Can Manto be really accused of obscenity?

Classics Revisited

Khol do”, “kali salwar”, “thanda gosht”, are words that the audience hears in darkness and soon the sound of footsteps running helter-skelter establish that the play is somewhat connected to Manto.

But whether it is an adaptation of Manto’s works or an improvisation of the same is the question that looms large till the real action takes place on the stage.

Inside the compact auditorium, Sammukh at National School of Drama, the play – Dafa 292 directed by Anoop Trevedi – sets in motion and provides glimpses of not just Saadat Hasan Manto’s works but also his personal life.

As part of NSD’s Summer Theatre Festival, the play endeavours to commemorate Manto but ends up reviving the Urdu author’s spirit. 

Stigmatised as ‘obscene’, the writer’s obsession with prostitutes and keen interest to document trivial anecdotes is portrayed ably by Anoop through the actors of the NSD Repertory Company.

Considering the theme – Dafa 292 – the director installs different frames to let the spotlight fall in such a way that the ambience of a prison cell is created. To the viewer’s surprise, it is not just one or two but three actors who enact Manto at different stages of his life. 

Though all three are dressed in white kurta-pyjama, the young Manto is resurrected to depict the author’s love for alcohol and narrates the story Sabz Sandal. The older Manto present on the stage at the same time, narrates the story Akkal Dadh.

But certain scenes such as the moment where the older Manto goes looking for a matchstick to light his pipe and young Manto offers him a match, subtly add depth to the performance.

In addition, the interplay of dialogues between Manto and his wife is rendered alternating between younger and older Manto thus linking his works. Where linkages are not possible, Anoop changes the scene with minimum props and a lot of recorded sound to create a station platform. Manto’s short story Teen Khamosh Auratein comes alive in a hilarious manner as the repertory’s female actors Sajida, Ishita Chakraborty and Savith B make the audience laugh aloud with their nonstop gossips. Moreover, the antics of the bookseller’s helpless helper who is unable to sleep in the din, infuses much hilarity in the act. 

Clearly this comedy communicates well because of the efforts of the director who presents the case of Manto, being tried under Section 292 for indulging in obscene writing, through captivating stagecraft infused with ample doses of comedy, that allow even a layman to digest the seriousness of the issue. Supported well by Sauti Chakravorty on lights, the director showcases his love for Manto through poetic dialogues that define the writer’s life from the perspective of a theatre-person.

In the concluding scene where the bookseller and a commoner offer prayers to Allah to make Manto like everybody else who don’t mention about the wrongdoings of others, seriousness seeps in and provides a befitting end to the 90-minute tale.    
                      It is, however, the heart-wrenching thumris and the jovial manner in which the cast take a bow that add charm to this biographical depiction of Manto, keeping him alive in our hearts.

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