Author: Saadat Hasan Manto
Genre: Film writing
Just a few days ago, I read Ismat Chughtai's Lifting of The Veil, a book of short stories, wherein she had dedicated one entire chapter to her contemporary writer-friend, Saadat Hasan Manto. Both were the wild kids of Urdu literature and between them, they shared a unique love-hate relationship.
Whenever they met, along with Ismat's writer-husband Shahid Latif, there were heated intellectual debates between the two, often leading to brief periods of resentment. However, they also established a certain bond, courtesy the common heartache they suffered on account of several legal cases they were saddled with(both were accused of obscenity in their works).However, once Manto left for Pakistan after the Partition, bad days fell upon him and he was reduced to penury. Ismat writes how Manto kept writing to her for help but after a while, she thought it best to avoid him.
It was around this period that Manto wrote Stars Of Another Sky, a chronicle of the best days of his life, when he was a vital part of the Bombay film industry, which was just about beginning to take shape. This was as early as 1940, and several Urdu writers were being approached to write scripts for Hindi films. Manto was in no time sucked into the dazzling world of cinema. He got close to a number of stars and directors, worked on several scripts, then took up job at All India Radio, Delhi and even turned film journalist for a few years.
However, after partition, he preferred to live in Pakistan, a decision he probably came to regret. Tired of being saddled with court cases, Manto decided to write a 'clean' book where in he would recount his experiences about the Bombay film industry, a world which he not only deeply cared about and also something he couldn't get out of his system till his dying day.
Whatever troubles Manto was going through, his writings continued to throb with life the minute he put pen to paper and recollected those glorious days he spent in Mumbai. In fact, the very first line of this book will give you a sense of what a wonderfully impish, chalu writer Manto was.
He says, "When Najmul Hassan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil." Of course, for those wondering what eventually came of this girl crooning 'mein ban ki chidiya bun bun boolun re' to Ashok Kumar, well, she was persuaded to come back to her husband Himanshu Rai, owner of Bombay Talkies. This is one of the several hundred anecdotes that this book covers with irony and a dash of humour.
Of course, unlike Ismat, who I felt could get extremely pedestrian in thoughts and quite pitiless in her portrayals, Manto has a certain good-natured charm and kindness about him. Which is why, even when he's being brutally honest about someone, it rarely comes across as purely vindictive or petty. Manto talks with great affection about his friend Ashok Kumar, who he describes as 'an evergreen hero who treated all the women falling over him with the greatest indifference’. Says Manto, "Temperamentally, he was a rustic. His living style and his food habits also had a touch of rusticity. Devika Rani tried to have an affair with him but he rebuffed her rather brusquely."
The film names that crop up here are Chal Chal Re Naujawan, Eighty Days, Sikander, Ujala, Mehal, Begam etc that were made under the few banners and studios that existed. When differences cropped up, practically every major employee from Bombay Talkies walked out to form the Filmistan Studios. But clearly, as a writer, Manto was more fascinated by the numerous love intrigues that seemed to be teeming the film world of the 40s.
The most hilarious one is relating to the incorrigible lady seducer
Rafiq Ghaznavi, a well-known musician of the time who held a disdain towards domesticated, straight women and a great fetish for the wild and the wanton types.
Another hugely entertaining chapter involves the gifted dancer SitaraDevi and her ravenous sexual exploits with her leading men. She came to marry one of her heroes Al Nazir and for a few years, their sizzling bedtime chemistry kept the relationship steady. Manto describes their insatiable sexual appetite with obvious relish and guess who was secretly privy to some of these vigourous love sessions–none other than Nazir's nephew, K Asif, who not only went on to marry Sitara Devi but who came to be recogonised for his masterpiece Mughal-e-Azam.
The other interesting bit is about his sour sweet meetings with Nargis, who wasn't too accessible to Manto, a relatively less successful film writer. According to Manto, it was only Nargis' innocence, sincerity and artlessness that took her through, otherwise he describes her as a very average performer. There are stories about Nur Jahan, whose mellifluous voice generated the craziest of fans all around the country. There's an interesting episode Manto describes where at a function, he compares the shockingly dressed Nur Jahan to the Marathi actress Shobhna Samarth who he says had 'superb manners'
But he also concludes her story saying what a happy marriage she had with two lovely sons.
There's a chapter on actor Shyam as well, one of Manto's closest friends who actually cared to send him some money to Pakistan, when bad times fell on the latter.
Manto, on several occasions has been accused of obscenity and propagating sexist views but in this particular book, I didn't see any of those signs. If anything, I felt he had largely progressive ideas about women working in films. It was indeed a time when girls from 'good, cultured families' wouldn't dream of joining films. And it's also true that many of the leading ladies of the time were either courtesans themselves or had a family background. For example, Nargis' mother was a renowned courtesan, Nur Jahan's sister and brother ran a brothel, Paro Devi was a courtesan....so on and so forth. But Manto preferred to view them as professionals and saw nothing wrong with their chosen field of work. Similar, he takes a hard stand against a friend who left his wife because she couldn't give him a child.
Since all these pieces were written as separate articles also, they do appear slightly disjointed and there are quite a few repetitions as well.
But ultimately, this is a highly entertaining, heart-felt read about an era of cinema one knows little about.