आज़ादी विशेषांक / Freedom Special

अंक 13 / Issue 13

Why I Don’t Go to the Movies: Saadat Hasan Manto

For a long time I’ve wanted someone to ask me why I don’t go to the movies.  At home I’ll get asked over and over why I don’t eat okra, and my friends have long wanted to know why I don’t wear Western pants.  Then both at home and elsewhere people have asked me why I don’t keep my hair shorter.  But no one has fulfilled my wish and gone to the trouble of asking me why I don’t go to the movies.  Those who know me know that for a long time I was completely enamored with the cinema, that I would watch three movies a day, and I would watch over and over those I really liked.  I would travel from Amritsar to Lahore or Jalandhar or elsewhere to see them, and I remember that I went all the way to Delhi for one starring my favorite heroine.  But then I stopped going to the movies altogether.

When friends used to ask me to go with them to a movie, I would say, “I don’t go to the movies anymore,” and wait eagerly for them to ask why.  But they never would.  One friend slammed his car door saying, “Oh, okay,” and then drive away.  Another smiled but instead of asking why remarked that I was strange.  Another said, just like a penny-pinching shop owner, “Great, more money for me.”  But at long last today the awaited opportunity has come.

Once upon a time I knew all the actors’ and actresses’ names, their addresses, and how old they were—from Eddy Polo to John Gilbert, from Mary Pickford to Gloria Swanson.  Lillian Gish had a sister named Dorothy, and I still remember how tall they were, and if someone mentions Paul Robeson, I’ll start thinking about Robinson Crusoe and the taste of ginger spreads through my mouth.  If my friends start talking about the acting of Shanta Veen, Shanta Hublikar, or Shanta Mazumdar, then I’ll yell out, “ShantiShanti!”  But now I don’t have any interest in the fairy-faced Naseem Banu, in the vixen Vena, in doe-eyed Ragni, in the bewitching Suraiya, or in the fair and statuesque Shameem.  Maybe you’ll think I’ve renounced the world and become an ascetic, that I’ve smeared ashes over my body and make a habit of tramping up to the mountains to meditate.  But no, I’m still here in the very same world as you, that one full of colors and smells, although who knows what will happen tomorrow.  I still eat, drink, sleep, get up, and appreciate good stories.  Good poetry still thrills me.  But, dear readers, I don’t go to the movies.

Once upon a time I decorated my room exclusively with posters of actors and actresses.  I loved them so much that I made frames with my own hands, but these days all you’ll see are cartoons drawn by Dasan, whose specialty is the psychology of monkeys.  Just try to imagine how such a transformation took place.

It was as though I worshipped in a beautiful pavilion of the gods where each evening I attained inner peace by performing offerings before my favorite actors.  But then something happened that ruptured my faith entirely, and I blew out all the candles and stomped on all the flowers.  Was I possessed by Ghaznavi?  No, it was something quite different.  Some don’t go to the cinema because they have conjunctivitis; some don’t because they fall asleep as soon as the film begins; some don’t because they’re too easily moved to tears and so love scenes make their hearts race out of control; and some don’t because they think that films are the work of the devil.  But none of these is my reason.  While I do have poor vision, that’s not it because I’m always wearing glasses.  Then my heart’s strong enough, knock on wood.  (For proof, I have a cardiogram read-out.)  Lastly, I think of films as something that people watch for fun.  So why is it that I’ve stopped watching them?

If those people who know me as a film writer hear that I no longer watch movies, they’ll be especially surprised.  They’ll wonder why a man who writes screenplays, writes dialogue, and almost even acted in one film (moreover who has spent about ten years in the film industry doing this and that), why this man no longer watches films.  Without a doubt, they’ll think I’m lying.

But, dear readers, God forbid that!  If I’m lying, let some actress come on Judgment Day to seek amends.  I’m telling you the truth.  It was lies and only lies that made me sick of the movies.  If this is a lie, let me go to hell.  But it’s not—I really don’t watch movies anymore.

