Thursday, March 14, 2013

No Time for Grieving: Or Why We Should Talk Some More About Kai Po Che

by Debashree Mukherjee
Okay, so the popular consensus is that Kai Po Che is a good film. Everyone agrees that it’s well shot and edited, the relatively unknown heroes are excellent, and the narrative is taut and emotionally resonant. It is competent and follows all the right cues worthy of a buddy movie about growing up and testing loyalties. But the film is hardly an event. It has been seized upon as a significant cinematic landmark for its depiction of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. It might be worth our while to get some perspective here.

Today I will look at some other questions about our collective liberal attitude to this film, and what it indicates about our memory of select incidents of mass violence in this country. The main question to ponder is whether there is something dangerous about a historically-contextualized cultural product that can be coopted by a range of political perspectives? Is there something objectionable about a film (and the emotions it generates) which is deliberately toothless in the face of power? Over the last few weeks we have witnessed a range of informed cultural commentators  protest that critics of the film are making much to-do about what is in fact the first “realistic” and engaging Bollywood depiction of the Gujarat massacre. This post rejects that opinion and appeals for responsible film criticism and an alert, active mode of spectatorship.

What really happened in Gujarat in 2002? The propaganda narrative simplistically maintains that the burning of a train in Godhra, combined with a history of communal violence in Gujarat, led to a large-scale eruption of misplaced anger. We’ve seen that before in this subcontinent. Over and over. We are outraged each time it happens and then we shake our heads and say that the fury of the mob is irrational. But this view is a gross, unethical misrepresentation of the event. --> (See this article for an analysis of how KPC waters down the pogrom for easy assimilation. Also Paul Brass for a theoretical analysis of how the category “Hindu-Muslim riots” is produced.)

Contradicting this propaganda are academics, NGOs, lawyers, and journalists who have published studies that prove that the Gujarat “riots” were systematic, large-scale, aided by government lists and electoral rolls and university attendance charts. The police stood by and watched. Ministers were gheraoed and murdered inside their homes in broad daylight. Women were brutally raped and tortured in ways that boggle the mind. Such an event could not take place without the sanction of the state. The Chief Minister at the time, a man who clearly has blood on his hands, and mud on his face, is preparing to become Prime Minister of this righteous republic. He has admitted recently that some “mistakes” were made in the past but the reasonable citizens of this nation will surely forgive him. That so many of us have also apparently forgiven and forgotten is scary to me. 

Kai Po Che ably addresses the propaganda narrative of the genocide. Farhana Ibrahim points out that the earthquake section reveals a gradual build-up of motivated communal tension. And yet, this does nothing except set the stage for the abrupt "flare-up" that is to follow. The real character of the violence, that it was a state-sponsored systematic purging of a community, is none of the film’s concern. Apart from some meager references to newly-minted swords and a call to the police that doesn’t go through, KPC simply doesn’t want to deal with the facts. You will say, but yaar, it is a fiction film not a documentary. At least the director has shown the communal politics in an honest way. What more can you expect of a mainstream movie? I will say, yes, you are partially right. It’s done a decent job but it is not honest and there are insidious messages and meta-commentaries that ultimately do more harm than good. There is a gaping wound bang in the centre of the plot. What happened in that Sabarmati train coach? Two state-appointed fact-finding commissions were instituted (Nanavati-Mehta Commission, 2002; U. C. Bannerjee Committee, 2004) to get to the root of the matter. Both, ironically, had contradictory findings. The matter is still under dispute. KPC, however, uses a remarkable sleight of hand to endorse the Muslim-conspiracy version of the incident. We see the fundamentalist Mamaji say that “the Hindus” will not tolerate such an atrocity, meaning that the train was torched by Muslim extremists. Next, Omi’s friends come to take him home, sensing that matters are going to get out of hand. He turns to them and says, “You mother hasn’t died, has she?” and the friends are silenced. It is the friends’ silence, dramatically astute though it may be, that rankles. That is the terrible silence at the heart of the film, a refusal to complicate the causality narrative. The film just lets the question slide. This is what they call the moment of “prestige” in a magician’s vocabulary. Causality has been established and you didn’t even see it. Magic.

There is another magic trick that we in India are fond of. It revolves around converting an outrageous crime into a tragedy. We have short-term memory loss when it comes to perpetrators and state actors. Besides, we have zero memory of anger or a need for justice. KPC delivers this exact-same discourse of mourning and anguish. A recent review by Trisha Gupta articulates this admiringly, If Kai Po Che's segregated universe has a message for us, it is not to applaud the fractured society it mirrors. It is to force us to see what exists – and grieve for how it came to be.” That’s cute. A nation that grieves together stays together. Let’s try two more pithy aphorisms and see if they make sense: A tragedy heals itself with time. An outrage needs redressal.

Gupta also suggests another argument in favor of KPC:It also seems clear to me that this film is more effective in reaching out to its audience—and potentially changing people's minds—than an imagined filmic naming and shaming of Modi could ever be.” Is there something patronizing about this position? Every person who iterates this view is subtly distancing herself from KPC’s ideal “audience”. Because, of course, we don’t need any mind-changing. We refer to a nebulous great Indian middle-class - young bankers, older housewives, middle-aged engineers - which will vote for Narendra Modi in the coming elections. But are these constituencies really so mindless? All the film says is that rash acts of violence are bad; stick with your friends; don’t be swayed by evil politicians. Who wouldn’t agree with that? On the other hand, if the film convinced you that there are minoritized sections in our country that have been historically oppressed and we, the protagonists, reap the benefits of this oppression; or if the film changed your mind about Modi, showed you that sometimes “development” comes at a price that we might not want to pay, then we’d have something to celebrate. But commercial cinema rarely works like that, so please, hold your applause. Kai Po Che is, as a dear comrade put it, a children’s film on Gujarat. If adults cheer it on, it’s time to stop and wonder.

Remember how we were all outraged when that Farhan Akhtar advertisement came out? The one that exhorted all men to “be men” and protect women from sexual harassment? Remember how you forwarded Kavita Krishnan’s link to your friends on facebook and said wow, this girl has nailed it? What was the problem with that advert? It’s heart was in the right place, it was well-intentioned, in a world full of misogynists it was telling men to be sensitive to women. Nevertheless, we were offended because we are sophisticated feminists and we know that such an exhortation belongs firmly within the realm of patriarchy, a sexist approach that hinges on male power and female lack of agency. Then why do we not react with equal nuance when something similar but more blatant is happening in KPC? (For a discussion of KPC’s representation of Muslim victims and Hindu heroes see this

In the same Kafila post, Ibrahim responds to criticism that KPC leaves out many important facets of the Gujarat violence by asking: “are the[se] the only ways in which we can memorialize the events of 2002 and after?” No, these are not. We have precedents like Final Solution, Firaq, and Parzania. So let there be a Kai Po Che too. And may there be other, braver, more honest films in the future. We can only start to collectively address a recent trauma through a multiplicity of narratives. Coming back to the question of cinematic memorialization, what are some precedents for the fictional treatment of traumatic historical events? We’re familiar with the commercially viable Hollywood holocaust genre, an aesthetically settled form that directly confronted the post-WW2 ‘radical unrepresentability thesis’ of the Jewish holocaust. The crucial point is that the holocaust genre and its cathartic melodrama had some advantages that we don’t have for the representation of our own subcontinental genocides. For one, our histories are grossly unsettled. There has been no naming of perpetrators or extended trials. We don’t pass bills that recommend punishment for “command responsibility”. Our mass murderers sit in Parliament and are dispersed across every political party. Two, there are many “facts” and representational tactics in the holocaust genre that were sacred in its first decades. The genre didn’t come into its own till the 1960s, a good two decades after the large-scale Nazi persecution of Jews. It took an even longer time for Hollywood to attempt a good German protagonist. And even as recently as 2010, there was outrage at Quentin Tarantino’s fabulist historiography in Inglorious Basterds, a vengeful fairytale that still maintains the appropriate distance between the good guys and the bad guys. In India, where there has been scant cinematic examination of even the Partition, we somehow feel grateful for any Bollywood crumbs that are thrown our way.

