'Humsafar' director on being influenced by Saadat Hasan Manto's life and work

Sarmad Khoosat was in his pre-teens when he read Manto’s works for the first time

By Manju Ramanan

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Published: Mon 22 Jan 2024, 5:45 PM

Aur Bano Manto, was a regular snide remark that Pakistani artiste, script writer and filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat has heard all his life for the admiration he had for the legendary writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955). Though his films have been lapped up by the diaspora all over the world, he has faced brickbats and won accolades equally. Quite like Manto’s life, ridden with backlashes from a regimented world, Khoosat has braved the tide of change in Pakistani content and made a niche for himself, albeit slowly and certainly. He made his mark on the celluloid when he directed Manto in which he captures the spirit of the legendary writer in its totality.

Sarmad Khoosat was in his pre-teens when he read Manto’s works for the first time. Even though he was brought up in a fairly progressive household, he hadn’t been introduced to Manto. “Our house had caught fire and we were living in a temporary place for some time and I chanced upon Manto from dad’s collection. When I read him, I was dumbstruck that this kind of scandalous literature exists in Urdu,” says Khoosat.

For the uninitiated, Manto lived between 1912 - 1955, initially in India and then in Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. He was part of the Indian Progressive Writers Association with contemporaries such as Ismat Chughtai, Sardar Jafri etc. A rebel, journalist, Bollywood reporter, novelist and fiction writer, Manto has a huge body of work to his credit. “Manto wrote unfiltered that could sometimes sound crude but he struck at the heart of the problem and broke all stereotypes of gender, religion, biases and class,” Khoosat adds.

So, while the stories such as Khol Do, Thanda Ghosth and Toba Tek Singh, moved Khoosat, he kept his admiration buried deep inside him and never discussed the writer. “I went to a boy’s school and had English education but Manto stayed within me quietly, though, in college we discussed him animatedly.”

Later, in his career in TV, Khoosat started with sitcoms and featured as the funny boy in ads such as Colgate and Pepsi. But soon, he got a chance to celebrate Manto’s work. “For TV, I had adapted a Manto story called Harnaam Kaur and his daughter found my number and called me. First she was angry that the channel hadn’t called her. Then we got talking and I went over for chai and bonded with his three daughters. His middle daughter Nusrat has worked with Ayesha Jalal. Whenever I perform Manto, the girls have front row seats and attend with their families. In fact they encouraged me with my other work as well and loved Kamli.

Reflecting on the times when the state had censored literature and writings, he says reading about progressive writers became a great escape for everyone. “We come from an oppressed era. Pakistan had a time when we read censored texts and if we didn’t do our own reading, there was a chance that we would get easily influenced and dictated by the ruling power. Also we are self-censored as a culture and only good reading liberates you. In such times, Manto’s words, his perspectives and audaciousness seemed astounding and you marvelled at him.”

Does he see ‘Mantoism,' sprinkled in his other work'? “ Not consciously, because Manto picked up characters like the milkman, the wrestler, the Sikh couple, the Jewish woman and I did other work. But the sensibility of freedom was always there. Subconsciously we imbibe the sensibilities of the people we admire though our work might be something totally different”.

Interestingly, Khoosat went on to direct the 2011 Humsafar, one of Pakistani TV’s most loved serials that starred Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan. The serial catapulted Fawad and Mahira as a hit romantic couple and enhanced their careers. Khoosat has also adapted Chokher Bali and a play about a singer, inspired loosely by Madam Noor Jehan’s life.

Khoosat’s film on Manto in 2013 came around the same time Indian actor and filmmaker Nandita Das made the biopic Manto starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui. “Both our films are different and I met Nandita at a Rekhta event in Delhi and we discussed our work.”

His later films such as Motorcycle Girl, Zindagi Tamasha, Kamli and Joyland have found resonance with audiences the world over. With accolades and brickbats galore, what is his next film? “I want to do a dark comedy with an actress I haven’t worked with in a long time,” he says. “An artist is always ridden with self-doubt. But over the years, I have realised there is a loyal audience for my work. Thanks to them and Manto, my journey has just got more interesting and I have found a stronger voice.”

Sarmad Khoosat and actress and Television host Sania Saeed read out the works of the fiery writer Saadat Haasan Manto at a recent Poetic Strokes event at the Junction Dubai.

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