How many people of generation Y in India are familiar with the name of Saadat Hasan Manto? Only those who like Urdu literature might be familiar with the man and his works. Manto was a Pakistani writer, playwright and author recognised as the greatest writers of short stories in South Asian history. He produced 22 collections of short stories, one novel, five series of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches. His best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics. Manto was tried for obscenity six times; thrice before 1947 in British India, and thrice after independence in 1947 in Pakistan, but never convicted.

He passed away in 1955 at the young age of 42 but in Pakistan, he is considered a literary icon of the highest merit. On August 14, 2012 which is Pakistan's Independence Day, Saadat Hasan Manto was posthumously awarded Nishan-e-Imtiaz award (Distinguished Service to Pakistan Award) by the Government of Pakistan. In January 2005, the Government of Pakistan issued a postage stamp honoring him. His fame has reached many years beyond his physical demise and speaks volumes about how his works have conquered the passing away of their creator.

In the ambience of literary ignorance in India, a partly fictionalised feature film Manto, directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat who also plays the title role, arrives like a beacon of light in a relatively ignorant world. The film captures, with a certain amount of cinematic licence, the last seven years of Manto’s life in Pakistan which includes the complex web of politics he faced after returning to daily life once he came back from an asylum.

Khoosat however, insists that his film is not exactly a biopic. “In a feature film, the scriptwriter and the director must incorporate fictional elements in the narrative and I have tried to focus on both his life and on his literary works which makes the story open to interpretation,” he says.

The time is 1951 and the place is Lahore in Pakistan. The film opens with Manto returning home from a psychiatric home to his wife Safia and their three daughters. Manto takes on from where he left off – drinking and writing. Strangely, one feels like drawing parallels between Manto and filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak who also spent days in mental homes and got back to his drinking but sustained his independence as a creator of cinema though, as a filmmaker, he had reached his end. The narrative then moves to the memorable incident in Manto’s life when Qudrutullah Shahab of the Pakistani Government gave Manto a share in his ice factor but Manto, insisting that he was a writer and no businessman, expressed his rage by tearing off the factory licence to shreds. His writing then became full of rage, ire, anger and frustration at everything around him.

The film is not a chronologically sequenced account of Manto’s life but is intercut with incidents and some cuts into his short stories that made him famous and notorious at the same time. When in India, the film recounts the events that led to the three obscenity charges levelled against him for Dhuan, Bu and Kali Shalwar while in Pakistan, after 1947, he was charged for his stories Khol Do, Upar Neeche Darimiyaan and Thanda Gosht. He was fined only in one of these many cases but the humiliation of being charged with obscenity was to haunt him for the rest of his brief life.

Fortunately, these intercutting into his stories do not detract from the main narrative – his life filled with pain, a strange angst and a seething, simmering anger directed towards himself and towards the world around him that came out through and in his writing. This stories-within-the-main story has been done before but Khoosat brings it off seamlessly and smoothly. This triggers the hope that these small clips of his stories might drive the younger generation of readers to begin reading Manto without which, Urdu literature will remain incomplete. The story clippings are enacted by actors and are blended into the main narrative as sub-plots that tell different stories.

“We had no access to any archive of Manto’s work and as a radio artiste were inaccessible so there was no documentation of Manto’s body language and speech. When I visited Manto’s old room at Lakshmi Mansion now occupied by his granddaughter I found it was painted pink. Barbie curtains now flank the window he sat next to in order to write and his daughters have contrasting memories of him. so I had to work around my individual perception of Manto I had constructed in my mind from a thorough reading of his work and his life and that was the primary source of my performance.” says Khoosat.

Khoosat does himself and his subject justice by refusing to paint Manto with saintly colours nor highlights the icon he became after his early death. On the contrary, the film brings out quite realistically for a fictionalised biopic, the constant conflict between Manto’s obsession for alcohol and his genuine love for his daughters and he helplessly finds himself giving alcohol preference over the latter. One incident that brings this across poignantly is when Manto, on the first day of a curfew, rushed out to submit a story for a measly sum to buy medicines for his ailing daughter but squanders it all on booze and the eldest daughter had to go without medicine that night!

Manto is lavishly mounted in glorious colour and packaged with glamour like a commercial film and its popularity among the masses following its release in September stands testimony to the intelligent packaging. There is a lot of music (Jamal Rahman) with perhaps one song too many. There are suggestion of the erotic in the depiction of Manto’s relationship with Noor Jehan and the dialogues by some of the fictional women stepping out of his stories rendered in a slow, sensuous drawn suggest subtle titillation. The best thing about the film is that it lucidly expresses the constant conflict Manto began to live in – his life reduced to a haze where the real – his personal life with his wife and three daughters, and the illusionary – the characters he created through his stories, begin to blend and he often tends to distinguish between the two. Sania Saeed as Begum Manto is strong but subtle complimenting the erratic manner and behaviour of her husband with her stoic sense of tolerance and forbearance.

Manto is produced by Babar Javed and written by Shahid Nadeem whose screenplay was adapted from Manto’s short stories. Shahid Nadeem of the famous recently resurrected Ajoka theatre, attempts to vist again the legacy that Manto left behind not only through his short stories but also through his life and much of his character, his grief, his depression came across in his stories though they were not autobiographical. “Nadeem was closely tied to the concept because he has already written a version for theatre and the play was very successful. He was associated with television for a longtime. But in my opinion, he is one of the most under-rated screenwriters in our industry. He not only puts in a lot of research but is authentic too,” Khoosat sums up. While several plays have been written and performed about Saadat Hasan Manto, this is the first fictionalised feature on the writer’s life.