Manto from another sky: The writer of Partition spent his best years in 1940s Bombay as a film reporter

What comes to mind when you hear Manto, a name much in the news these days thanks to a renewed interest in literature written by him about Partition and the ever-relevant debate about freedom of speech? Eccentric genius? Literary rebel? Obscene chronicler of prostitutes and pimps? Agent provocateur? Crusader of truth? Martyr of free speech? Whatever you may call him, he was the kind of writer your parents didn’t want you to read. Today, it can be said with some certainty that Manto has become a shorthand for fearless writing. The author’s hard-hitting satires about the horrors of Partition, including Toba Tek Singh, Thanda Gosht and The Dog of Titwal, are still in circulation while his touching portraits of Bombay’s underclass are so full of intimate human details and a feel for place that it has won him well-deserved comparisons with Russian masters like Chekov, Gorky and Tolstoy. As fellow rabble-rouser Ismat Chughtai put it, “He enjoys digging in the refuse because he doesn’t trust the luminaries of the world.”

That’s the Saadat Hasan Manto most readers know. There’s another Manto who made the rounds of film studios in the 1930-40s and became, surprising for a man of letters, the era’s most colourful Bollywood reporter. In his film essays, collected in the page-turner Stars From Another Sky, he brings the same acidic and ironic lens of his savage Partition stories to film reporting. It’s hard to believe that the film writer Manto is the same man who writes about hookers and has-beens from Foras Road and other louche and seedy corners of old Bombay. He flits between the high and low society, belonging nowhere and everywhere at once. Writing in the preface to Stars From Another Sky, Jerry Pinto sounds surprised that “Manto of Toba Tek Singh” was a film journalist. But he was, as Pinto assures, “no ordinary film journalist.” Like anything touched by Manto’s brutally naked pen, Stars From Another Sky is by turns obscene, funny, glamorous, malicious and honest. It gives us a glimpse of the famous and the forgotten. Reader discretion is advised at this point. Manto’s roving male gaze is obsessed with breasts and brassiere but it’s equally uncompromising on the men. Men so beautiful, one description suggests, that they could be women!

Manto, through this book, also serves as a gossip columnist complicit in satisfying the public’s insatiable hunger for celebrity, with his entertaining accounts of endless starry love affairs. Every once in a while, it devolves into ‘who’s sleeping with whom’ sort of salacious reporting. In their search for a scoop, most nosy scribes can sneak into a star’s bedroom at best. Manto went a step further. In a profile on Naseem Bano, Saira Banu’s fairy-faced mother, Manto expresses disappointment at the first Indian female superstar’s modest bungalow in Thane and is further shocked by her unglamorous bathroom with no “exotic soaps” and “bath salts” at hand. Was a voyeuristic Manto looking for a key to Naseem’s beauty ritual? If he was, he couldn’t find any except to wonder how she always ended up looking so “fresh and lovely.” Here’s Manto on V. H Desai’s speech: the God’s clown couldn’t separate “peeshap (urine) from Peshawar!” If a title like Stardust had existed in the 1940s, Manto would have been a natural fit.

A native of Ludhiana and Amritsar, Saadat Hasan Manto first arrived in Bombay in 1936 to work for the Urdu film weekly Musawwar. Also a screenwriter, he was hired as a ‘munshi’ by major studios like Bombay Talkies, Filmistan and Imperial Film Company where he became friends with stars-in-the-making Ashok Kumar, baby Nargis and many others. He hung out with a bunch of home-grown bohemians whose likes included poets, painters, filmmakers, actors and even dentists! In Stars From Another Sky, the essay One in a Million charts singer Nur Jehan’s journey from a coltish young girl to a full-blown beauty. He details her passionate affair with the stylish director Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (of Khandan fame), later even revealing sordid details that includes her elder sister and brother running a brothel from Cadell Road, near Shivaji Park. About musician Rafiq Ghaznavi, Manto remarks acidly, “He had a romance knotted into every necktie he possessed – and his collection was large.” If the matinee men were serious womanisers and philanderers, the girls were no less brash. With her many affairs, the much-married Sitara Devi is described as a man-eater. At one point, he compares her to a typical five-storey Bombay high-rise “with many flats and rooms, all inhabited. It is a fact that she had the ability to be involved with many men at the same time.”

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