Snigdha Poonam has quoted Chetan Bhagat as saying “The film depicts the riots in full detail; it just doesn’t take sides. I am still the only writer who has engaged with Gujarat riots.” He also said in an interview with the Indian Express, “Nobody can deny what has happened in Gujarat. Why and how has it happened that really is an opinion. And that the film doesn’t have.” This statement holds the key to my reading of the film and the weakly complicit responses to it. For example, Anupama Chopra tells us that compared to the book, the film is far more comforting and palatable. But perhaps that is not such a bad thing,” that as a cinematic experience it is “deeply satisfying,” and finally, “Great horrors unfold and yet, when the deeds are done, a sense of redemption remains.” More appalling words have rarely been printed.

None of us will accept a film about the Delhi gangrape which has “no opinion”, which “doesn’t take sides”. Allow me to take an intentionally vulgar liberty and imagine that film. There are three friends who live in Delhi. They are working class guys with ambitions for the future and some hardened cynicism about the city. They have personal crises and endearing character traits. One day something terrible happens in the life of one of the friends. He gets unrecognizably drunk and his friends are shocked by his murderous rage. They try to calm him down. They borrow a friend’s chartered bus and go for a spin around the city.

Is this scenario already making you uncomfortable? Is there any way I can make a girl’s rape-murder seem like a tragic fallout to you – instead of an outrageous event that must be addressed now? But I assure you, that film will be made. And we will walk out of the theatres with our popcorn tubs empty and our hearts full.



Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kai Po Che and the politics of appeasement and reconciliation

by Iram Ghufran

 Kai Po Che [2013] can be described as a wholesome cinematic experience. Directed by Abhishek Kapoor, based on the novel - 'The Three Mistakes of My Life' by Chetan Bhagat, the film is a tragic coming of age story with a silver lining.  Set in Ahmedabad during the years 2000-02, the film follows the lives of three friends - Ishaan, Govind and Omi and their desire to own a successful business and move out of a middle class rut. The film revolves around their trials and travails as they set up a sports goods business and a cricket coaching academy, and their encounter with the Muslim world through Ali, Ishaan's talented cricketing protégé. The film gradually builds to a climax set during the Gujarat genocide of Muslims during February -March 2002.
For plot, read-!#Plot

Kai Po Che is a very slick film, beautifully shot and edited. It has some wonderful performances by the lead actors, and some very touching moments. Some of the other elements that worked for me were that there are no meaningless rhetorical speeches on Hindu- Muslim bhai- chara, the film sends a very strong message for non- violence, it produces some very endearing and believable characters like Omi's father - a Hindu non-communal temple priest, Vidya, Ishaan's sister - a vivacious Gujarati girl who doesn't hesitate to make the first move with a man she likes, and then of course Ali- the quiet teenager with a talent for sports.

Despite all that’s going for it, I do find Kai Po Che a problematic film and my problem lies beyond story/ script/ narrative structure and even representational/ identity politics. In fact in some ways the film does rather well in its depiction of the minority (Muslim) community. The Muslims are clearly affiliated with the secular/ Gandhian political party, Muslims are not shown wielding weapons of any kind in the film - in fact the general helplessness of Ali's father when their house is attacked by a right wing Hindu mob is very moving. It is the Hindu's who are shown to make the first move - whether it is the pulling down of Ali's pajama in the playground by a bunch of bullies, or the general apathy and refusal of aid to Muslims after the earthquake. It was a relief to not see any visuals of meat shops, men and women constantly performing namaz, or lots of burqa wearing women. In fact one could even ignore the ever-present skull caps.

So, an acquaintance asked - What is your problem with this film? Her positioning that the film takes the 'issue' of the Gujarat genocide head on and tackles it so gently and firmly that we should be grateful that Kai Po Che was ever made, leaves me with bile in my throat. Perhaps the problem lies less with the film - but more with this reading of the film. Kai Po Che produces a white-washed version of the story of the Gujarat genocide of 2002 and I am shocked at how easily this acquaintance and some people are lauding this film for its liberal, secular politics. I will not be surprised if Kai Po Che is India's official entry to the Oscars. In the following paragraphs, I will not raise the question of Chetan Bhagat's affiliation with Narendra Modi, nor will I speculate why Parzania [2007] could not be released in Gujarat, while Kai Po Che was not only released, but parts of it were shot in Narendra Modi's village.

The problem with this film is that it makes the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 palatable to the audience. The genocide consumed in a fifteen minute climax, where in the end the empathy is not even with the 'victims'. In fact new 'victims' are produced - Ishaan, who sacrifices his life for Ali, Omi, who has already lost his parents, now inadvertently ends up killing his best friend and spends 10 years in jail, Govind who loses his friend and Vidya who loses her brother. What is Ali's loss? Does the film provide a reflective moment for that?

A key 'issue' with the film is that the violence perpetrated on the Muslims is directly linked to the train tragedy at Godhra station in which about 60 people died. The complexity of those 'links' and the subsequent inquiries into the Sabarmati Express fire are not something that the filmmaker even hints at. We all agree that the train fire at Godhra station was a very unfortunate episode, but we also know that the issue is much more complicated. I am sure that the filmmaking team had done thorough research into this, but they chose the State line. They choose expediency over honesty.
For a report in Tehelka -

Many people are too grateful that a ‘mainstream Hindi film has shown whatever small slice of what happened with a remarkable degree of honesty’. Perhaps mainstream was not ready to tackle the complexity of  the Godhra tragedy, or the Gujarat genocide. Just because it is mainstream, we cannot let our critical faculties be swayed.

In Kai Po Che, the violence against the Muslims is pitched as a spontaneous flare-up because allegedly the Muslims of Godhra torched the Sabarmati Express in which many innocent people died, including Omi's parents. The film depicts Omi's rage against the Muslims, his absolute belief that it was the Muslims who killed his parents, and hence the justification for attacking the Muslims in Ahmedabad.  The film condemns Omi's violence. Indeed it asks Omi to be a better person. But the easy cause - effect relation between Godhra and the Gujarat pogrom and the simplistic relationship between action and reaction that the film perpetuates is unacceptable to me. No right thinking person – the filmmakers, critics, audience (and I presume most of the audience of this film is right-thinking) will say that violence is a good thing, but in the film, the characters are seemingly forgiving of flare-ups, spontaneous outbursts of youth, and "mistakes" that take on the shape of mass killings, rapes, loot and destruction of property.

