Storm raged on banning film ‘Manto’ in Pakistan, Pak civil society protests “don’t divide literary legend

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A storm continues to rage in Pakistan’s civil society over a month after the country’s Censor Board banned ‘MANTO’ the Indian film made by actor-director Nandita Das.

But given the current climate in Pakistan that treats media, if critical, as adversary and the India-Pakistan relations, with resumption of border incidents and mutual accusations, the ban is unlikely to be lifted. While people have yearned for Indian films, many past governments have banned entry of Indian films.

An online campaign is now on in Pakistan where many feel angry at being denied viewing of the film on the literary legacy of Saadat Hasan Manto, who belonged as much to Pakistan as to undivided India. They say Manto remains the most-read Urdu writer across the world.

The refrain of those who are protesting is that past prejudices and proclivities continue to bedevil Pakistan, even though the present government of Prime Minister Imran Khan talks of “Naya Pakistan.”

“Manto was deprived of freedom of expression in his life and after so many years he’s still facing the same oppression,” protesters say.

Some in Pakistan are pushing a nationalistic narrative around the ban by creating a divide between Indian Manto vs Pakistani Manto, the latter being made in Pakistan by Sarmad Khusat who also performed the leads role.

 To which Das took to Facebook and shared: “The last thing we want to do to Manto and his legacy is to make it India vs Pakistan or Indian Manto vs Pakistani Manto or Sarmad Khoosat Official vs Nawazuddin Siddiqui. In fact I feel there should be many Mantos. More the merrier!”

Manto, Das’ second feature film, premiered in UnCertain Regard in Cannes this year and has been picked up by festivals including Sydney, Toronto and Busan. The film traces the life of controversial subcontinent writer brought to life in the film by Indian actor Nawazuddin Siddiqi.

Das is popular among the Pakistani viewers as a film maker and as an actor who featured in Deepa Mehta’s film ‘Earth’ (1998) based on a novel by Pakistani writer Bapsy Sidhwa. She expressed her anguish at the ban: “To divide Saadat Hasan Manto, the celebrated Urdu writer, along the lines of nationality would be the ultimate irony. He took the Partition so much to heart that it broke him. So I was very keen for the film to be released simultaneously in India and Pakistan. He equally belonged to both countries and that is why I wanted the film to be released in them simultaneously,” she wrote.

On January 14, writers, actors, human rights activists and academic held a demonstration in front of the Lahore Press Club urging the government to revoke the ban.

Salima Hashmi said: “Manto was screened all over the world and it won an award in Bangladesh but it was banned in the writer’s own country,” lamented journalist and secretary general of Manto Memorial Society Saeed Ahmed.

He said Manto himself was not treated well in Pakistan and when he came to Lahore after the Partition, his entry was banned into the radio station. The ‘new Pakistan’ under the PTI government was treating him the same way as he was treated in old Pakistan 10 years back, he said, appealing to the government to lift the ban on the movie. He said it was a countrywide protest as similar demonstrations against the ban on Manto were being held in Karachi and Peshawar.

Calling for the freedom of expression, painter Salima Hashmi said: “Manto was kept deprived of this right in his life and after so many years, he is still facing the same oppression.” She said Manto was the most read Urdu prose writer in the world, condemning the attitude of the government towards him.

Husain Naqi said Manto was the most-read and most-translated Pakistani writer who was known all over the world and banning the film made on his life could not be justified from any point of view. He also condemned the alleged government action against the Manto festival scheduled to be held at Alhamra Art Centre. “One of the best works on Partition and subsequent years are in the form of Manto’s short stories which are as important as poetry of Faiz Sahib,” he added.

Abdul Waheed of the Progressive Writers Association said the ban on film showed Manto was as unacceptable for the state institution as he was 70 years back which exposed the stagnation of society. He said the nation had not progressed socially, morally and intellectually.

Farooq Tariq of the Awami Workers Party praised Nandita Das’s film on Manto, saying the protest was against the ban on the movie that was screened across the world except in Pakistan. Writer Husssain Majrooh also spoke.

