Saadat Hassan Manto is famous for his short stories in the Urdu language. But he started his career as a radio and then film scriptwriter and a journalist. He spent about twelve years in Bombay working with the top studios and the foremost stars of the time. His essays on the Bollywood of the forties collected under the title ‘The Stars Look Down’ are illuminating. He describes his friendships and the characters of people like Ashok Kumar and other stars in a gossipy yet astute manner. The humdrum details he reveals humanise these characters. After all they werent at that time the legends they are today. They were living working people and the intimate portraits we get are priceless. The essays however also reveal the personality of the writer Manto and the picture we get is of quite and exuberant person revelling in his work and the excitement of a burgeoning industry. But we also see someone who can be quite average and mediocre in his assessments and even sometimes petty and superficial. But completely sincere about his thoughts and feelings. One wouldnt however think of him as the brilliant writer of short stories like, “Bu”, “Khol Do”, “Thanda Gosht”, and his magnum opus, “Toba Tek Singh”.
The thing is Manto chose to shift to Pakistan post the partition, much against his inclination, because he loved Bombay but he felt keenly the anti muslim sentiment in the industry after the riots. Hindsight indicates that he would have done better to stayed here because certainly his creativity would have enjoyed more freedom. Always a little controversial, he probably would have found more acceptance in Bombay than he did in Karachi.
His subsequent life in Pakistan was virtually downhill, from a personal and professional point of view because he simply could not subscribe to arbitrary censorship and unreasonable values. Creative freedom was missing he was involved in numerous court cases brought against him for obscenity which objectively may simply be called plain speaking . But, and its a great but, this period saw the best of his short stories. He is a past master at rendering the poignant horror of peoples lives during partition and the complete futility and meaninglessness of the suffering that accrued. He was unable to see that any bit of the suffering on both sides was justified at all. This view comes across as vividly and as relevant today as it was then.
I got a really good historical and social perspective of that period. Pity Manto had to take to drink and die in poverty . His head remained, however, bloody yet unbowed. Bravo…