Prashansa Taneja is currently working on a translation of Upendranath Ashk’s memoir of his supposed enmity with Manto, “Manto: Mera Dushman”. Below is an excerpt which chronicles Manto and Ashk’s time together working at Filmistan in the early forties. The two first worked together in AIR Delhi along with Krishan Chander and other Hindi/Urdu writers. But after Ashk cruelly vetted the manuscript of a play he’d submitted, Manto quarreled with with the station director, quit his job and returned to Bombay to write for films. A year later, he made his peace with Ashk and invited him to work in Filmistan.
This excerpt describes how Manto got Ashok Kumar to film his story Aath Din instead of one written by Ashk. To take his revenge, Ashk, who played the comic role of Pundit Totaram in the film, created confusion on the set. Manto appeared in the film in a cameo role as a shell-shocked soldier. Aath Din, released in 1946, was also S.D. Burman’s first film.
From Upendranath Ashk’s Manto: Mera Dushman (“My Enemy, Manto”) published in 1956. Excerpted and translated from the Hindi by Prashansa Taneja.
The Story of Aath Din
My first film, which Nitin (Bose) Babu directed, was Mazdoor; the second was Safar, which was directed by Bibhuti Mitra. I wrote the dialogues for both the films and, in this way, the first one-and-a-half years of working in Filmistan passed relatively quietly. Manto regretted that I had derailed his plans [After coming to Bombay, Ashk realized that Manto had invited him to Filmistan to get back at him for tearing apart his play at All India Radio, Delhi, which had led to a quarrel between Manto and the station director N.M. Rashid. Because of this, Manto quit his job there--trans.], but I thought it would be better to make sure as far as I could that I stayed away from him instead of arguing daily.
But despite my caution, Manto was at last successful in wounding me. My first film Mazdoor wasn’t successful at the box office, but my dialogues were considered the best in 1945 and I received a certificate for them too. My second film, Safar, was successful at the box office, and evidently, good will toward me was beginning to grow. Around that time, Ashok Kumar expressed a wish to produce a film separately from his partner Sashadhar Mukherjee, and Mukherjee agreed. Manto’s films, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Shikari, despite taking two years each to complete, had been failures, and so Ashok Kumar approached me for a story. I told him a couple of plots I had in mind. Ashok liked one and asked me to write up an outline. I told him that before starting any outline, I wanted it to be clear that I needed an advance of two thousand rupees. In those days my salary was Rs. 675, but that was as a dialogue-writer, not a storywriter. If I was going to write the story, I thought I should get two thousand rupees for it. Even though Ashok Kumar was Mukherjee’s wife’s brother, there was a bit of ill-will between the two brothers-in-law in those days. Ashok told me to talk to Mukherjee about it, but Mukherjee did not like me, so I refused. Then Ashok said he would tell Seth Chunnilal, and that I should speak to Chunnilal and write the outline in the meantime.
Manto got wind of the news that Ashok had come to me for a story and that I was asking for two thousand rupees. He teamed up with the sound-recordist Savak Vacha to make Ashok change his mind. Vacha and Ashok had been together since the time of Bombay Talkies. Manto and Vacha took Ashok to Vacha’s flat. Vacha used to keep very high quality alcohol at his place. They did not let Ashok leave until they got him to promise that Manto would write the story for the new film, and that the muhurat would be held the next day.
Because the muhurat ended up taking place before the actual story for the film had been decided, they faced many problems while making the film, but that’s an entirely different story, and a long one too. Manto had given them his story for free, knowing that I had asked for an advance, (even though he gave them trouble and asked for money later when the film was half done), and thus he managed to conspire against me quite successfully. I felt terrible at the time, especially since I’d written the outline for my story and was waiting for Ashok Kumar’s response. And yet, the muhurat had already taken place. Mukherjee was not pleased with me, so I had no other choice but to swallow the bitter pill of my defeat.
After some time, however, I thought of a plan to get back at Manto. It was decided that Filmistan’s editor Dattaram Pai would be known as the director of Aath Din; it was the tradition at Filmistan for one person to actually direct the film, and another to get the official credit. However, Pai was a very capable editor and had been with Ashok and Mukherjee since their Bombay Talkies days, and so even though Ashok was actually directing the film, Pai had a certain amount of authority on the set. Because of this, I teamed up with Pai and managed to get cast for the comic role of Pundit Totaram in Aath Din. When the shooting began, I only had a couple of scenes, but I played my part so well—-with hardly any retakes—-that Ashok was impressed, and he decided that Pundit Totaram’s part would grow larger and he would appear throughout the film. Apart from this, I also wrote the Pundit’s dialogues, as he spoke only in Hindi. If Manto wrote one line for the Pundit, I would add another three; if he wrote one scene, I would make two scenes out of it. Though I like stage acting, I don’t consider films or film-acting that important, but I took the part just to rile Manto.
One day, Manto got so annoyed at me, and things reached such a pass that there was a confrontation between the two of us.
During the day, the studios of Filmistan were not available and Ashok Kumar had taken control of the production – Aath Din was shot mainly during the night. Manto was not in the habit of coming to the set at night; he had other interests to look after. But when I had manipulated my way into the role of Pundit Totaram and started messing around with Manto’s dialogues, he did start to come to the set at night. For him, nighttime was for carousing, and coming to the set at that time was an annoyance, but he was afraid I would spoil his dialogues. He’d been unfair to me with Ashok Kumar’s story. I was very angry with him and bent on giving him a hard time, but I try never to get blamed for an argument and always manage to get the blame stick to the other party. I annoyed Manto so much in that argument that he blew up and started cursing at me. And those who witnessed our argument thought he was at fault and not me.
