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Navigating Bombay’s Urban Landscape: An Exploration of Nandita Das’s Manto


Navigating Bombay’s Urban Landscape: An Exploration of Nandita Das’s Manto

Manojit Chanda

PhD Research Scholar

Department of English Literature

The English and Foreign Languages University

Hyderabad, Telangana, India



This paper is an attempt to reflect on the idea of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay as portrayed in the biographical film Manto, offering insights into his tumultuous life. It explores the film's recreation of the 1940s vibrant and bustling metropolis of Bombay, where Manto lived and spent his final years before relocating to Pakistan, and uncovers the impact of those spaces in the city that played a significant role in propelling him to write about the bitter and realistic truths of its people and society. The film, viewed through Manto's eyes, offers a true-to-life representation of mid-twentieth-century city life in Bombay (now Mumbai). Throughout the film’s narrative, Bombay plays a significant role as the author’s backdrop and emerges as the central character, deeply intertwined with Manto’s personal struggles, experiences, and artistic expressions. The film dexterously depicts the many dimensions of the city's social, cultural, and historical aspects, in addition to providing insights into how Bombay influenced Saadat Hasan Manto's life and work.

Keywords: Manto, Cityscapes, Flâneur, Metropolis, Socio-cultural inequality

Saadat Hossain Manto, regarded as one of the greatest short-story writers of the twentieth century in the Indian subcontinent who brought to life the grim and unvarnished realities of urban life, is the primary subject of a 2018 biographical film entitled Manto, directed by Nandita Das. Apart from elucidating Manto's creative process, this biopic offers the audience an insight into the diverse urban fabric that shapes his captivating storytelling and mirrors the peaks and valleys of society. The subject matter of Manto’s works and his portrayal of the city and its cosmopolitan culture make him a distinctly urban writer. He acquired the voice of the city. He was the one who famously said, “Main chalta phirta Bambai hoon”(qtd. in Koppikar). He was in love with the city and its people. It is said that Bombay is a character in and of itself, with a unique culture, personality, and surroundings. The city welcomes thousands of visitors every day who are looking to try their luck in the city and find better lifestyles. Manto wasn't an outlier. However, Bombay did more for his career than help him advance as a screenwriter and magazine editor; it restored his creative sense and sensibility. He dismantled the city's romance, reminiscent of a travel brochure, and portrayed it as a location where people might live peacefully in a magnificent home or on the street, warts and all. The film portrays the city as possessing a distinct pulse and energy, admirably capturing the essence of the region and its populace. Like Manto, Das captures the intricacy and ambiguity of the city in the 1940s, before and after partition, without holding back. Rather than taking a tonne of corny, cliched pictures of numerous prominent locations, her intention was to show Bombay as experienced by the regular residents. Through an examination of the complex interpersonal interactions, psychological problems, and moral dilemmas that city dwellers must overcome, the film illustrates the complexity of metropolitan life.

Manto was renowned for penning stories that, given the social mores of the day, were audacious and perhaps dangerous. His journey in Bombay can be compared to that of a flâneur, someone who enjoys strolling around cities and taking in the sights and sounds of contemporary life. His stories stem from his experiences as a flâneur, when he would wander the busy city streets and party at the Irani Café with other actors, singers, writers, and filmmakers. His screenwriting career had often involved him going through the anguish of pleading with the producers for a little extra money (Walsh). The fact that Manto documented city life in his stories, while flâneurs did not, sets him apart from the former group. Manto delves deeply into the gritty underbelly of the city’s glamour in a patriarchal society inhabited by migrants, which is what makes him so compelling. He projects the “unexpected” and “hidden” corners of the metropolis. He provides insightful information about Bombay's economic variety and ethnic diversity in addition to the socio-cultural reality and depicts the social ills and difficulties of daily living in the city of Bombay by meandering through its streets. These include the city's poverty, the struggles of the common people, and the social “plague” known as prostitution. He accumulated these experiences and insights during his time living in the city, and these are the general foundation for all of his stories. Through his collection of stories drawn from those actual places, Manto dared to discuss the gory and brutal parts of human society. As writing about the lives of whores was deemed offensive, he suffered greatly as a result of repeatedly transgressing this moral code of conduct. His stories frequently make reference to a prostitute location called Pila House. Because he worked at several film companies, including filmistan and imperial film company, Manto was able to discuss all of these socio-cultural concerns and the city in great detail. Although he was raised in Arab Gully, his early years in the Clare Road also had an impact on his experiences (Slath and Shaikh).

The film uses Manto's biography and short stories to blur the lines between fact and fiction. The purpose of this intertextuality is to connect Manto's personal experiences to his narratives. It demonstrates how the everyday lives of people affected him so profoundly that he wrote about them and was incessantly inquiring about their rights. It opens with one of the most heartbreaking stories from Manto's body of work, Dus Rupaye (Ten Rupees), about a fifteen-year-old girl named Sarita who is forced into prostitution by her family. Three men with a car take her on a long drive to the beach. While Sarita, a small child, was playing in their courtyard with her playmate, her mother abruptly called, saying, “Jaldi chal kishori bohut der se aya baitha ha, motor wale seth ko laye hai (Hurry! kishori is waiting, they have come in a car)” (Manto 00:01:44- 00:01:59). Upon hearing this, she doesn't hesitate to choose the “babus,” suggesting that she has a peculiar attraction with the vehicles. Sarita, the young child, also asks her mother to send Shanta, her buddy, to go with her. This opening scene perfectly depicts the situation of young women in the city who, due to their financial circumstances, are compelled to engage in such vile activities.

