Decoding Mrs Manto: She understood him like no one else, says Sania Saeed
For Sania Saeed, one of the best parts about playing Safiah – Manto's wife – in the film Manto, is the very real off-screen relationship that has developed between her and his three daughters.
So much so that short personal message exchanges — a sort of "chit chat" — often take place between her and Manto's middle daughter Nuzhat (Nuzzi), where Nuzhat playfully refers to her as "Ami Jaan" and to which Saeed responds with an equally naughty "Beti Jaan".
Playing Safiah was not easy. Saeed admits it was both scary but also a "treat," and that she would have accepted any role just to be part of a film celebrating Manto.
"Both I and Nimra [Bucha, who plays Manto's alterego] said we would have accepted the role of an inanimate object like a vessel standing in one corner of a room," says Saeed.
However, after Manto's daughters gave her performance their resounding nod of approval, telling her "this was exactly how" their mother was, Saeed says she was "so relieved and overwhelmed" she started crying loudly. "It didn't matter what the world thought of my acting or my role," she adds.
Is the verdict still out on Safiah Manto?
Once she was locked into playing Manto's wife, just how did Saeed see Safiah and what role did she play in Manto's life?
Saeed, who has read and studied Manto extensively, finds that Safiah symbolises all the women of that time who stood by and behind men whose legacies have been mixed, to say the least. "They were silent lifelines and even partners in crime, if you will," she argues.
The movie shows just the last four years of Manto's life when he faced rejection, persecution and was in dire straits financially for his candor and honest writing. "And she [Safiah] stood by him because she understood the man he was, like perhaps nobody did," Saeed points out.
Others may not agree, though. Filmbuff Tarrannum Lakda is one of them, and thinks Safiah is "not a strong personality". "She could've done more for the family and morally supported Manto," says Lakda. To that her friend Quresh Abdullah says: "I guess she [Safiah] did her best knowing how difficult Manto Saheb was."
"She was a fantastic woman and to put up with such a difficult man must not have been easy," agrees Nuzhat Manto, coming to her late mother's rescue. Just seven when Manto died, Nuzhat says : "She [Safiah] was a very patient woman and never once cried in front of us. We were raised as normal children with not a dent to our confidence despite the multitude of problems we faced, all thanks to our mother."
Conceding that some might mistake her for a weak bystander who watches her husband meet his tragic end helplessly and does nothing to alleviate his pain, Saeed also insists Safiah was a "controlled and strong" woman.
Manto's daughter Nuzhat does feel, however, that Safiah could have been given a bigger role in the film for she was "the woman behind Aba Jaan."
One certainly can't escape the fact that Manto never wrote about Safiah. "There isn't anything significant written on her by Manto," says Saeed, adding that he may have written about her had he found her more than a gharelo si aurat." But he accorded her enough importance, says Saeed, to take her "to literary sittings, which was quite unprecedented in those times."
Either way, Manto's heirs are happy with Saeed's portrayal of their mother. Sixty-seven year old Nuzhat Manto, now a teacher in Lahore, said: "She did full justice to the role she played of my mother," adding: "I could not help wondering how she managed to get just the right expression at the right time....just like Ami Jaan!"
Nuzhat does feel, however, that Safiah could have been given a bigger role in the film for she was "the woman behind Aba Jaan" and without her would not have survived the ridicule, scorn and persecution that he had to deal with.
And so while doing the film and playing Manto's wife was momentous, what Saeed finds even more significant is to see a theatre packed with people watching the film spellbound. "Condemned for so long, Manto is now being watched by hundreds of people at a time, sitting together, absorbing his life and more importantly his work. I tell you it's liberating to see that the hero of our film can be a writer," Sania says, adding: "It has shattered the long-held platitudes we were fed that people prefer inane cinema; the box office has proved otherwise; that in itself is a big change!"