Stars From Another Sky – The Bombay Film World of the 1940s

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Item Code: IHL569
Author: Saadat Hasan Manto
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 1998
ISBN: 9780143415367
Pages: 231
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.7 inch X 5.0 inch
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Book Description
About the Book

The pieces that make up this book were written by Saadat Hasan Manto between 1948 and 1954. His nostalgia for Bombay, where he lived from 1936 until January 1948, barring a year and a half in Delhi in the early forties, intensified with time. Till his tragic and early death at the age of 43 in Lahore in 1955, he never really overcame the sense of loss he felt about the city that he had loved and left.

His life in Lahore where he came to live - his wife Safia and his infant daughters were already there—was hard. The movie industry, what there was of it before independence, now lay in ruins. In Bombay, Manto was among the industry’s leading film writers and free of any financial pressures. He worked with people who were his close friends, men like Ashok Kumar, S. Mukerjee and Savak Vacha. His best friend Shyam also lived in Bombay. That was his world and he had turned his back on it because he was deeply disturbed by the growing religious hatred which he felt was raising its ugly head even in what was once a secular industry. He left Bombay on an impulse and kept wondering for the rest of his days if he had taken the right decision.

In La More, except for one film which flopped badly at the box office, he did not get any work. Most writers subsisted on their writings for radio but Manto was placed on the banned list. The list was never officially acknowledged but was maintained all the same. What money he made was either through token royalties from his books or newspaper and magazine writings. Almost all the pieces which appear in this book were written for Afaq, an Urdu daily newspaper from Lahore, and Director, a popular film monthly, edited by Chaudhri Fazle Haq. So hard up was Manto, that he was known to sometimes walk in, ask for some paper, sit down in a corner, produce a piece in an hour or so, ask to be paid and walk out. Even when he had no money, which was most of the time, he would have a tonga waiting for him on the street while he did his rounds. Many of the tongawalas of Lahore knew him and would not insist on being paid if he told them that he was a bit short of cash that day. Whenever he came by any, he would pay them generously.

Lack of work and i1l—health not with standing, it was in Lahore during the last seven years of his life that Manto produced some of the greatest short stories written in any language, especially his masterpieces about the holocaust of the partition of India. One of these, ‘Thanda Ghost’, was declared obscene by the Punjab government —and he was tried and convicted, though the judgment of the lower court was later set aside in appeal. He recalled that period in a postscript to his book Ganjay Frishtay where most of the pieces that make up this collection first appeared in book form:

‘I felt utterly lost. I wasn’t sure what I should do. Should I stop writing altogether, or should I write recklessly, unconcerned with its consequences? A strange listlessness had taken hold of me. Sometimes I wished they would give me a lucrative piece of property so that I would be free of financial worry—and this entire business of reading and writing, for some years at least. I dreamt of becoming a different person who would no longer think, preferring to make a living selling contraband goods for profit, or producing illicit liquor. The last possibility I crossed out from my list of alternative lifestyles because I was afraid I would drink half the produce myself. Contraband goods I could not trade because it needed capital and I had none.’

While everyone with the slightest influence was busy grabbing rich properties abandoned by the Hindus and Sikhs who had fled across the border to India, Manto got nothing because someone reported to the authorities that he was a ‘most dangerous progressive’. Ironically, the Progressive Writers Movement had already declared him a ‘reactionary’. Manto said in a later account that he decided, therefore, that he should do the only thing he knew, namely write. But the question was what theme or topic was he going to write on. After ‘much thought’ he came to the conclusion that he would write about the actors and actresses he had known and worked with in Bombay. His first piece published in the newspaper Afaq was on Naseem. In Manto’s words:

‘I was happy that I had found a way out and would be safe from the government’s ire and those others who want all writing to be ‘clean’. I was wrong. The moment the piece appeared, there was an uproar. The newspaper received scores of letters denouncing the author . . . And when ‘Murli ki Dhun’, my piece on Shyam, was published, one woman, a Nayyar Bano from Sialkot, wrote a long letter to the editor which made me feel very sorry for her. Here are some excerpts from it:

She felt lowered in her own eyes by merely looking at a picture, as if she had violated someone’s privacy. I did not want her to suffer a shock; she might not survive the experience.

