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Interview Hindi

Mantostaan director Rahat Kazmi: It takes courage to make a film on Manto's stories

In his film Mantostaan, Rahat Kazmi has brought to life the universe and characters of some of Saadat Hasan Manto's incendiary short stories. Set in the painful times of Partition, the stories touch upon events that were catalytic to the history of the subcontinent, and to Manto's own life. The director opens up on the need to reopen the conversation about Manto, and the relevance of his works today.

Shriram Iyengar

Saadat Hasan Manto reportedly wished his grave to carry the epitaph: 'In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets of the art of storytelling in his breast. Weighed down by the earth he wonders still: Who is the greater writer, God or he?'

The statement finds increasing agreement among progressive thinkers and intellectuals today. Manto, who died at 43, is considered an icon of progressive literature in Urdu, and a short-story writer whose works are comparable to those of his idols Guy de Maupassant, Victor Hugo and Maxim Gorky. His works, insightful, direct, satirical, and often acerbic, displayed a courage that remains unparalleled.

In Mantostaan, Rahat Kazmi has shown some of that courage himself in picking four stories and weaving them into a 92-minute film. After touring the festival circuit, including a premiere at Cannes 2016, the film is set to be released in India on 5 May.

A keen student of Urdu and Indian literature, Kazmi spoke to Cinestaan.com on the need to take the discussion on Manto and his works from high-society tea parties into the living rooms of people. "Manto's stories get discussed a lot, but people never find the courage to make a film on them," he remarked. Excerpts.

When did Mantostaan the film start coming into shape? How long did you spend on it?

We completed the film almost a year ago. We started filming in July 2015. We completed the final schedule in November. We worked out a strategy to show the film around in festival circuits through the last year. We opened last year in May at Cannes, then July-August we took the film to Australia. Then, we took it to San Francisco, United States.

We took it to the Rajasthan international festival, Jaipur international festival as well. We have made a film that will receive more audience at festivals. Once it receives appreciation at these festivals, it becomes more acceptable for the common audience.

What attracted you to Manto's works? He is not an easy writer to translate into the cinematic medium.

I think Manto is perhaps the most complicated writer to make a film on. I have been a student of Urdu. Manto, [Ismat] Chughtai, [Mirza] Ghalib, [Allama] Iqbal were among the regular writers I read in college. It has been a hobby of mine since college to read these writers.

A major support for the project was Raghuvir Yadav. He was there with me from the beginning, when I told him I was planning to make a film on Manto's stories. Raghuvir sir told me 'Manto's stories get discussed a lot, but people never find the courage to make a film on them'.

This is the reason there have been very few films on Manto's stories. I read a quote once: 'The world has never seen a writer like Manto.' If you take international writers and magazines, they have studied and analysed his works quite deeply. But we have ourselves done scarce work on it, particularly in cinema. It has been tried in theatre. However, with theatre the audience is very limited. Theatre does have a class of its own, but it is cinema that reaches a wider audience. Cinema is a huge medium. It is not just Manto, but a number of fascinating writers from India who have been ignored in cinema.

Even though there is always a need for good scripts in the industry, the works of good writers don't get picked. I don't know if it is the audience's lack of interest or the producers'.

I was always a fan of Manto, but it was Raghuvir Yadav who encouraged me to make this film.

This ignoring of Manto is despite the fact that he was closely connected with the Bombay film industry.

True, he was a core member of the early days of Bombay cinema. It was one of the great tragedies of his life that during Partition he had to leave India. He never found peace and happiness in Pakistan. He was charged with obscenity, tried in court three times. He often thought of coming back to India, because some of his closest friends were here.

Manto's writings are often blamed for being too serious, but it does have satire and dark humour. They originate from his nature, which was quite open. Yet, his works made direct comments on society in a way that people hesitate to make even today.

Manto and Ismat Chughtai are names that gave Urdu literature the edge it needed. It was a very different form of progressive writing that they brought to the language.

While Khol Do and Thanda Gosht are among Manto's most famous stories, Last Salute and Assignment are also part of your montage. What made you choose these four stories?

The main reason for these stories is that they have a common backdrop. They are based in the time of Partition. Aakhri Salute, set in Kashmir, is the story of two friends who are assigned to two armies — one the Kashmir army, and the other the Indian army.

Assignment is another wonderful story that is set in Amritsar. It is a tale of people who are caught in the riots after Partition.

The four stories are not divided into chapters. They are intercut together, to make you feel they are part of one larger story.

Manto is a writer who is forever chased by controversy. In the modern age, why is he more relevant?

Manto showed society its naked truth. As he has said himself, 'If you find my stories obscene, it is not my fault. It is your society's. I am not a tailor to make clothes for your society. My job is to show it the mirror.'

Manto's direct style of writing is a rarity across world literature. He faced charges in courts for the kind of words he used. He was far ahead of his times.

We recently had a screening at the London Asian film festival. My actors told me about a British woman who discussed the story in detail after the film [Khol Do]. It was quite surprising that people who have no connection with Hindi and Urdu study this writer in such detail.

He is a very relevant writer. His ability to showcase pain, particularly in his stories of Partition, where religion turns men into demons to protect their gods, [such conditions] exist in society even today. [The problem] has actually escalated to a global scale. The world has become more racist, and conservative in many ways. America, a country known for its broadmindedness, has grown radical.