This anecdote is from twelve years ago.  I tried four times to break into the film studios (the very Somnath of Bombay) and at last I succeeded in getting in—an important day in my life.  There was an intimidating Pathan guard standing in front of the gate, but I slipped by.  As soon as I entered, I heard a voice resonating all around me, “I smell human flesh!  I smell human flesh!”  A dark-skinned woman passed by, and I desperately wanted her to fall in love with me and, like the heroine in Arabian Nights, use some magic to turn me into a fly so that I could escape the upcoming calamity.  But instead she walked away, thrusting her hips out sexily, unconscious of me.  Suddenly a commotion arose, and I saw a large group of men appear from a corner wearing armor and wielding drawn swords, then leap around chaotically before disappearing into a large stable.  One dropped his sword in the process.  Though scared, I wanted to pick it up, and as I slowly reached out my hand, I realized the sword was made of wood.

I wet my thumb and was running it along the sword’s blade when an enormous mustachioed demon appeared in front of me.  He was just about to set off for the gate when a voice broke over the scene, “Hey, where’re you going with our stuff?”

The demon froze in place, and in a trembling voice he asked, “What’s wrong, sir?”

“Whose mustache is that?” The other man, whom I mistook to be King Indra from some previous production, asked in a terrifying voice.

“Sir, well, it’s mine,” said the demon in a humble voice, as he twisted his mustache.

This seemed to satisfy the other man.  “You can go now.”

The demon was free to go, meaning they didn’t want him.  The other man—the producer—turned to me and gave me work right on the spot.  The next day I learned my name was no longer Saadat Hasan Manto but merely “Writer,” and that my job was to run to the store every five minutes to get the director some paan and otherwise not make a peep.  Then, whenever I had a free moment, I was to write out whatever dialogue he recited in his broken Urdu and not make any suggestions.

In those days I didn’t care much about Urdu, and so when the director made a mistake, I didn’t really care.  But, dear readers, one day it became rather serious.  The producer came up to the director and shaking his hand said triumphantly that he had sold the rights for their thirteen film.  The director congratulated him and asked what it was called, and the producer smiled and said, “You’ll really like it … Pharj-e-ada.”  The director turned to me and in trying to correct the producer’s pronunciation said, “Mr. Writer, please start writing a film called Farj-e-ada.  But before that get me some throat lozenges …”

I interrupted, “Throat lozenges, betel nut, some chuna on my finger, one Pasang Soop cigarette … I’ll bring you these right away, but the title Farz-e-ada is completely wrong.”

“What did you say?” The producer asked angrily.

“I said that what you said just now doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why?” asked the director.

“Because it’s completely wrong,” I said.  “You can say Adaegi-e-farz, or even Farz-e-adaegi, or I suppose you could stretch it to Ada-e-farz—people will be able to make some sense out of that too.  But for God’s sake please don’t use Farz-e-ada.”

The producer stared at me.  “You’re out of your mind.  There’s no way to change the title, we’ve already sold the film.”

This made me very upset, and so I up and quit.

The story of how I quit my second film company is similar.  It was proposed that we name a new film Ullu ke do pathe.  I objected, as the title should have been Do ullu ke pathe.  But it stuck and they said to me, “Who’re you anyway?  We’re paying for it so if we want it call it Pathe ke do ullu then we’ll go ahead and call it that.”  So the shooting began and I quit.

From that time forward I began to have a bad feeling about films, and within several years it grew to be an unbearable frustration.

After working in some rinky-dink film companies, I finally found a job at a well-known studio that made accomplished films.  I worked there as a writer for four years and in the process slowly laid to rest my interest in watching films.  The entire story of this burial is long and drawn-out, but I have only several columns in which to recount a number of anecdotes:

(1) There was an actress famous for her horsemanship.  But when she was about to do her horse-riding scene, I saw that a wooden horse was being brought onto the set.  The horse wasn’t even a full one but only the part where she’d be sitting in the saddle.  It didn’t even have a face or tail.  Three men hoisted the actress onto this strange-looking horse.  Then the lights went on.  The director shouted, “Action!”  Quickly one of the stagehands put the reins in her hands and another gently maneuvered this wooden horse to make it look as though it were galloping.  The filming of this scene went on for a while.  Then the next day was an outdoor shoot.  A horse-riding master from the circus dressed up in the actress’s choli and sari and mounted a horse that reared so often and was so restless that others couldn’t lay a hand on it.  Various shots were filmed and afterwards everything was stitched together so well that when I saw the film it seemed to me as though the actress were really doing everything.