After the shooting of Aath Din was finished, I fell sick with TB and went to Panchgani Sanatorium, so I didn’t watch the film and don’t remember the story. I do remember that one scene was of a wedding that was shot at night. My character had to officiate at the wedding of the hero and the girl he’d run off with. I was perched on the holy seat, a dhoti tucked round my waist, a sacred thread across my naked torso, a scarf printed with the name of Ram wrapped around my neck, and a priestly turban upon my head, and I was having an argument with the hero’s mother (played by Leela Mishra) who’d suddenly turned up. It was at some point during this scene when the line “Toh kya main jhak maar raha hoon? (Am I bullshitting?)” came up. Perhaps, angry at me for officiating at her son’s marriage with some girl off the street, Leela Mishra’s character had said to me, “And you, Pundit? Tum bhi kya jhak maar rahe ho? Are you bullshitting?” And I had blurted out my line very angrily. Whatever it was, Manto had used the idiom “jhak maarna”. Ashok was directing. Manto, drunk, sitting quietly to one side, was watching the shooting when I suddenly had a mischievous thought and said in a serious tone, “I cannot say this line.”
“Why not?” asked Ashok.
“‘Jhak maarna’ is a violent phrase. A Brahmin learned in the Vedas, devoted to religion, seated on his holy seat would never utter such a violent phrase.”
“But the meaning of the idiom is not violent.”
“What does ‘jhak’ mean?” I said. “Fish.” “’Jhak maarna’ means killing fish. I don’t care what this idiom means but no priest would say it.”
“Bengali priests not only kill fish, they eat them too!”
“But Pundit Totaram is not Bengali, nor is this story about Bengalis.”
“What rubbish!” Manto cried out hotly. “Say the line!”
“I can’t. I’m a Brahmin seated on the holy seat.”
“I’m a Brahmin too!” thundered Manto.
“Your ancestors might have been Brahmins. But right now you’re just bullshitting! (Tum sirf jhak maar rahe ho!)”
And Manto swore at me loudly.
Today when I think of my objection to the line, I laugh out loud. In reality, I was laughing to myself that day too, but on the outside I was trying to seem serious, stressing that no North Indian priest devoted to his religion would say such a thing while sitting on a holy seat. My objection was very weak, but those who are familiar with the world of films know that such weak objections are raised on the set night and day. Even though the rationale for the objection was weak, it lent force to the question as to whether a Brahmin would use such words. People belonging to the film world are extremely fainthearted. Even the greatest atheist schedules an astrologically auspicious muhurat before shooting the first scene of a film. (And despite all that, accidents happen frequently, films fail and backers face losses.) Ashok and Vacha felt I was right. Manto’s swearing at me swung the matter in my favour. And because I wasn’t joking and was bent on arguing, I said, “Look, Manto, I’m no wrestler, but neither are you, and if you do so much as open your mouth, I’ll throw you out of the studio.”
The matter had taken such a turn that Ashok got worried. He was afraid that if neither of us backed down, they’d have to stop shooting, and that would be five or six thousand rupees down the drain. They took Manto outside (or perhaps it was me they took outside – I don’t remember), but after some time when we returned to the set, Manto pressed my hand gently and apologized, and I said my line.
After this incident he didn’t stick around – he took off. He never came back to the set at night again. And I didn’t just change his dialogues, I changed entire scenes he’d written, but he never stood in my way again.
Manto and I both parted ways from Filmistan. Even though Ashok and Vacha were Manto’s good friends, and Manto left Filmistan and went with them to Bombay Talkies (which Ashok Kumar bought after he and Mukherjee ended their partnership), not a single story from Manto was accepted there. When I saw Ashok on my way to Allahabad after leaving the sanatorium at Panchgani, I asked him where Manto had gone. He said Manto had written a story for them but they had chosen Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal instead. The next story they’d film after that, they’d decided, would be one written by Shahid Latif. After that, Manto left Filmistan without saying a word to anyone, and even though they’d assured him his story would be filmed, he didn’t listen.
In truth, Filmistan’s sound recordist Vacha, who had been a friend of Manto’s, became a different man when he took over Bombay Talkies. At Bombay Talkies, Manto was surrounded by people who had made him quit his job at Filmistan, and when he saw that the road ahead was closed, and it was impossible to drive the car straight ahead, he chose a side street and went to Pakistan. No doubt Ashok and Vacha had received a couple of threatening letters when Muslims took the key positions under them at Bombay Talkies after the Partition, but it wouldn’t have been so easy to burn down a studio and invite trouble. [In his collection of character sketches Black Margins, Manto writes that Ashok Kumar had received threatening letters after Muslims took the important positions at Bombay Talkies, and because Manto had a hand in these appointments, he quietly sacrificed his job and went to Pakistan.-– Ashk] These letters, however, hadn’t made Shahid Latif or Nazir Ajmeri resign. Manto was disillusioned mainly because Nazir Ajmeri’s story was the first to be selected, and that Kamal Amrohi and Latif had theirs filmed after that. The day he came to know that Shahid Latif’s story had been selected, Manto decided to leave Bombay.