The film successfully orchestrates empathy with the three friends - All emotion is attributed to Ishaan, Govind and Omi. Does the film generate empathy with the real 'victims' of the Gujarat genocide? Or even a fictional Ali? Can we think about the 'victims' - the anonymous Muslims who served as props for the drama in Kai Po Che to be played out; and can we think about Ali, the good Muslim, the foot soldier of Indian secularism and democracy scoring winning runs under the able coaching and guidance of a good Hindu? And what happened to Ali's family?

We forget the brutality of this pre-planned violence; we even forget that it was pre-planned. The voter lists, school and college admission registers, municipality records of property ownership, the large cache of arms available to the mobs - no allusion to any of this in this film. The violence on the Muslims is not abhorrent any more. Ishaan's death is. The film has a very clear message. It has been 10 years… time to forgive, forget and move on. In fact, Narendra Modi himself has recently said that his "idea of secularism is "India First" and people will forgive "mistakes" of a government if it serves them well."  Yes, many people have short memories; many have forgiven Maken, Tytler and Co for 1984, is it now time for Gujarat?

I do understand that on board are important issues of forgiveness and reconciliation vis a vis the Gujarat violence. But whose forgiveness is being asked for? The film ends with a reconciliation among the Hindus. Vidya, Ishaan's ‘progressive’ sister married to the apolitical and successful businessman (Govind), forgives Omi (for his mistake in killing Ishaan). Ali hits a six in the last couple of minutes of the film. His father and mother can nowhere to be seen in the stadium - are they back in Juhapura or in a camp?

Whether the problem of Kai Po Che be attributed to political naivety of the creators of the film or to very suave management of the cinematic form, the problem remains. The history writing of Kai Po Che is unacceptable. Its secular pretensions are not without doubt. Redemption has to come with justice. To be appeased with a heart-moving tale of guilt and redemption without looking at the big picture is foolhardy to say the least.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Politics of Making Uncanny: Two Recent Experimental Films From India

A discussion of two films that engage with a familiar recent past, posing questions about time and representation. The films discussed are There is Something in the Air (Iram Ghufran, 2011) and I am Micro (Shai Heredia & Shumona Goel, 2011)

Published in Art Papers, ed. Niels van Tomme, Jan-Feb 2013. See

Friday, June 15, 2012

In case you thought you came to the wrong place - I've just changed the blog template, that's all. I think this simple design makes reading easier. All comments and feedback are welcome. And thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On Manto's "Letters to Uncle Sam"

by Bilal Hashmi
(opening notes from a conversation with Saadia Toor)

Manto's "Letters to Uncle Sam," nine of them in total, were written from Lahore between 1951 and 1954, and in an overtly satiricial mode. Couched in an epistolary form that boasts a long tradition in Urdu, they perform various functions: that a of a no-holds-barred exposé of the Pakistani state and its elites; an astute reading of geopolitical shifts at the dawn of the Cold War; a humorous account of everyday life in the new country; and finally, an expression of anti-Americanism, that sentiment of which there is no dearth of contemporaneous examples. But Manto does not merely partake of caricature. Indeed, his grasp of American culture—from literature to films, race relations to imperial expeditions—betrays a palpable interest in and appreciation for the thing itself.

What is perhaps most interesting about the "Letters" themselves is not so much authorial intention—and here I thank Debashree Mukherjee for reminding me that Manto's entire oeuvre is political—as their situation. For if we are to accept Tariq Ali's assertion that the "Letters" were much discussed in the tea houses of Lahore, then it is fair to read into them a kind of radical surplus, the likes of which could not have escaped the attention of Pakistani readers at a time when voices on the left were suppressed. This entire period, marked by the sensational Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, has been examined in detail by Saadia Toor in The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan (London: Pluto Press, 2011).

Manto was never able to reconcile himself to the Progressives or their rivals, the self-proclaimed "men of good taste" (arbab-e zauq) and the custodians of official state ideology. But his "Letters" might still stand in as a Mantoesque response to the cultural stalement of the '50s. It is for this reason, and so many others, that we must read them afresh—not only for what they reveal about the moment in which they were penned, but also for the insights they provide into those old relationships that have carried into our own time.

Suzanne L. Schulz: Mantostaan


While walking to the university campus one morning, I performed an experiment. I attempted to see and experience the world---my world, Austin---as a Mantostaan. Let me tell you how it went: after my first steps in the road, I saw traces of a flattened pigeon, the outline of which formed a velvety black design on the speckled concrete. What was once its wing protruded on the right side, what was once its head rose up from its middle; thus, it wouldn't be unfair to say that it roughly resembled a map of Texas. Nearby, the only other signs of life were SUVs, parked in front of brightly colored homes. A cursory examination of their enormous tires, however, yielded no trace of the bird’s killer. Many of these, I discovered as I walked on, were not homes at all but had been converted into law offices, a fact that their signboards painted with phrases like “Bail-Bonds,” “24/7 jail release” and “DWI Specialist,” made plainly clear. A few paces ahead, I crossed paths with a group of men in dark suits and brightly colored ties headed into the offices. My gaze was pulled downward as I noticed a small but energetic squirrel following the men. It looked directly into my eye with a solemn expression that seemed to say---I know, I’m a squirrel. Then, it broke its stare, and scurried up an electrical pole. Right below me, lodged between the base of the pole and the grass, was a weather worn candy wrapper. A sign? A clue? I picked it up and smoothed out its crinkled plastic. Barely visible, I made out the brand name: “Sweethearts.”

While the results of my experiment may seem like aimless imaginings, I suggest that they are, rather, emplaced daydreams, thoughts inspired by a particular variety of walking. In this brief paper, I propose that Manto’s stories offer us hundreds of illuminating Mantostaans--- familiar locations made into places of new meaning, emotion, or bodily engagement. His stories inscribe messages onto generic spaces or actual cities---sometimes by inverting the conventional associations of such locations and sometimes by conjuring beauty or profundity from that which is conventionally taken as ordinary or ugly.

Geographers and anthropologists have had much to say about place. They’ve suggested that while locations are mere spatial coordinates, places acquire meaning through the stories and practices of individuals and groups. One subset of this literature has been inspired by Michel de Certeau, who suggests that walking is a form of writing, of inscribing oneself into the space of the city and thereby creating it. Building upon this work, scholars have offered ‘walking’ as a central mode of place making and an opposite to mapping and planning, both of which fix spatial perspectives and meanings.

These tools can alter our own perspectives too, allowing us to see spatial dimensions where we once saw only human agents. These frameworks can also help us unravel the complexities of Manto’s writing. We often hear of Manto the brilliant creator of characters, the commentator on human psychology, the interpreter of human cruelty, but can it also be that his gifts include the ability to “make” places---to recalibrate what is near and what is far, what is inside and what is outside, what is foregrounded and what retreats into the background? I will begin to explore this question by way of examples from two of Manto’s stories: Dhuaan and Tapish Kashmiri.