Sadly, people scarcely read literature today. They do not realize that there is an urgent need to revive these old writers. If they do, the generation today will actually connect with his stories better. Such is his relevance. If Manto and Chughtai are brought into the mainstream, it would make a huge difference to the way young minds are being treated. If an Ismat Chughtai touched upon lesbian relationships in Lihaaf [The Quilt], or Manto touched on sexual repression in Bu [Odour], it was considered obscene. Simply because the era did not understand these values.

However, today, we have grown up to understand them better.

Saadat Hasan Manto

Despite the relevance, there is the issue of Manto's stories being difficult to translate into the cinematic medium. What were the challenges you faced?

It is true that translating these stories into film is difficult. To tell you the truth, I did not face much trouble writing the script for these films. I took help from some writers, journalists, and litterateurs on the stories, and their progression. These stories are quite challenging and complex. So much so that if you miss one step, you will end up botching the whole film.

I had to build up confidence in myself to be able to visualize the stories as Manto had written them down. For instance, the last scene of Khol Do [Open It] is a dramatic one that shocks you. Manto wrote it down quite simply, adding to the devastating effect.

But as a filmmaker, I have to think how the girl reacted. What were her expressions as soon as she heard the words 'khol do'. Did she cry? Did she move? There are so many things that play into it.

I had to turn to Raghuvir Yadav for help. Though he was not in the scene, I asked him to take a look at it on the monitor to make a judgement call. There were several such scenes. I do not know, honestly, how much justice we have been able to do to the stories. But we have tried to translate the stories with complete sincerity.

The happiest moment for me is when Manto's family contacted me. His daughter called me, e-mailed me and appreciated our effort of bringing Manto to the wider audience. I thought that was prize enough for me. They were certainly pleased at the effort.

I will be happy if the film is released in Pakistan as well. It is difficult, but then there is little point doing the easy things in life. There are enough entertainment films made in the country that require little thought. As far as I have learnt from my experiences, cinema is more than just entertainment. It is a very big medium that reaches out to people.

People keep saying 'Films won't work if there is no item song'. But there are several films that proved to be the opposite. I always admire Aamir Khan's work. His films deliver a message while keeping the same success rate at the box office. It is not that the audience does not exist in India. I recently went to see Asghar Farhadi's [Iranian film] The Salesman (2016) and was so pleased to see a houseful show.

There is always a group of producers who get confused. The marketing of a film needs to be according to its content and storyline. On our part, we are very clear of the demographic we are targeting. Selective cities and selected shows will see the film. We can't serve this kind of film to every audience across the country. We do not need to get desperate and release the film in every theatre possible.

How important was casting to such stories? Manto's stories often emerge through his sharp characterizations. How did you approach it?

Raghuvir Yadav was part of the film long before the script got ready. Virendra Saxena, I had worked with before. So, I approached him. He is such a voracious reader. If you walk into his home, you will find books in every corner.

My advantage was that the actors I chose had an understanding of Manto and his literature. As soon as I spoke to Virendra Saxena, he brought out books and indulged in discussions about the characters and their origin. It was nice to have such support. If I were to falter, I would have some corrections.

Sonal Sehgal was another actor I had worked with before in an ad film, and has some interest in good cinema. Sadly, she doesn't get many parts. She is also Punjabi, so Kulwant Kaur's character was something she understood better. She even agreed to a look test for the character.

Our process was quite simple. For me, it is important, rather easy, to know the actor. If I know the actors, their limits, their abilities, it becomes easier to work according to that. I know most of the actors in the film personally.

Sonal Sehgal in Mantostaan

Despite the need for independent cinema and new stories growing, distribution of such films is still a problem. How did you deal with it?

It is not a new phenomenon. Everyone faces it. The trouble is that India does not have an organized system of distribution. When I was in Cannes, I met sales agents, whose sole job is to find the relevance of the film, its markets and audience, right from the script level. This sales agent is connected to an entire distribution network and buyers, and helps to pitch the film to the buyers. Even before your film is in the can, it has already got into pitching mode.

In India, other than the A-lister films that get bought and sold quite easily — even that is more of a gamble based on the popularity, market trends, etc —  the rest of the small-budget films have to inevitably struggle. For them, there is no set distribution system.

Normally, when a film like Ankhon Dekhi (2014) is made, it does not receive the platform. There are a couple of marketing agencies here who do not have any expertise when it comes to marketing. They only look to get out their bite of Rs2 crore, a 20% cut from the budget. They convince the producer of a plan, and get their budget out of it.

The trouble is that some gambles work, and some don't. It is important to identify the right market for your film. In the new age, the internet has emerged as a very important platform. I think films like these can find audiences through Netflix and Amazon. If your film is picked up by such streaming channels, the cost can be recovered by this.

The problem is that the bigger fish buy out your rights by the minimum price. They will, in fact, buy out all the rights of your film.

Considering the nature of Manto's stories, did you face any trouble with the CBFC?

Actually, we were more scared of taking the film to the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification]. The surprising fact is that the CBFC passed the film without any trouble. The committee members were familiar with the literature and style of Manto, and discussed the film in detail with me after the screening. It was quite nice to listen to their appreciation.

They gave us an 'A' certificate without any cuts to the film. They told us, 'If you are making a bold film, you should be bold enough to show it honestly.' It was my request for a U/A certificate, because I needed the film to reach out to a wider audience, that resulted in some cuts. I agreed to the cuts because they were very superficial and did not affect the plot in any way.