Saadat Hasan Manto, apart from being 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 a 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. Manto 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.
All this has been captured in the book Stars From Another Sky, which is an English translation of these sketches by Khalid Hasan. Below is an excerpt from the book, from the portrait written on Ashok Kumar:
The religious killings were now at their height. One day Ashok and I were returning from Bombay Talkies. We stopped at his place, where I stayed for several hours, and then he offered to drop me home in the evening. He took a short cut through a Muslim neighbourhood. A wedding procession led by a band was approaching us from the other side of the street. I was horrified. ‘Dadamoni, why have you come here?’ ‘Don’t you worry,’ he said. He knew what I was thinking. But it failed to calm my nerves. We were in an area which no Hindu would dare enter. And the whole world knew Ashok was a Hindu, a very prominent at that, whose murder could create shock waves. I could remember no prayers in Arabic, nor an approporiate verse from the Koran. But I as cursing myself and praying in broken words. ‘O God, don’t let me be dishonoured…let no Muslim kill Ashok because if that happens, I will carry that guilt to my grave. I am not the entire Muslim nation. I am only an individual but I do not want the Hindu nation to curse me for ever and ever if something happens to Ashok.
When the procession reached the car, some people spotted Ashok and began to scream, ‘Ashok Kumar…Ashok Kumar.’ I went cold. Ashok had his hands on the steering wheel and was very quiet. I was about to scream to the crowd that I was a Muslim and Ashok was taking me home when two young men stepped forward and said, ‘Ashok bhai, this street will lead you nowhere. It is best to turn into this side lane.’
Ashok bhai? If Ashok was their brother, then who was I? I looked at my clothes which were homespun cotton..had they thought I was another Hindu? Or had they not even noticed me because of Ashok? When we got out of the area< I relaxed and thanked God. Ashok laughed ‘You were nervous for nothing. These people never harm artistes.’
A few days later, at a meeting held to discuss a story written by Nazir Ajmeri – which was later filmed as Majboor – I made some critical remarks, suggesting changes. Nazir turned to Ashok and Vacha and said ‘You should not let Manto sit in on such meetings. Since he is a story writer himself, he is prejudiced.’
It upset me and I felt that it was time I took a decision. I thought about it for several days but couldn’t make up my mind. Then I said to myself, ‘Manto bhai, this street will lead you nowhere. It is best to turn into this side lane.’
So I took the side lane which brought me to Pakistan where I was soon tried for obscenity for writing a story called ‘Thanda Gosht’.
To read the entire piece on Ashok Kumar in English, taken from the book Stars From Another Sky, click here: Ashok Kumar – Stars From Another Sky
The Hindi translation, taken from a book called Meena Bazaar, is here: Ashok Kumar – Meena Bazaar
Urduwallahs celebrate 100 Years of Saadat Hasan Manto!