Dhuaan is fundamentally the story of a walk, and the places in it are made through the corporeal experiences of the main character, Masud, a school-aged boy. The walk begins with Masud on his way to school and continues as he returns home, where the experience of the walk preoccupies him throughout the remainder of the story. Even at home, he is possessed by restlessness and meanders from room to room.

The setting of Dhuaan is unspecified. We don’t know if it’s a city or a small town, but its locations---the cemetery, the school, the butcher shop, and the home---are to a certain degree generic. I suggest that in this story, place making occurs through a process of inversion. The outside spaces become places of great intimacy and intensity, while the inside or domestic spaces turn out to be places of alienation and can only be experienced through Masud’s recollections of the outside: both the white smoke that rises from the cooking spinach when singed by a spark, and the experience of rubbing his sister’s body are understood by Masud in relation to the butcher shop and the cemetery.

What is it about the butcher shop that fascinates Masud so completely? The shop is located on his route to school, but on this particular day, it becomes a place of gripping emotion and sensation. Here, instead of “food,” or “commerce,” or “death,” the butcher shop is associated with life, sensation, and corporeality. Manto describes his encounter:

On the way, he again saw those freshly slaughtered goats. The butcher had now hung one of them up. The second was lying on the table. When Masud reached the shop, a yearning arose in his heart to touch that meat from which vapor was rising. He moved forward and touched his finger to that part of the goat that was still twitching. The meat was warm. The warmth against his cold finger was wonderful. The butcher was busy sharpening the knife inside the shop, so Masud touched the meat once more and left.

After departing from the shop, Masud goes home and is at first almost completely ignored by his mother and sister. His discovers that the butcher shop has no meaning for his family members. After he puts down his backpack in its proper “place,” he himself doesn’t have a place to go---the other children are away at school, his sister is practicing music, and his mother is cooking in the kitchen. His most engrossing encounter at home begins when his sister quits practicing and cajoles him into giving her a massage. But, here too, thoughts of the goat carcasses at the butcher shop and the muddy atmosphere of the cemetery shape Masud’s response. Manto writes: “He thought over and over of the warm meat of the goats. One or two times, he thought, ‘If Kulsum were butchered, would vapor rise from her skinned flesh?’” In the same passage, when Masud is standing on his sister and pressing her back, he almost falls and we are reminded of the cemetery by the phrase “girte girte bacha,” the same words used to describe Masud’s near descent into his grandfather’s grave.

At the start of the story, Masud recalls the cemetery of his grandfather’s funeral, a memory that occurs to him when his teacher dies. Like the butcher shop, the cemetery too becomes part of Masud’s vocabulary of physical sensation. After the death of Masud’s teacher, we are told that he was “not sorry at all.”

"…His heart was completely devoid of emotion. However, he did recall the previous year when his grandfather passed away during these very days, and due to the fact that it had started raining, there was great difficulty at his funeral. He had also gone along with the procession, and at the cemetery, because of the wet dirt, it was so slippery that he almost fell into the open grave. He remembered all of these things clearly. The harshness of the cold, his soiled clothes, hands blue with cold that became white from pressing."

For Masud, the space of the cemetery becomes a place of experiencing his own body. When he imagines his teacher’s impending funeral, he wonders if the ground of the cemetery will once again become slippery causing people to fall into the graves and get hurt. He is not concerned with death per se, but merely with the effect that rain has on dirt, on his clothes, and on his body.

At the end of the story, Masud is alone. There is no one in the kitchen and no one in the courtyard. All the rooms of the house are shut. His father and mother are behind one of these closed doors and Masud is requested keep quiet because his mother is massaging his father’s head. When he sneaks up on his sister in another room, and he finds her under a quilt, examining the bare chest of her friend, he is utterly confused, and, finally, sets himself the task of breaking his hockey stick.

The story’s cryptic ending reinforces the fact that cemetery and the butcher shop are in many ways more intimate and familiar than the domestic setting. The story rewrites generic sites---the cemetery, the butcher shop, and the home---and inverts their meanings. In Dhuaan, the goat meat doesn’t actually come home---it stays in its location at the butcher shop. However, the vapors from the goats and the cemetery follow Masud into the most intimate portions of his life.


Tapish Kashmiri shares similarities with Dhuaan but exhibits a less radical inversion in the meanings of its generic sites. More important here are the story’s references to actual locations---two of the story’s characters are given place names (Kashmiri and Nagpuri) and the story is set in two cities (Lahore and Bombay). In Lahore, both named and generic locations are included, such as Lahore’s district court, and Haji Hotel, but also the mohalla, the masjid, and the bicycle repair shop. In Bombay, there is Chaupati Beach, Victoria Gardens, and Khet Vari Street.

In these cities, public spots are the settings for Tapish’s romancing, first with a boy whom he sees in a Lahore college, and later with a woman, the daughter of a Bombay shrine attendant. In Lahore, Tapish begins to offer prayers at the neighborhood mosque where the boy regularly prays. Tapish also follows the boy to a bike shop and presents his own shirt to wipe the oil from the disassembled parts to make them shine. Later, in Bombay, Tapish courts the woman in Victoria Gardens and then decides to marry her.

While these outside spaces pose no danger to Tapish---he is, after all, a man who can consume street food with “enough spices and sourness to give diarrhea and indigestion to twenty men”--- it is the trappings of domesticity that pose the biggest threat to Tapish. After deciding to marry his Bombay beloved, Tapish expresses his desire to do everything “according to the books,” saying he wants a “proper marriage.” Tapish explains:

“I’m putting some money together. I’ve fixed everything with her father. I’ve had a suit made for her brother. I’ve also given some money to her father, because he doesn’t have resources for the wedding. I’ve bought a sofa set, a dressing table and four chairs and given them to her father to hold. I’ve decided to stay with them after the wedding so she doesn’t get depressed.”

When the narrator hears this, he worries that someone is pulling a “fast one” on Tapish, a suspicion that proves to be well founded when it is later discovered that the girl has run off with a wrestler. Tapish’s response to this betrayal is also enacted publicly. Manto writes:

He found out about this exactly at that time that he came out of Khet Bari Street. Tapish hired a bicycle and followed the car in which the wrestler was making off with the girl. Tapish would have caught them were it not for the fact that his bicycle collided with a Victoria car. He was badly wounded, and broke his right-hand wrist.

In Tapish Kashmiri, affairs of the heart rewrite actual and generic locations. The masjid becomes a place of courtship; Victoria Park, a landmark to the daughter of a shrine attendant (and not to the British Queen). Without elaborating on this point right now, we can also say that Tapish’s character itself offers a new angle on the place identifier “Kashmiri;” his real name is unknown; this unusual man is simply Kashmiri.

By way of conclusion, let’s think a bit about what stories can do. This was certainly a concern for Manto’s critics. Those who labeled his stories obscene implied that, by reading them, readers would automatically loosen their own morals, perhaps giving in to lascivious thoughts or, at worst, actions. Others suggested that Manto was anti-progressive, since progressives must present a vision for the future, a utopia of hope and equality. According to progressives, this is just what Manto’s stories did not do. For those who have praised Manto, such as critic Amir Mufti, Manto offers new perspectives on the Indian nation, and what his stories do do is expose the inherent contradictions of Indian nationalism.[1] My aims today have been far less ambitious. By beginning to look at Manto’s stories through the lenses of space and place, I have suggested that Manto’s recalibrations of intimacy and distance and his inscriptions of familiar locations with new stories can partially explain his success as a storywriter. But I also want to propose---with the help of my imperfect example at the start of this paper---that we take Manto’s stories as templates for our own seeing and place making. This is another dimension of what stories can do. Where are the Mantostaans in your world?

