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The Bollywood Manto And Chughtai Wrote About Hasn’t Changed Much

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“If a China dish cracks, you can see the crack clearly. But if a person’s inner being collapses like soft clay, nothing is visible to the naked eye. Dharam’s being was splintered into three pieces,” writes Urdu academic and translator Tahira Naqvi in her translation of Ismat Chughtai’s novel Ajeeb Admi (A Very Strange Man).

Such was the toll the film world took on stalwart Guru Dutt, thinly veiled as Dharam Dev in the roman a clef published six years after the Kaaghaz Ke Phool star ended his own life.

About a year ago, Sushant Singh Rajput looked like he had it all — talent, looks, fame, and brains. Unfortunately, he too met with the same fate as Guru Dutt even after tasting some success in the industry.

“Having been a filmmaker and screenwriter as well as a litterateur, Chughtai knew the exploitative, unscrupulous, and carnal ways of the film industry. Saadat Hasan Manto, also a screenwriter, too knew how aspiring and established thespians or their parents who pushed them into this line of work, navigated the seedy landscape of Bombay cinema,” elaborates Naqvi.

Chughtai’s novels Ajeeb Admi and Masooma (also translated by Naqvi), Manto’s Ganjey Farishtey (Stars From Another Sky in English) and his short stories, chronicled the grime that exists alongside the glamour in the film world. Many speculate that it was the ruthless atmosphere of Bollywood that extracted a heavy toll on Rajput.

These literary gems about such unsavoury realities have aged better than more recent Bollywood-insider flicks that just fleetingly touch upon uncomfortable truths.

Because only towards the end of the Zoya Akhtar-directed film Luck By Chance does Dimple Kapadia’s character tell her pampered daughter — whose first break in the movies came easy — about her tortured path into the business.

Unlike her mother, the daughter did not have to live in a small chawl with her large family, get beaten by an abusive father who forced her into movies at age six, and be rented out as a prostitute to producers for money and roles.

Innocence for sale

In Masooma, the titular character is peddled to a mid-level producer Ahmed Bhai by his lower-level counterpart. When Ahmed Bhai begins to savagely have his way with her at an adolescent age, a wounded Masooma runs back crying to her mother. Instead of consoling her daughter, she lambasts her with the choicest expletives for leaving the first of many “clients” hanging dry.

Retired University of Hyderabad Urdu Professor, short-story writer, Sahitya Akademi Award winner and former editor of the Urdu magazine Filmi Tasveerein Baig Ehsaas adds, “Not only did parents pull themselves out of poverty through their daughters’ incomes from acting and other extracurriculars. Those earnings also bankrolled luxurious lifestyles for the whole family and convent educations for the rest of their children.”

Why Does the Film Industry Need Good Men?”

In Manto’s non-fiction short story Janaki, whose translation can be found in the Matt Reek and Aftab Ahmad-translated compilation Bombay Stories, he asks one question to an aspiring starlet looking to get into films.

“Why does the film industry need good men?”

This is Manto’s trademark satirical response to Janaki when she asks if two of Manto’s star friends are “good” men. After all, she too harboured notions of the film world being a glorified brothel where actors, producers, and directors doubled as pimps.

In the present-day, stories of artists who lived to tell about their casting couch and MeToo episodes haven’t done much to dispel that perception.

Pointing out one difference between the exploitation of women in the present and bygone days, Ehsaas informs, “There were some folks from educated backgrounds and economically stable backgrounds in the movie business. Though it was women who were primarily pushed into the profession by their elders. In this age, social media, literature, and industry-insider stories give an idea to showbiz aspirants as to what awaits them as strugglers. Yet outsiders who are vulnerable to exploitation willingly flock to the industry.”

Although Ehsaas maintains that there are good and bad people in every profession.

Of Exceptions and Chips Off the Old Block

In a milieu where stories-cum-open secrets of A-list heroes and heroines partaking in extra marital affairs only provide more fodder for gossip, Ashok Kumar was an exception. He is one of the 13 1940s iconic film personalities Manto profile in Ganjey Farishtey.

