movie didn’t bother me much. The message was conveyed and his stories will be read. That makes me happy,” she said.
According to Jalal, in Pakistan, people don’t reach out and ask for permission. Once the story is out in the public domain, they think they can do with it what they like. “I was happy we got to see this movie during our lifetime, without any restrictions or censorship issues. The state is too busy fighting real terror. Now people are more willing to embrace and understand the topics my father wrote about,” she added.
Manto was able to provide a chronological or temporal quality to the writer’s life; the aesthetics through which the writer talks to the viewer are beautiful, yet haunting. Sarmad Khoosat’s stellar performance, flawless direction and crisp editing have impressed viewers, and this movie has endowed Pakistan’s media scene with a much-needed renaissance.
But is it fair to call a movie a biopic when the director admits to adding fictional elements to the script? Where does that leave biographical integrity?
I asked Nuzhat Farooq if the family was given any royalties. She told me they weren’t (despite the commercial success of the movie). Manto lived his life without any financial affluence. Nuzhat tells me that her mother silently endured her difficulties and shielded her daughters from all struggles as long as she lived. In Chronicling Safia Manto, Mohammad Farooq writes, “She hardly ever received any financial aid from the government after the death of Manto in order to help bring up her daughters, royalty payments were scant to say the least. People kept commoditising Manto, knowing well that Safia was alive, and kept publishing his works without paying any heed to copyright laws.”
This reminded me of an essay Manto wrote in 1951. He wrote: “My present life is full of hardship. After working day and night, I barely make enough to fulfil my daily needs. The fear that keeps gnawing at me is that were I to die suddenly who will look after my wife and three minor daughters? I may be a writer of obscene stories, a sensationalist, a clown, a reactionary, but I am also the husband of a wife and the father of three girls. If one of them falls ill and I have to beg from door to door so that I can get her treated, it hurts me deeply. If after my death, the doors of the state radio and libraries are thrown open to my writings and my stories are given the same elevated status as the poetry of Iqbal, my soul will wander about restlessly.”
Today, memories come back in bits and pieces, and his daughter Nuzhat tries to put them together. “I haven’t heard my father’s voice in a long time; I was too young when he left. I really want to hear his voice, but I can’t. There are no recordings.”
The wall across the main door in Nuzhat Farooq’s house is adorned with four photographs of her father and mother. The shadows fall on the wall, the figures look at us: his monumental personality is transfixed behind the frame. Today, he is celebrated largely on the screen. He continues to speak to us, his readers. His words pave a path for us and for our collective conscience, breaking through the cold silence of apathy. Let us pay respect to those he has left behind, the unsung heroines of Sadat Hasan Manto’s home.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Toronto