[1] According to Mufti, Manto’s short stories offer “an immanent critique of nationalism’s divine ambitions, of its claims to a God-like perch above society” (Mufti, “A Greater Story-writer than God,” 3-4). Mufti’s idea of a “perch” somewhere above closely echoes de Certeau’s notion of “seeing the whole” or “looking down like a god” (Practice of Everyday Life, 92).

This paper was written for “Celebrating the Centenary of Sa’adat Hassan Manto (1912-2012)” held April 24-26, 2012 and organized by Dr. Syed Akbar Hyder, the Hindi-Urdu Flagship, and The South Asia Institute at UT-Austin. 
Suzanne L. Schulz is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Suzanne completed her MA in Asian Studies at UT in 2007, and has since been working towards her Ph.D. In 2010-11 she was an AIIS Junior Research Fellow in Uttar Pradesh and is now writing her dissertation entitled “License to Screen: Cinema and the Everyday State in Postcolonial Lucknow.” She can be reached at

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bilal Hashmi: Introducing *Chughad*

Notes Towards an Introduction

Chughad is the only collection of Manto's stories to be published from Bombay—an assemblage of short fiction, interspersed with autobiographical traces from time spent in the bustling colonial metropolis, particularly its filmworld. The volume thus takes on some of the qualities of a postlude and invites us to retrace the author's scattered "footprints" (naqsh-e qadam) in the city. Such an excercise will lead us back to a local Urdu public sphere whose history remains largely unwritten. The early dissemination of Urdu books in Bombay was taken up by such presses as Fath al-Karim, Haidari, Muhammadi, and Safdari in the nineteenth century and then by Karimi, Mustafai and Sultani in the early decades of the twentieth. While the greater number of these publications appear to be translations of and commentaries on Arabic and Persian texts, one does come across editions of Ghalib, the novels of Sharar, and the occasional religious or political tract. By the 1940s, however, modern Urdu literature could count among its steadfast patrons in Bombay the Taj Office on Mohamed Ali Road and—with the lifting of the ban on the Communist Party of India in July 1942—the People's Publishing House on Sandhurst. Urdu periodicals in circulation at this time included Khatun, Naya Adab, Shair, Subh-e Umid, Tanvir, and the journals Musavvir and Samaj, both of which Manto edited during his spells in Bombay.

The mainstream appeal of Urdu letters was further bolstered by the Progressive Writers' Association, many of whose cadres had relocated to Bombay in the early '40s, lending their talents to the film industry and All-India Radio, not to mention various publishing and journalistic ventures. The unexpected yet resounding success of a Ghalib Day celebration from this period figures prominently in Progressive accounts. In an article published in People's War, Sibte Hasan, the event's organizer, writes of the "incoming stream of famous poets, Editors of newspapers, Principals of Colleges, Congressmen, Muslim Leaguers, Film Directors and artists, writers and students," all of whom gathered in the "overpacked" hall of St. Xavier's School on 12 March, 1944. This "unique function in the cultural life of Bombay," he notes, "began with a homage to Ghalib by the working-class children from Madanpura," who sang the poet's verse "with vigour and zest, and, when at the end the troupe shouted 'Lal Salaam' with the clenched fists salutation the audience responded with prolonged cheers." "The messages and tributes paid to Ghalib," concludes Hasan, "were as representative as the audience itself." ("Ghalib Day in Bombay." People's War 2, 39 [26 March 1944], p. 3).

Chughad was first issued by Kutub Publishers Ltd. in June 1948, some six months after Manto left Bombay for Lahore. Housed in the Regal Building, Apollo Bunder, the publishing firm was founded some years earlier by Parsi architect Phiroze Mistry and Anil de Silva, "the socialist daughter of a Ceylon minister," well-known in Bombay circles as art historian, journalist and first general secretary of the Indian People's Theatre Association. Upon his return to India from Europe in 1946, the acclaimed novelist Mulk Raj Anand settled in Bombay and assumed directorship of Kutub, while also editing the art magazine Marg. Decades later, in a letter to the literary critic Saros Cowasjee, Anand would comment on his own editorial vision, recounting how at the time he "felt that Indian publishing ought to be helped to free itself from the stranglehold of the English and American book imperialists," and that such was the reason why he "sank all [his] patrimony into" the Kutub publishing collective.

By the time Chughad appeared from Kutub in the summer of 1948, the budding publishing house had already brought out works by most of Urdu's leading poets (Kaifi Azmi, Akhtar ul Iman, Ali Sardar Jafri, Josh Malihabadi) and short-story writers (K.A. Abbas, Krishan Chandar, Ismat Chughtai). Its list of publications had grown to include tomes on Indian architecture and music, as well as English translations from Bangla, Russian and Urdu. Sajjad Zaheer's influential pamphlet Urdu, Hindi, Hindustani was published in 1947. The following year saw the publication of Boatman of the Padma, Hirendranath Mukherjee's English rendition of Manik Bandyopadhyay's 1936 Bengali novel Padma nadir majhi. In addition to Manto's Chughad, collections of Urdu short stories published in 1948 included Krishan Chandar's Ajanta se aage (Beyond Ajanta) and Salihah 'Abid Husain's Niras men aas (Hope in Despair). A sampling of Kutub's non-fiction titles for the year offers a glimpse into some of the intellectual debates then raging in the newly independent country: K.A. Abbas' Kashmir Fights for Freedom; Mulk Raj Anand and George Keyt's The Story of India; Syed Ehtisham Husain's Adab aur samaj (Literature and Society); D. F. Karaka's Freedom Must Not Stink and No Peace at All; Hirendranath Mukherjee's India Struggles for Freedom; and Romesh Thapar's Storm over Hyderabad. The inauguration, also in 1948, of the "Na'e adab ke mi'mar" (Makers of New Literature) series—on which, it appears, the Sahitya Akademi was to model its own "Makers of Indian Literature" monographs some two decades later—introduced individual writers by way of slim, intimate portraits, all of which were penned by their immediate contemporaries: Krishan Chandar on Manto and Sahir Ludhianvi; Sardar Jafri on Makhdoom Mohiuddin; Sahir on Devendra Satyarthi; and, of course, Manto on Ismat.

The first edition of Chughad carries a mildly appreciative preface by Sardar Jafri (excised from subsequent editions) and nine short stories: "Ek khat" (A Letter); "Dharas" (Consolation); "Chughad" (The Blind Fool); "Parhiye kalima" (Recite the Creed); "Mus tin wala"; "Babu Gopinath"; "Mera nam Radha hai" (My Name is Radha); "Janaki"; and "Panch din" (Five Days). These pieces are for the most part of a kind familiar to readers of Manto. Let us now summarize some features of the stories, so that we may gain a deeper appreciation of the volume as a whole.


