Saadat Hasan Manto means a lot of different things for a lot of different people. For many, he is the attention-seeking madman who churned unpalatable stories riddled with graphic accounts of violence that were to be deemed obscene by any standard of the word ‘decent’, for some he is the wild child of contemporary Urdu literature whose greatness is far more than some of the more renowned writers of his time, and to some, he was a self-destructive genius who couldn’t be reasoned with and in an ironic way was the writer of his own misfortunes.
And for some, he was all of the above, and a lot more.
Madeeha Gauhar’s ‘Kaun hai ye Gustakh’ tangents over all these assumptions and paints a thought-provoking mosaic of Manto’s life and work. Staged as part of a 4-day-long festival organized by Delhi based NGO Roots2Roots and performed by Lahore’s Ajoka Theater Group in the heart of New Delhi’s buzzing theater hub of Mandi House, it’s a 130-minute window into the mind of Partition era’s most relevant and controversial writer, an accurate and intimate observation of the angst and struggles of Manto from the time he arrived in Pakistan, till the time he wrote his last story. The play tries, and to a large extent, succeeds, in bringing out the inner turmoil of the man disillusioned with what he thought would be a state of liberal and progressive Muslims like him, and instead found himself at odds with everyone in society, including the authorities, the clergy and in a rare display of bi-partisanship, both the left and right wing of Pakistan politics.
It is an expectation of every Manto fan while witnessing any work of art inspired by the man to be audacious and bold and playwright Shahid Nadeem has done his job wonderfully in that regard, essaying Manto’s ability to express the gravest of thoughts in just a few words. His deep understanding of Manto on both literary and personal levels is evident in the seamless narrative that travels through the course of many years and many characters that influenced Manto on both these fronts. While his fascinating use of dry Mantonian humour in the face of tragedy had the audience laughing and thinking at the same time, many of his piercing lines made sure the actors had to pause for the applause and cheers to subside at the jam-packed Kamani Auditorium.
Presented in a linear montage of all his stories written after moving to Karachi, the play aims to deconstruct Manto the writer through his characters and juxtaposes it with instances from his own life, like his ever enduring battle with the Pakistani authorities to defend his stories, his ire at the unrequited erasing of the Hindu cultural heritage of what became Pakistan, his deep friendship with Bollywood actor Shyam and his comically authentic description of the era in the form of letters written for his beloved “Uncle Sam”. Featuring enactments from some his most iconic works including Thanda Ghosht, Khol Do, Licsense and Toba Tek Singh, the play shows a mature understanding of the man and his work, interspersed with visual projections and Bollywood music of that era, with ‘Kaun sune fariyad humari’(Dulari,1949, not written by Manto though) appearing in many scenes.
Naseem Abbas’s portrayal of Manto also deserves a special praise for his nuance and simplicity in portraying such a complex character. What sets his performance apart is the multiple dimensions of Manto that he displays on stage. His Manto is a very balanced mix of everything that a reader of his work could visualize, presenting the audience with the familiar quick-witted rebel who’s always ready with a clever retort for his critics and a miniature bottle in his kurta for his friends, his naked display of emotions in the wake of the frustrating hypocrisy of the society he was living in and the self loathing introspection of a man haunted by the demons of his own mind. The authenticity of his rendition made sure that the play, apart from the innovative use of visuals and projections, was largely performed with minimal use of sets and properties.
While Abbas stole the show as Manto, one needs to acknowledge the contributions of other actors such as Uzma Hassan, who played a grave mystery woman who often visits the writer in times of utter loneliness, a powerful dramatic instrument used to depict Manto’s conscience and Kamran Mujahid, for his energy, wit and a surprisingly accurate hairstyle in portraying film actor Shyam.
Premiered for the first time in 2012 to mark a hundred years of Manto’s birth, this Lahore production is a thought-provoking, unabashed and visually moving exhibit that manages to stay true to its roots, yet reaches out to everyone living in both India and Pakistan. After all, the battles against censorship, prudence and official high-handedness in matters of art and culture, were not battles that were ingenious or restricted to only Manto, were they? Haven’t we all been told at some point to tone down our honesty for the sake of decency? To exercise prudence so that we don’t enter the ever expanding territory of ‘objectionable material’? In a way, the Gustakh Manto that we all celebrate was as much a cultural mirror of our times as he was of his own.