16 Indian films banned

Some 16 films have been banned in Pakistan in recent years for reasons ranging from being “anti-Pakistan”, “anti-Islam”, ‘vulgar’ for “explicit scenes” and “against Islamic culture.” While ban on some like “Ek Tha Tiger” or ‘Border’ or “Naam Shabana” can be understood since Pakistani characters feature in negative light, Manto has been banned for being ‘critical’ of India’s 1947 Partition.   

The general public also seems to agree that Pakistan bans everything which gives people a deep and real understanding of issues and history.

According to Pakistani daily Express Tribune (January 16), “An official of the Central Board of Film Certification revealed further details while choosing to stay anonymous. “To be honest, there was nothing objectionable in Manto that couldn’t have been salvaged by a few minor edits.”

The overarching concern of the officials was that the film does not subscribe to the correct version of the Partition.

Whether or not Manto will see the light of day is still to be seen. But the film was released on Netflix on November 30, so the debate over getting it cleared in Pakistan seems unnecessary. It can thus be viewed in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities say it is “not our headache.”

Pakistan’s Censor Board also raised the issue of “explicit scenes”, which confused Das as she claims there was no nudity in the film. She said, “It got a U/A certificate in India. Manto’s works were similarly labelled and they faced much neglect and years of obscenity trials. He was finally embraced in Pakistan in his centenary year in 2012 and posthumously conferred the highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. How can such honour be bestowed upon him when his work is still being considered inappropriate?”

Nandita Das says that to call her film ‘anti-Partition’ is “a startling way to criticise it.”

Many people in Pakistan have supported Das’ statement. “The ban has only vindicated all that he wrote and the madness he exposed till his last,” journalist Raza Rumi said in a tweet.

Nida Kirmani wrote: “This decision of the Censor Board to ban this beautiful film is absolutely infuriating.

Das further wrote: “the largest mass migration in the world to date – Partition has made an indelible mark on our shared history. But the trauma of Partition is more complex there than in India. I was sensitised to this during my first visit to Pakistan in 1996. As an Indian, I did not understand that for them, the pain of Partition violence and the joy of the birth of a new nation are deeply intertwined. Their very existence is linked to it. Yet, the reality of the violence cannot be ignored,” she wrote further into the article.

Following the film’s ban, an open letter has been penned by Manto’s daughters, Nughat and Nusrat, besides notable Pakistani journalists, activists and others. The letter reads as follows:

“Manto, a critically acclaimed film directed by Nandita Das, celebrates the life of an Urdu writer who chose Pakistan as his home during the Indian partition but is collectively owned and revered by the people of the subcontinent. The audiences and critics worldwide have appreciated the film. However, it is a matter of huge concern that the Pakistan Censor Board has recently decided to debar the film. The disappointing decision to ban the film has created a hue and cry among writers, poets, and intellectuals in the literary circles of Pakistan. The film ban is being hugely protested as it’s considered a threatening attack on creative and artistic freedom of expression. It is, therefore, appealed that the ban is dismissed with immediate effect.

Saadat Hassan Manto had faced persecution, torture and years of court trials during “Purana Pakistan”. Would the same dreadful fate befall the writers, particularly, ‘Manto’ in “Naya Pakistan”?

The letter was signed by I.A. Rehman, veteran Journalist and Rights Activist, Hussain Naqi, senior Journalist, Dr Sadat Saeed, PWA President,  Mirza Hamid Baig, Author, Salima Hashmi, Painter and Rights Activist,  Mohammad Tehseen, Director SAP-PK, Beena Sarwar, Journalist, Almas Jovindah, Advocate, Ali Jaffer Zaidi, Anti-war Activist, London, Saleem Asmi, Former Editor Dawn, Ammar Aziz, Documentary Filmmaker, Sehyr Mirza, Journalist and Peace Activist, Ammara Ahmed, Journalist, Maryam Saeed, Rights Activist, Nusrat Mirza, Social Activist and Saeed Ahmed, Journalist, Writer & Secretary General of Manto Memorial Society.