It was a pleasant September morning when the celebrated Urdu short-story writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s youngest daughter, 68-year old Nusrat Jalal, walked for the very first time through the neighbourhood that housed her Abajaan before he said goodbye to his beloved Bombay 70 years ago.
“That was the highlight of my trip and, in fact, quite an overwhelming experience!” she told Images over the phone from Lahore after her return.
Accompanied by her sister Nuzhat Arshad, three years her senior, and her husband artist Shahid Jalal (also Manto’s nephew), the family had been invited by writer and director Nandita Das for the premiere of their father’s biopic Manto, which has been set in the 1940s.
“It [their visit] happened against many odds especially with the stringent visa policy between the two naraaz (resentful) countries!” said Jalal.
Although both the sisters have been to Delhi several times in the past, it was their first time to Mumbai and the fleeting impression they got of it was that it was: “cosmopolitan”, “a bit like Karachi but on a much bigger scale” and featuring “more visibility of women”.
“I finally understood why Abajaan loved the city, and why he said ‘main chalta phirta Bambai hoon‘,” said Jalal, adding: “It accepts everyone, rich or poor — no questions asked!”
Arshad missed the walking tour as she arrived later that day due to visa issues, and their eldest sister missed the trip altogether as she did not even have a passport!
Although Jalal was unable to see her father’s dwellings, Das showed them the places where she had shot the film. “It was a great treat and privilege to have Nandita give us a guided tour of the Bombay my father grew to love dearly,” said Jalal. Being a Sunday, they were able to explore the area at a leisurely pace as “there was no afra-tafri (mayhem) and not much traffic either.”
For Das too, who had done many “Manto walks” since 2013, this one was “the most special”.
“It felt strange to show a daughter her father’s world which I have now become so familiar with,” she told Images over an email exchange. “Nusrat Apa and her husband Shahid Bhai were so happy and moved by the experience that it was well worth giving up on the work. In fact, it made me forget the stress for a few hours. All that they had read and heard about was now in front of their eyes,” said Das.
Manto spent about a decade in Mumbai — in the 1930s and 40s but left for Lahore soon after Partition.
“My father spent his childhood in Amritsar. He came to Bombay in 1936 as editor of the weekly Mussawir. Later, he started work as dialogue writer for several film companies,” filled in Jalal.
A whirlwind of a trip, they spent roughly three days each in Mumbai and Delhi where screenings were held. Today, Manto’s daughters keep a fairly low profile which, by Arshad’s own admission, provides them a peace of mind that may not have been possible otherwise. “We don’t seek any unnecessary coverage and believe my father’s widescale recognition and popularity is an honour for us,” she said, simply.
But at the premiere, they became the celebrities and shared the limelight with some well respected Bollywood names including Deepti Nawal, Shabana Azmi, Imtiaz Ali, Rahul Bose and Ali Fazal. “My sister Nuzhat recognised Rekha who got up from her seat to embrace us with tremendous warmth and affection,” said Jalal.
“I finally understood why Abajaan loved the city, and why he said ‘main chalta phirta Bambai hoon.‘ It accepts everyone, rich or poor — no questions asked!” — Nusrat Jalal on her trip to Mumbai
Did the film affect them in any way and how did they feel about the way their parents’ life was brought alive for the world to see?
Jalal said “it is a wonderful feeling to be alive to see the story of our parents’ lives enacted on the big screen,” although she admitted candidly, “I don’t even know the sound of our father’s voice, I was just five when he passed away.”
She, however, added that it was an extremely “rewarding experience” especially because the initiative had not been taken by the family. “We have allowed his admirers and lovers to portray the Manto that they want the audience to see, not be influenced by the views of the family,” said Jalal.
Das, on the other hand, admits to having an initial “pang of nervousness” because Manto’s daughters were going to watch the movie. “After all, I owe them an accurate and respectful portrayal of Manto. And that may be seen as a difficult balance, as Manto had many contradictions. But I know he would have liked me to show him with all his warts and blemishes. And I am so glad that the family that saw the film felt my intent and were so moved by the film. I couldn’t have asked for more!” she said.
As for Manto’s relationship with his wife, did the daughters think the actors got it right? Arshad pointed out that they were “too young to understand the dynamics” of their parents’ relationship and so it is impossible to ascertain if that depiction in the movie was accurate or not.
In the Pakistani biopic, released in 2015, Sania Saeed played their mother Safia’s role while Rasik Dugal carries it off in Das’. Their father, in the Pakistani version, was play-acted by the film’s director himself, Sarmad Khoosat, while in the Indian one Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the part.
Jalal, who sees reflections of her mother in her own “calm and composed” temperament, is happy with the “restraint and insight” shown in their mother’s role played by both Saeed and Dugal. “Nandita shared the screenplay with us and met the family several times to get to know Safia, our mother. She got useful insight from my khala, Zakia, who is also my mother-in-law,” she said.
And while she does not want to compare the two movies, as both have been a “labour of love” for both Khoosat and Das, Jalal said, “In Nandita’s film the character of my mother has been written with a greater understanding, who is seen as an individual and not only a long-suffering wife”.
Arshad is happy to compare the way the two actors portrayed their father.
“Sarmad may have looked more like my father, but the depiction of Manto by Nawazuddin was par excellence,” she said. About the portrayal of their mother, Arshad said both Dugal and Saeed did “justice to the role”.
But is Das happy with how Manto turned out?
“I don’t think any artist can ever be happy with their creation but that is what helps one’s evolution,” she told Images. She said there are always lessons to be learnt. And in filmmaking, it was even tougher as there are hundreds of factors that one is grappling with. “A director is responsible for all the good and the bad. I have not seen the film after the first public screening at Cannes. The baby has been born and now it is for each one to take from it what resonates with them.”
Jalal informed us that Das has also been reaching out and trying to muster interest for Manto’s “thoughts, honesty and fearlessness” among the youth. “She wants to imbibe Manto’s Mantoiyat in them!” she said with pride.
But what exactly is Mantoiyat?
Das said she used the term to describe the ‘Manto-ness’ of a person. “It signifies the desire to be truthful and outspoken. It denotes the courage of conviction, resilience in the face of resistance, and the boldness to accepting oneself fully, warts and all. It is the rebelliousness against society’s perpetual attempt to confine our thoughts and expressions. Mantoiyat stands for such free spiritedness. I think the film will encourage people to see themselves more honestly. It will make them uncomfortable in a way that hopefully they would want to do something about. After all, don’t we all want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited? And Manto inspires us to be that. I hope the film helps invoke people’s Mantoiyat, however dormant or awakened it may be,” she explained passionately.
Jalal said Das wanted the movie to be a co-production between India and Pakistan but that did not seem possible due to the topsy-turvy relationship between the two countries and sadly, the Pakistan part had to be shot in India as well.
But now that the movie is ready, the Indian director is trying hard for its release in Pakistan. “Manto is our shared heritage and audiences in Pakistan should not be deprived of seeing the movie in theatres. I do hope better sense prevails and our authorities give it clearance,” said Jalal.