Manto at Cannes 2018: Why the Urdu iconoclast is relevant even today


If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.”

Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the most prolific Urdu writers the world has ever seen, penned these blunt words in a chaotic time. And the recently-released Manto teaser, which premiered at Cannes 2018, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the protagonist’s role and directed by Nandita Das, echoes these words with the same fierce passion that has come to be associated with the writer.


The trailer makes us revisit the post-Independence era, when the country was grappling with poverty and rampant corruption. With his body language, attitude, and tone, Nawaz sinks his teeth into the character of the torn and rebellious writer who never hesitated from calling out the bare truth, be it about his family, or a hypocritical society.

Manto depicts the turbulent four years in the life of the Urdu writer, and that of India and a newly-formed Pakistan. His stories are accepted in the glowing and shiny world of Bombay, but after sectarian violence engulfs the nation, Manto is compelled to leave his beloved city. In Pakistan’s Lahore, he finds himself without friends, and there are no takers for his writings. He begins to depend excessively on alcohol, and he heads into a downward spiral. Yet, despite all this, he continues to write without fear.


Manto’s struggles with the social and literary establishment of his era are iconic. He was tried for obscenity for his story Thanda Ghosht six times. Yet, he remained unapologetic and continued to be rebellious. He did not back down from his stance. He continued to write his satirical pieces of self-styled godmen, politicians and heads of organised religions.

His stories are dark, chilling and never fail to send shivers down the reader’s spine; Khol Do, Toba Tek Singh and The Assignment, just to name a few.

His story Khol Do was one of the most controversial stories of his era – probably because it was a painful eye-opener on the communal tensions that were tearing the country apart back then.

It was a masterpiece, subtly discussing the ramifications of Partition and the ensuing violence. It told the story of Sirajuddin, whose wife has been killed by the riots, and he is wildly looking for his daughter. People, or “rescuers” promise to find and return his daughter Sakina to him. However, they find and rape her over the next few days.

She’s finally brought to the refugee camps, and a blissfully unaware Sirajuddin is elated to hear the news. He’s too happy to know that she is alive, more so than anything else. The story ends on a chilling note, and you need to take a few deep breaths, once you finish the story.

That’s the raw beauty of Manto’s stories. The perpetrators in his tales are not Hindus or Muslims. He sees them as humans, in all their barbarity, cruelty and ruthlessness. He focusses on the ordeal of Partition, and even the perpetrators of the crimes in his stories are presented as victims of a political process gone wrong.

Manto is known for his raw satires on the relationship between India and Pakistan. He showed how the communal tensions between the two countries had harmed people’s lives. And in Toba Tek Singh, Hindu and Sikh lunatics are transferred to institutions in India. Enraged by this, a Sikh stands on the border that divides Pakistan from India.

The story subtly depicts that the “madmen” have a better understanding of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, rather than the politicians who agreed to divide the country.

Sounds familiar?

The man falls in “no man’s land”. And as Manto eloquently puts it, “There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”

Manto’s fearlessness and his understanding of the human psyche, his fight for free speech and religious intolerance is what reverberate through his writings even today.

And in these troubled times, Manto’s voice can be heard louder than ever.


What mattered to Manto was not nationalism or religion, but just being human.

So, why is Manto still relevant, 63 years after his death?

We are still living in a world where communal tensions can be sparked by a mere word or a phrase, or even an innocent action. We haven’t come too far from the 1940s, let’s face the fact. People are still being lynched for their food choices, rapes are being politicised to further the cause of ruling parties, and freedom of speech is slowly becoming a distant dream. We still are faced with censorship and bans. Caste and class continue to dominate discourses and death-tolls.

The artistic realm is being infiltrated too and the Padmaavat row that shook Bollywood just a few months ago is one such example. A film about a mythical queen almost brought a country to standstill, only because it was assumed that the film would show a love scene between a Hindu queen and a Muslim invader. For the most part, the government stayed quiet while hooligans took the streets and threatened violence.

Today, a religious identity weighs more than anything else.

In this troubled and chaotic world today, Manto the misunderstood genius, is resurrected once again.

Source: India Today


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