Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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.