Bilal Hashmi is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at New York University. His dissertation addresses questions of realism and world-literariness in light of three interwar writers' congresses: Moscow (1934), Paris (1935), and Lucknow (1936). He is the translator of Sajjad Zaheer's 1938 anti-colonial Urdu novella, A Night in London (New Delhi: Harper Perennial, 2011), and is presently at work on a new English rendition of Premchand's Hindi masterpiece, Godan.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Manto's Bombay: Excerpts from the Symposium

This week we will post some excerpts and notes from the two Manto events hosted in New York earlier this month. These are informal presentation notes culled from larger, more detailed projects by the writers, and are reproduced here to share a sense of the discussions.

Richard Delacy: Manto and the Perverse Pleasure of Middle Class Abjection (May 11, 2012)

In this short piece, I would like to focus on Manto as a short story writer who is not so much a chronicler of the seedy, salacious underworld of Bombay, not so much an observer of its minutiae, and of everyday practices, not so much a portrayer of the often sad, alienated personalities in the world of commercial cinema in the 1930s and 1940s, although he was of course all of these things. I do not want to concentrate on his obviously profound concern for the marginalized, for the oppressed, for those lower class figures exploited by capital and rejected by so-called ‘polite’, or ‘middle class’ society, although he did indeed craft many stories that are, at their heart, deeply humanist in terms of their sympathetic treatment of such pathetic subjects. Rather, I would like to pose a simple question, and perhaps talk a little bit about the stories in the volume Chugd (‘Owl’, or ‘Stupid’), that was published at the time Manto moved from Bombay to Lahore, via Karachi in 1948.

The question that has haunted me since I first picked up Manto’s short stories many years ago as an undergraduate, and then began to read about his growing iconic status around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of Partition, is rather simple. Why Manto? What is it about the man, and his short stories, that has bestowed on him this now iconic status among the intellectual and cultural elite of South Asia? For surely no other writer has engendered such a response among this particular class of consumers in the subcontinent. I ask this in the spirit of being something of an iconoclast, which I think that Manto would perhaps have appreciated. What is it about his writings or what he represents for us, that is, the middle class, that has transformed him so completely into the vernacular writer par excellence? It doesn’t matter where you turn, whether one is talking about Bombay, the Partition of India, or communal violence in post independence India, it would seem that it is obligatory to cite Manto and his short stories.

I think that it is important to ask this question, particularly because Manto’s iconic status has grown to such mythical dimensions, particularly since the fiftieth anniversary of Independence and Partition in 1997. It was at that time that Manto suddenly emerged on the radar of social historians, in their efforts to uncover the ‘human’ dimension to the tragedy of the Partition of British India in 1947. This is not to say that his importance was a fabrication, only that prior to this he was mostly only celebrated among a very select, narrow group of writers, in other words by his peers, in South Asia. While I don’t want to suggest that he was ‘rediscovered,’ it is certainly the case that the 1990s brought about a fresh enthusiasm for his writings.1

There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, it would appear critical that Manto wrote in Urdu, the language that also came to be celebrated in the 1990s as a symbol of an ecumenical, syncretic, secular culture for a particular class, a class that could, ironically, for the most part no longer actually read the Nastaliq script, but who were searching for some symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in a world still characterized by significant communal unrest and a sense of a growing intolerance towards religious minorities in India by right wing Hindu nationalists. I would not like to minimize Manto’s achievements as a short story writer by suggesting that his prominence can be reduced to his personal ethnicity, or to the language he chose to write in, but I do believe that Urdu came to be valorized at this time as a language that represented a utopian world from before the colonial period. In reality, by the 1990sthe Urdu language (or perhaps more accurately the Nastaliq script), had become entirely obsolete in north India outside of crumbling departments of language and literature in major universities, and its token inclusion on road signs in the capital.2

Secondly, given that he came into prominence again around the fiftieth anniversary of Partition and Independence, Manto’s preeminence can be said to lie in his reputation as the Partition writer par excellence. Indeed, this is why many social historians turned to his work at this particular moment in history. Historians such as Ian Talbot, Gyan Pandey, Ayesha Jalal, Susie Tharu and others lionized his writings and his life, primarily for his stories that focused on the brutality, inhumanity and utter senselessness of the Partition and the violent transference of populations in the west of the country. In particular, his collection of short vignettes Siyah Hashiye (Black Marginalia) were heralded as the most powerful, confronting examples of literary responses to the Partition, examples of the violence that offered the reader little sense of redemption and hope, leaving him or her bewildered and as incoherent as the characters in perhaps Manto’s most famous partition story, “Toba Tek Singh”.

I have always wondered what it is about these macabre, often grotesque stories that have so captivated us. Why it is that social historians have found in Manto’s writings a more meaningful response to the Partition?What it is about the grotesque, about the uncanny, about the horrific nature of some of his stories that so attracts us?

If we take a closer look at the volume under review in this particular celebration of Manto’s 100th birth anniversary, Chugd, and indeed, Manto’s engagement with the world of Bombay in the 1930s and 1940s, I think that there are several answers that suggest themselves to these questions. Often it is said that Manto reserved his most strident critique for the middle classes in his time. The problem with this is the very nomenclature ‘middle class’. Like the masses, with which we have an equal obsession as the Other, it is always suggested that the middle class is out there, that is, spatially at a distance from us. And yet, we are precisely the middle classes. And so, there is something particularly interesting to me about the fact that Manto seeks, often in a very modernist literary style in which there is no moral to the tale, and in many stories no great semblance of a narrative even, to put on display for the consumption of the middle class its own abjection. And there is nothing more abject that taking a perverse pleasure in reading about one’s own abject state.

Is there something about 1930s and 1940s Bombay that engenders such a response by this particular story teller? Many of Manto’s discursive, (non)narratives are about a particular class of inhabitants, and the seemingly utter irrelevance of their lives. They are dislocated, dissolute, alienated, purposeless, often seemingly emasculated by capital, incapable to acting in any decisive manner. They are concerned with base, mundane affairs, with opportunism, and with self loathing. They can only indulge themselves in prurient entertainment, in pleasures of the flesh and alcohol. Their lives seem utterly random, inconsequential, lacking in any political or social conviction. Manto’s stories are full of licentious descriptions of prostitutes and pimps, meaningless parties, sycophants and pathetic characters who populate this city. He is both demonstrating in his storytelling how emasculated the middle class had become, and giving them precisely the wanton stories in which they took so much pleasure. There is nothing so abject than a class that takes pleasure in its own abjection, in its own despair.

Manto’s stories are thus deeply ironic. They appear on the surface to reinforce humanity through their seemingly sympathetic portrayals of sex workers, alienated Mumbaikars and so on, but in reality, they reinforce this pathos by giving us the very prurient descriptions that we crave. It must be remembered that these stories were produced for a minuscule percentage of the population. The middle class (those who had some education and worked in salaried positions, but were not possessors of finance capital - that is, not wealthy industrialists) consisted of no more than approximately five percent of the population at the time that he wrote. While this is a conservative figure, it doesn’t strike me as being inaccurate. Manto’s stories, then and now, are celebrated precisely because they critique the very class that reads them. This suggests that the perverse pleasure that is to be derived from them is one that has to do with the abjectness of the capitalist enterprise.