‘I have no doubt that Nayyar Bano is among those sick and morbid people who should be pitied. In my view, there is only one way to bring them back to health. They should be forced to witness thousands of bottles of liquor being opened with their corks flying all over the place, and their contents poured into a pool. After that one should put dust in one’s hair, pull them out in big tufts, scream every obscenity one knows—and if one can’t do it oneself men should be hired for the purpose—read aloud every filthy advertisement for aphrodisiacs and remedies for private male and female ailments from magazines such as Shama, Beesween Saddi and Roman, not once but repeatedly. And if this medicine does not result in a cure, then Saadat Hasan Manto should be asked to pick up one of Nayyar Bano’s old shoes and beat himself repeatedly on the head with it.’

Another correspondent complained that Manto had shown disrespect to the dead by writing about their sexual peccadilloes and exposing their weaknesses instead of drawing a veil over their failings and saying something nice about them. He also complained that Manto’s writing was so morally depraved that no ‘lady of the house’ or children or young girls could be exposed to it. Manto dealt with this correspondent with characteristic relish, in the process laying down his literary manifesto. He wrote:

‘If I have committed a sin, then I have committed it consciously. I am assured by the correspondent that in every civilized country and culture, only good words are used to remember those who have passed on, even if they were enemies while they lived. Only their virtues are highlighted; their faults are glossed over and ignored. If that is what indeed happens, then I pronounce a thousand curses on that civilized country and society where every dead person’s character and personality is carted off to a laundry so that it can come back all clean and white, ready to be hanged with the placard saying ‘of blessed memory’.

‘In my reform house, I keep no combs, curlers or shampoos because I do not know how to apply make—up on people. If Agha Hashr was cross-eyed, I have no device with which I can straighten his crooked eye, nor can I make him shed flowers from his mouth instead of the abuse he always did. Nor can I purify the deviant character of Meeraji, in the same way as I have not been able to make my friend Shyam describe self-important women as anything but salis. Every angel who has come to my facility has been barbered thoroughly and in style so that not a single hair was left standing on his head.’

Manto’s great work was produced during these years of hardship and emotional uncertainty. He was devoted to his wife and three daughters, but the thought always gnawed at his heart that he could not keep them in comfort. He worried about the future and what would happen to them if he died. Then there was his drinking, which, under control and well in hand in Bombay because of the regularity of his life and a set daily work routine, became progressively worse in Lahore, as did the company in which he drank. It was a vicious circle. A younger friend of his from Amritsar, the Punjabi poet Ahmed Rahi, when asked about Manto’s death, replied, ‘He began to die the moment he left Bombay.’

The happiest years of Manto’s life had been spent in the film world of Bombay and it was that time he now re-lived in his writings. The nostalgia of these pieces is deep and what lends poignancy to them is the unhappy and harsh circumstances under which they were written.

Manto first came to Bombay from his native Amritsar in 1936 to work for the film weekly Mussawar owned by Nazir Ludhianwi. He was paid a monthly salary of forty rupees. In 1940, after an argument with Ludhianwi, he resigned. When the legendary film journalist Babu Rao Patel of Film India learnt about it, he invited Manto to take over Karwan, an Urdu journal he owned. Manto stayed there for seven months only, but by then his career as a screenwriter had begun to take off. He worked for many companies but his most happy and fruitful years, both creatively and in economic terms, were spent at Bombay Talkies and Filmistan.

Manto wrote in 1950 that for the first three months after his arrival in Pakistan in January 1948, he lived in a daze, unable to collect his thoughts or, in his words, ‘to dissociate India from Pakistan and Pakistan from India’. In the end, he said, he stopped thinking about it. ‘All day long I would loiter around, without aim or purpose, listen to others but say nothing myself. All conversations appeared to me to be empty and pointless . . . but my aimless loitering did me one good. The dust in my mind started to settle and I began to write, initially only light pieces.’