Then they needed a close-up of the actress’s “beautiful” hand, but in fact this knockout had extremely ugly fingers, and so the director immediately called for ten or twelve girls.  One of them had nice hands.  She got a little makeup work done to them, and then the director took his close-up and spliced this into the film.  It reminded me of a line Ghalib wrote, “Everyone has a complaint against God lodged in his heart.”

(2) They wanted to make it seem like a tempest was raging, and so on the set men were making rain by sprinkling water from watering cans.  Then to the side there was an airplane’s rotors powered by a motor, and very close by two men were holding baskets of twigs and leaves and were tossing handfuls of these into the wind created by the enormous makeshift fan.  The sky was a piece of cloth.  One man switched the motor’s power switch on and off, and another was rattling a huge sheet of aluminum.  When I saw all this on the screen, I got goose bumps.  It seemed like it was raining cats and dogs.  The trees were bending under the storm’s might and their branches were screeching beneath the ferocious lightning storm.  And the hero was standing rowing a boat with a manly sangfroid.

(3) Milk is boiling in a cauldron.  But in fact it’s whitewash.

(4) It’s snowing in the Valley of Kashmir.  But it’s only a handful of workers scattering tiny slices of soap and pieces of paper from above some fake cypress trees.      (5) A fantastic fog has descended, and the hero and heroine are wrapped up in each other saying sweet nothings.  But smoke from the dry grass being burned on the set is suffocating them.

(6) The heroine and the hero are joking around before shooting begins.  The makeup man drops a little glycerin into the heroine’s eyes, and behold, she’s crying like an elephant!

(7) Someone is singing.  The actor is lip-synching.

(8) A wooden phone rests on a table.  A man stands close by holding a small bell.  He shakes it, and the hero quickly picks up the receiver as though the call were real.

(9) The heroine’s hair is cut short, but on the screen she looks like an actress in a hair-oil commercial.

(10) It’s a fight scene.  No one makes any contact, but two or three men fall down and don’t get up.

(11) There’s a bowl of fruit on a table.  But only the banana that the hero’s father will eat is real, and the rest are made of clay.

(12) The sun is scorching hot but put a red filter on the camera and suddenly the scene is filled with the moon’s cool light.

(13) There aren’t any zebras around but get a donkey and throw some black and white stripes on it and there you have your zebra.

(14) A man pops a bit of flour into his mouth.  He has poisoned himself, and everyone around is wailing and lamenting.

(15) People are falling, but turn your camera upside down and it will seem like people are leaping upwards, as though they have springs in their legs.  The audience will erupt in applause.

Dear readers, seeing all these tricks repeated time and again made me bitter.  When I sat in the cinema and with the fellow members of the audience saw the heroine’s fake eyelashes and the glycerin tears that fell from them, I thought of the English proverb, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.”  The movies had made me cry once too often.

The cinema is such delusion and those in the film industry get sucked into it too—they can’t tell anymore that it’s a delusion!  Please God, let there not come a day when I return to watching movies.

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  1. I, generally, reserve only one emotion in favour of Manto’s writing- nothing that can be described in a single word or expression- but, a sensation that develops out of the pure sense of irony with which Manto writes. He is investigating and castigating at the same time, because all he receives from the world is filth. He is meandering along the succulent environs of irony without as much as preening in its glory or rewarding himself for acquiring the sharp intellect to detect its several vicissitudes. In fact, the very crux of Manto’s imagination is to lay bare, expose in all its nakedness- the burden of his existence- the quest to shun the urge to self-deceive.

  2. So, the point is…everything here is fake. But look at the other way, look at the pains in creating that perfect shot. It is fascinating. May be seeing it over and over again, could have put you off, but for outsiders it is interesting!
    When I joined advertising, I also had a wide-eyed moment when I came to know that icecreams shown in advertisements are actually colored boiled potatoes! Because the ice-creams would melt in those high wattage lights and also it takes a lot of time to get that perfect shot!

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