What is engendered is a self-loathing at a fundamental level, which says much about the nature of this particular city as the most important embodiment of capitalism in India at the time Manto and others inhabited its spaces. In other words, Manto’s stories show up the abject nature of the capitalist enterprise, that so enslaves the worker to the point where all he or she can do is take pleasure in is their own abjectness. That is they become the flawed, the minor, the anti-heroes of his stories. There are no great figures to be found in his discursive, anecdotal urban writings. These stories are not supposed to inspire. They seem destined to mire the middle class further in its own flaws, in its own lack of humanity. The middle class reader can take pity on the sex worker who is exploited by the system, knowing well that he or she will be able to do little to change the situation of that exploitation. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of Manto’s stories is not their humanism, which we can celebrate in the manner of Herbert Marcuse’s notion of ‘affirmative culture’, the affirmation of cultural values that are unattainable in a world given over to capitalism exploitation but that may be upheld in literary texts, but that he so often ironically reminds us of the shallowness of middle class piety and the pleasure of middle class abjection.

(Please do not cite without permission)

1In his introduction to one of the first collections of translations of Manto’s stories in1987, Khalid Hasan argues that Manto’s work at that time was little known outside of India and Pakistan. Khalid Hasan, Kingdom’s End and Other Stories (Delhi:Penguin Books, 1987),p.1.
2 On these points, see my unpublished MA thesis, “The Making of Manto: The Construction of a Literary Icon” (Clayton, Victoria: Department of History, Monash University, 1998)


Richard Delacy is Preceptor in Hindi-Urdu with the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. He is at present a doctoral candidate in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, working on post-liberalization novel writing in Hindi, particularly novels written by non-traditional groups, such as Dalits (Ajay Navaria) and semi-urban female writers like Maitreyi Pushpa.

Debashree Mukherjee: The Lost Films of Sa'adat Hasan Manto (May 11, 2012)

Manto moved to Bombay in 1936 and worked in close association with the film world till 1948. During these two decades, the 1930s and 40s, more than 2000 talkie films were produced in Bombay. Today, less than 5% of these films are preserved in the National Film Archives of India. Among the missing 95% percent were eight films that were written by Manto himself. Manto is as much a mythic figure today as the early Bombay film industry. Manto’s representations range from the enigmatic rebel intellectual to a perverse writer of obscene stories, while Bombay cinema in the 1930s and 40s is either celebrated as the glorious studio era or dismissed as a period of formulaic commercial cinema. Today, let us go back to Manto’s missing filmography to take a second look at the diverse cultural and political forces that Bombay cinema was entangled in at the time.

Manto worked in the film industry as a script and dialogue writer. However, cinema is a richly collaborative craft and as such it would be naïve to try to invest any direct authorship in the figure of the film writer. That said, here is a Manto filmography compiled with the help of Manto’s own writings. I have not seen any of the films on this list. They are not available in the usual official archives and studios. Without a film or screenplay on which to base my readings, I have worked with film synopses, reviews and other clues available in song booklets, advertisements, and Manto’s own Bombay stories. [Any additions, corrections, and clues from readers are welcome]:
  1. Kisan Kanya (1938), prod. Imperial Film Company, Scenario and Dialogues by Manto [Story by Prof. M. Ziauddin of Shantiniketan]
  2. Apni Nagariya (1940), prod. Hindustan Cine Tone, Story by Manto
  3. Chal Chal Re Naujawan (1944), prod. Filmistan, Dialogue by Manto
  4. Begum (1945), prod. Taj Mahal Pics, ?
  5. Naukar (1945), prod. Sunrise Pictures, Story and Dialogue by Manto
  6. Aath Din/Eight Days (1946), prod. Filmistan, Screenplay & Dialogue by Manto
  7. Shikari (1946), prod. Filmistan, Screenplay & Dialogue by Manto
  8. Jhumke (1946), prod. Chitra Productions, Story by Manto

Kisan Kanya (dir. Moti B. Gidwani, 1938)

Imperial Film Company was established in 1926 and soon became one of the leading film companies of the subcontinent. In an autobiographical sketch titled "Meri Shaadi," Manto tells us that by 1937, the company had lost much of its early glory and reputation. The studio was on the road to financial ruin and ‘Seth’ Ardeshir Irani was desperately trying to get the company back in business. Irani had made a name for his studio by giving India its first talkie film, Alam Ara, in 1931. Now he wanted to revive the company’s fortunes by presenting the next filmic technological landmark – the subcontinent’s first colour film. Moti B. Gidwani, a freelance filmmaker trained in Britain, was hired to direct this prestigious venture. At the time, Manto was working at Imperial as an in-house screenwriter and he wrote what became Kisan Kanya. However, the director, Gidwani was now faced with a dilemma:  “How was he to tell the Seth that the writer of India’s first colour film was a lowly munshi?” Manto and Gidwani agreed that Ardeshir Irani would only buy the script if it had a prestigious name attached to it. A certain Professor Ziauddin, who taught Persian in Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan University, agreed to lend his name as the story writer!

Manto self-deprecatingly characterizes his job profile at Imperial as that of a munshi, or a hack writer on the payrolls of the company, hired more for skill than talent. Manto’s anecdote, amusing though it is, serves to highlight the great divide between two kinds of cultural institutions and two forms of writing – Imperial Film Co. vs Shantiniketan; screenwriting versus literature. Borrowing Prof Ziauddin’s name and affiliation underscores the film industry’s intense anxiety at this time about its dubious cultural status and its primarily lower class audiences. With the coming of sound and the consolidation of the studio system, the industry saw the emergence of entrepreneur-producers like Bombay Talkies’ Himansu Rai, Rajkamal’s V. Shantaram, and Filmistan’s Shashadhar Mukherjee who wanted to remake the film industry as an organized, regulated domain employing ‘respectable’ workers, producing social reform content, and appealing to intellectually ‘sophisticated’ audiences.

The language debate in film historical writings on Bombay cinema is an ongoing and conflicted one. In an essay titled "All Kinds of Hindi: The Evolving Language of Hindi Cinema," Harish Trivedi strives to demonstrate how Bombay cinema has always been a Hindi cinema, in a Sanskritic register, and that it is naïve, nostalgically secularist to call it a Hindustani cinema. In a characteristic generalization, Trivedi states that ever since Achhut Kanya (1936), “films set in villages” used a “kind of constructed Hindi dialect” in order to “authenticate all representations of village life in Hindi cinema, from Ganga Jumna (1961) through Teesri Kasam (1966) to Lagaan (2001). Thus, according to Trivedi, Urdu was ruled out of these village films because “Urdu had always been an urban language.”