Manto’s love affair with Bombay lasted throughout his life. His powerful memoir about his friend Shyam sums up his feelings about Bombay and the trauma of Partition. ‘I found it impossible to decide which of the two countries was now my homeland - India or Pakistan? In the summer of 1952, in an appendix to one of his finest collections Yazid, he recalled his days in Bombay and wrote about the city he considered the best thing that had ever happened to him:

‘I want to say that there is great sadness in my heart today, a strange melancholy. Four and a half years ago when I bade farewell to my other home, Bombay, I felt the way I feel today. I was sad at leaving a city where I had spent the hardest, the happiest and the most memorable time of my life. That strip of land which is Bombay had taken me, a footloose young man rejected by his family, into its vast lap and said to me, ‘You can be happy here on two pennies a day or on hundreds of thousands of rupees. You can also be the world’s most miserable person, regardless of what you earn. It will be entirely up to you. Here you can do what you like; no one will speak ill of you. And no one will tell you what to do or moralize to you. No matter how difficult things become, you will have to deal with them yourself. You and you alone will take every important decision of your life, without interference or help. If you so choose, you may sleep on the street; or it is possible you may find yourself living in a palace. It will be of no consequence to me whatsoever. You may even leave if you like, or stay; but as far as I am concerned, it will make not the least difference. I am where I am and will continue to remain where I am.

‘I stayed in Bombay for twelve years. And what I am, I am because of those years. Today I find myself living in Pakistan. It is possible that tomorrow I may go to live elsewhere. But wherever I go, I will remain what Bombay made me. Wherever I live, I will carry Bombay with me. When I left Bombay, I was sad at leaving it. That was where I had formed the most lasting friendships of my life, friendships of which I am proud. That was where I had got married, where my first child was born, where my second child began the first day of her life. There were times in Bombay when I did not have enough to eat; and there were times when I was making vast sums of money and living it up. That was the city I loved. That is the city I still love.’

This collection invokes and recreates Manto’s beloved city and the friends with whom he worked and shared his life for twelve years. The documentary value of these pieces apart, they are also memorable literature, stamped as they are with Saadat Hasan Manto’s unique and lively genius.

Unforgettable reminiscences about the eccentric, glamorous, yet angst-ridden Hindi film world of the 1940s

Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the greatest short story writers of the Urdu language, was also a film journalist and story-writer for the Hindi film industry in Bombay. As an insider he was privy to the most private moments of the men and women who have dazzled generations of audiences.

In this series of sketches, Ashok Kumar, the screen idol of yore, emerges as a shy, yet brilliant actor, forever looking to flee the eager advances of his female fans; Nargis comes across as just another young girl looking for companionship among her peers before she steps on the ladder that will forever take her away from the comforts of an ordinary middle - class life; and Shyam—the ‘ dashing, handsome hero—is portrayed as a straightforward, flirtatious young man pining for the woman he loves.

Manto also describes in detail the obsessions of Sitara Devi; the unfulfilled desires of Paro Devi; and the intriguing twists and turns which transform Neena Devi from an ordinary housewife into a pawn in the hands of film companies. He writes with relish about the bunglings of the comedian V.H. Desai and the incredible dedication of Nawab Kaashmiri to the art of acting. There are also stories about the rise of Nur Jehan as the greatest singer of her times; and the various peccadilloes of the musician, Rafiq Ghaznavi.

With subjects ranging from film journalism to the sexual eccentricities of these stars, Manto brings to life a generation with his characteristic verve and honesty.


About the Book vii
Ashok Kumar: The Evergreen Hero 1
V.H. Desai: God’s Clown 20
Rafiq Ghaznavi: The Ladies’ Man 32
Shyam: Krishna’s Flute 53
Kuldip Kaur: Too Hot to Handle 78
Nargis: Narcissus of Undying Bloom 85
Naseem: The Fairy Queen 103
Nawab Kaashmiri: Actor’s Actor 120
Neena: The Inscrutable Housewife 125
Nur Jehan: One in a Million 139
Paro Devi: Girl from Meerut 172
Babu Rao Patel: Soft-hearted Iconoclast 182
Sitara: Dancing Tigress from Nepal 195
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