Manto sketches a unique portrait of a talented actor indifferent to the charms of women who courted him vigorously. This was quite the aberration in a backdrop where men exploited the opposite sex and had a carte blanche to take advantage of them.

“ ‘Yaar Manto…I just do not have the courage.’ Courage he certainly lacked, which was a good thing for his marriage. I am sure his wife, Shobha, was happy about her husband’s timidity, praying that he would never lose it,” writes the iconoclastic storyteller.

In the same collection is a snapshot of Shyam as a hotheaded alpha-male. That too, one who would sometimes smash beer bottles and glasses if someone began philosophizing or fell silent during gatherings.

Yet, he has a soft spot for children.

This description conjures up the larger-than-life self-projection exercise that was the movie Kick and the polarizing persona of its main lead, Salman Khan. Like Khan, Shyam too was not a “believer in the fig leaf called marriage.”

The Cabaret-cum-Item Number

Salman Khan’s stepmother Helen is known as the queen of cabaret, which Dharam Dev (ergo Guru Dutt) brought to Indian cinema. Tahira Naqvi states, “The story of the Indian Cabaret began with Guru Dutt. Due to him, the song sequence where a beautiful dancer performs in a club or hotel became a fixture in movies.”

The cabaret number has a present-day successor in the form of the item song which can take place in an urban nightclub or rural North India. While there was no denying the elements of sensuality in cabaret, the item song is much more salacious.

The Ajeeb Admi and Masooma translator expounds, “Be it the background artists or the sultry dancer herself, they were all Anglo-Indian Christians.”

“If the heroine is thin and scrawny get her rubber hips and a bust from a high-class chemist’s shop, if she’s fat—which most successful heroines are after a few films—then dress her in tight clothes, wrap her in elastic belts and take camera shots to make her appear thin as a stick,” writes Chughtai in Masooma.

Naqvi further expands, “As these numbers caught on, cabaret queen Helen and Cuckoo began disrobing while dancing. And if there is going to be a more of a skin show, globs of flesh aren’t exactly appealing to audiences.”

The cabaret song wasn’t only inspired by the funky western dance moves or glitzy outfits, but its peppy music too.

However, many item songs today take a page from more risqué modern-day hip-hop and EDM (electronic dance music) content. These two genres and the contemporary item tune have always been criticized for their objectification of women.

To a similar extent, “Today men are also objectified in the same vein as women on celluloid,” laments Naqvi. “These days, even if a male actor plays a homeless pauper, there is no telling when he could just take off his shirt, expose his bulging muscles, and began dancing,” she adds.

Nepotism & nationalism

In terms of letting actors from non-filmi khaandaans into the industry, Bollywood was not the fiefdom of certain dynasties as it is seen today. With the patriarchs of those dynasties having struggled decades ago, they paved a smoother path to initial stardom for their progeny.

Yet, there were definitely some hierarchies where the Director deemed any kind of creative input by a subordinate as defiance.

“The hero is ineffective, the heroine is giving everyone the run-around, there is no recourse in sight, and the frustration and anger resulting from all this is vented on the assistant. All budding talents are stifled and intellectual potential is trampled underfoot,” reveals Chughtai in Ajeeb Admi.

In 2017 through a viral AIB musical skit, Kangana Ranaut bravely lampooned how similar dynamics still play out on sets. Though in that parody, the hero instead has the once all-powerful Director wrapped around his finger.

More recently, by broadcasting her political views via social media, Ranaut followed in the footsteps of film journalist and Manto’s friend Baburao Patel. Towards 1947, as British India became polarized along communal lines, Manto had the following to say about his compatriot who began harbouring ill will against Muslims in Ganjey Farishtey:

“What is particularly tragic is to see an artist succumbing to hatred and bigotry. It should not be in the nature of an artist to hurt others, Baburao Patel was an artist but he degenerated into an ordinary mortal.”

When it comes to the more recent spate of films that are more about othering minorities and less about entertainment, today most of the industry also seems like a group of ordinary mortals. Hence, between now and the periods when Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai were penning Ajeeb Admi, Masooma, Ganjey Farishtey, and Janaki, one thing is clear.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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