Directly contradicting Trivedi’s view is Manto’s own statement in a story from Chughad titled ‘Mera Naam Radha Hai.’ It might be safe to surmise that the film he refers to as Ban Sundari is not a city film:
“… every day I would write dialogues in a difficult language for that ‘Jungle Beauty’ [Ban Sundari]. I can only vaguely recall the story or plot of the film. This is mainly because in those days I was hired as a munshi, whose job is to simply follow orders and hand over penciled dialogues in a half-baked Urdu that the director would just about understand.”
- Manto Ki Kahaniyan, ed. Narendra Mohan. New Delhi: Kitab Ghar, 2004, pp220

If even the director of the film did not understand the Urdu Manto wrote, then surely something other than mass intelligibility, authenticity, or verisimilitude was a criterion for dialogue choices. This was a period of intense linguistic contestation in Northern India, and the debates over Hindi, Urdu and Hindustani definitely impacted Bombay cinema. The relative newness of talkie technology made this a period of tentative linguistic experimentation and the logic of popular cinema ensured that film dialogues were determined by a combination of commercial, artistic and cultural aspirations. Based on prevalent debates within the Bombay film industry in these years, it appears that films shifted strategically between a Sanskritized Hindi and a Persianized Urdu – often self-consciously deploying Hindustani as the preferred register for film writing.

Mud or Apni Nagariya (dir. Gunjal, 1940)

Mud (Hindustan Cinetone’s new release at the Pathe) is one of the rare instances when a progressive Hindustani writer has found expression on the screen. Sa’adat Hasan Manto, well-known in Urdu literary circles as a young, radical writer with original ideas, is the author of Mud. …[The new title] Apni Nagariya has a romantic rather than a realistic significance. And it somewhat confuses the main issue and we are led to believe that the theme is Village versus City instead of being Capital versus Labor.”
- Bombay Chronicle, 01/02/1940

Apni Nagariya’s promotional taglines, “A New Kind of Story”, “Entertainment and Instruction Both In One!”, and the above cited review in the Bombay Chronicle newspaper, reference the cultural and political ferment of the period. The Progressive Writers’ Movement contributed much to the Hindustani cinema of Bombay in terms of themes, writers as well as politics. It is significant that most of these leftist writers decided to live and work in Bombay and embraced the film industry. Writers like Krishan Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri, Majaz, Shahid Latif and Ismat Chughtai were not only dedicated to writing a new social and linguistic idiom through literature but were also engaging with cinema in serious ways.

Aamir Mufti, in an essay on Manto and the Urdu short story in the 1940s, puts forth the thesis that Urdu, with its steady retreat to the borders of the nation project, allowed the Progressives to distance themselves from grand visions of nationhood and citizenship, at the same time as they disavowed a stultified Urdu literary tradition. This argument might well explain why the Progressives took to film writing with such gusto, when their Hindi peers consciously shunned this supposedly lowly form. It is against the backdrop of these varied cultural forces, that one should read a film like Apni Nagariya. The classed and somewhat romantic tendencies of the city’s young and earnest socialists can be seen in the lyrics of the first song in Apni Nagariya, titled "Mazdoor":

Mazdoor mazdoor/ Worker, worker
Jag naiyya khevanhaara/ The oarsman of the world
Mazdoor mazdoor/ Worker, worker
Dhan mehnat karke kamaayen/ Work hard to make your wealth
Sone ke mahal banaayen/ Build castles of gold
Aasha hai yeh hamaara/ This is our hope
Mazdoor mazdoor/ Worker, worker
Dhanvaan kamaaye daulat/ The rich amass riches
Din raat kare tu mehnat/ While you toil day and night
Hai sar pe bojh karaara/ You carry a heavy load on your head
Mazdoor mazdoor/ Worker, worker
Duniya to sukh se soye/ The world sleeps in peace
Tu dhoop mein eenth dhhoye/ You carry bricks in the searing sun
Anyay ye jag hai saara/ This world is an unjust place
Mazdoor mazdoor/ Worker, worker

(Lyrics: Pandit Indra, Dr. Safdar ‘Aah’. Translations mine.)

The history of working-class struggles in the Bombay region through the 1920s and 30s is well-documented. Trade unions were a dynamic part of the city’s imagination; workers were active in anti-imperial struggles, and Bombay’s cotton mill-workers were creating history with their strikes. Newspapers like the Bombay Chronicle regularly covered various worker-related stories. The ‘mazdoor’ had become an urban symbol of subaltern agency and resistance against oppression. A spate of ‘working-class’ films was released during these years.

Manto’s 1940 film, Apni Nagariya, is a parable about the inequalities fostered by capitalism and the need for the wealthy to recognize the dignity of the laboring classes. The plot revolves around a trope that became quite familiar in the 1930s and 40s: the evil capitalist factory-owner versus his disgruntled striking workers. The capitalist, in Apni Nagariya, has a college-educated daughter, Sushila, who is beautiful and an icon of modernity. The class conflict is played out via the improbable love story between an honest factory-worker and the enemy’s daughter. Interestingly, the onus of societal change rests with the heroine, as she must negotiate with the workers and signal a new democratic model of management. Could it be that the film industry had turned socialist?

Manto echoes this question, in his portrait of the music composer, Rafique Ghaznavi:

“… I landed at Hindustan Movietone owned by Seth Nanoobhai Desai… I had written the story for a movie called Keechad [renamed Apni Nagariya] which he had liked because it was based on socialist ideas. I never understood why the Seth, every inch a dirty capitalist, had taken a shine to it.”
- Manto, "Rafique Ghaznavi", in Bitter Fruit, 2008, 475

The focus on the working class in films of the time, cannot be explained solely by the presence of socialist Progressive writers in the industry. The wartime twilight economy of black marketeering, soldiers waiting for war to erupt in India, and the increasing wealth of the industrial elite, changed the atmosphere of the city and impacted filmic content. Another prominent writer of the time, Upendranath Ashk remembers: “Cinema halls were always crowded during the war years, filled up mainly by soldiers, uneducated workers and artisans.” Going for a show of Taqdeer (Mehboob, 1943) in Delhi, Ashk remembers being startled that the balcony was filled with the same class of people as the stalls. He notes that the “white-collar crowd shifted to halls like Odeon and Plaza (in Delhi).” He then makes another interesting observation: “Sashadhar Mukherjee’s formula films [Filmistan Studio] and the films of his imitators had one factor in common: the hero would invariably be an illiterate, unemployed or delinquent youth. The heroine would be educated or wealthy and would fall hopelessly in love with our socially unworthy hero.” This observation implicitly suggests that given the changing audience demographic, producers sought to attract a new class of viewer by creating romantic protagonists they could identify with. That this dramatic characterization was gendered is apparent as it was the heroine who generally took on the role of the bourgeois other. But the imagined sphere of spectators was a fractured and heterogeneous one. Just as the balconies were filled with workers and soldiers, so were there ‘other’ theatres like Odeon and Plaza.

Note: I have not included in my Manto filmography a 1954 film by Minerva Movietone, titled Mirza Ghalib. This is because I am primarily interested in the films made while Manto was actively employed in Bombay film studios and also how these films allow us to revisit an under-researched pre-Independence period.

Debashree Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. Her dissertation tracks a history of work and material practice in the late colonial Bombay film industry. She is a trained filmmaker and has worked in the mainstream Bombay film industry on films such as Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara. She was a researcher with Sarai-CSDS on their ambitious ethnographic project titled "Publics and Practices in the History of the Present." Before starting her M.Phil degree in the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU, she tried her hand at several professions in Bombay including archivist, scriptwriter, and cameraman.