In the following scene, as Manto converses with the impoverished common neighbours of his chawl, his love for the city is clearly evident. He inquired about the ironer’s well-being before approaching the kids playing in the area. Manto is seen arriving at a movie studio, looking upset that his lines were altered. He most likely asks the producer for money. This vignette demonstrates Manto's declining financial situation and how hard it was for him to make ends meet in the city. The action then cuts to the following scene, in which Manto is greeted by his friends upon his acquittal by the court on obscenity charges related to his work, “The Smell.” Another writer, Ismat, who was also found not guilty by the court, is introduced at this gathering of creative people. Ismat faced charges of obscenity as well because of her writing on lesbianism and a relationship between two women. People found this unsettling because society had come to terms with it. Manto alludes to his former residence on Faras Road, saying that what he saw outside his window was appalling. He saw little girls being kidnapped by some nasty thugs, and then they vanished from sight.

Most of Manto’s characters are unprotected individuals who are powerless to alter their circumstances. They are burglars, con artists, wannabe movie stars, prostitutes, pimps, and bullies. These personalities serve as the backdrop for his short stories, which are set mostly during India's partition and the Indian independence movement. His main characters, who are presented as prostitutes in the film, can be interpreted as a metaphor for the city of Bombay from multifaceted perspectives. Firstly, the city can be a site for exploitation and commodification, just like the life of a whore who is sold and commodified by their employers. The city during Manto’s life span was controlled and ruled by the British. Under the British Raj, the state of the city and its inhabitants had an equally significant impact on the lives of prostitutes. In the hands of such malevolent entities devoid of human empathy, they are not valued as fellow humans but rather as “sexual objects.” People who are considered to be respectable in society and who appear decent during the daytime turn frantic and indulge in sexual pleasures at night. However, they are tragically treated like second-class citizens by the same society. They may not even be seen as belonging to their civilization in certain instances. Their children must fight to be enrolled in school and to receive advantages from government programmes. They are shunned by society as misfits. Manto’s fight is against these social inequalities that are present in society; all his stories thus have a feminist undertone and seek equal rights for the downtrodden sections of society who are voiceless.

In addition to showcasing the cityscapes of Bombay at the time, Nandita Das concentrated on the individuals that Manto interacts with throughout his time there as well as what he sees when meandering around the streets and all of its hidden corners. He is shown exploring Bombay’s streets, cafes, and literary groups while soaking up the city’s free-spirited lifestyle at the time. Like other writers and artistic types, Manto led a rather bohemian lifestyle in Bombay. People from different religious, ethnic, and socio-cultural origins coexist together in this city, a cosmopolitan metropolis. During Manto’s lifetime, the city provided him with a thriving literary and cultural environment, as well as artistic freedom. Bombay's somewhat more liberal atmosphere than that of other cities encouraged Manto's pursuit of creative freedom, his daring to challenge social norms, and his freedom of expression. Progressive people were making a lot of new literary and artistic contributions during this thriving time. His relationships with other modern novelists, poets, actors, singers, and many other creative people are included in the movie. In Bombay's well-known Iranian cafés and coffee shops, they engage in discussions, debates, and idea exchanges. However, Manto, in his writings, was more inclined towards depicting the lives of people who are not so well respected in society and are alienated. His friendship with Shyam (played by Tahir Raj Bhasin) is highlighted throughout the film. Manto has also been able to depict the social ills and difficulties of daily living in Bombay by meandering through its streets. He accumulated these experiences and insights during his time living in the city, and these are the general foundation for all of his stories.

Nandita Das aims to recreate the 1940s Bombay—the background, the upheaval that was going on at that specific point in time—and she is successful in doing so. Her ambitions go well beyond simply narrating Manto's life. Throughout the course of the movie, she does such a masterful job of capturing the moment that we begin to buy into the scenes and lose ourselves in the background. In most literary biopics, the filmmaker purposefully presents the image writer's writing in order to create the writer’s creative and imagined realm. As a common illustration of writers on screen, it is dexterously employed as a cinematic cliche. Das, though, aims for something distinct. The reenactment of the above-mentioned specific era is enabled by the convergence of various elements, such as the language and dialogue employed, set design, cinematography, the historical background of intercommunal conflict, and various film techniques employed in pre-independence Indian films. The city’s public areas now have a unique appearance because of Nandita Das’s exquisite set decorations. It encompasses the physical elements that give a city its shape, such as its streets, buildings, skylines, workplaces, parks, architectural walls, and automobiles. As an illustration, consider sequences that depict the cityscape, Manto's residence, cafes, and film studios. The sequences from such spaces incorporate vintage architectural structures, furniture, vehicles, rickshaws, train stations, and period-appropriate lighting and décor. She has also made an effort to recreate Bombay in the 1940s by creating unique outfits that are representative of the time. While women, including Manto's wife, his friend Ismat, and other supporting roles, can be seen wearing sarees or salwar kameez, displaying styles that are representative of the era and convey both modesty and sophistication, some of the male characters in the movie are seen wearing Nehru jackets, kurtas, and dhotis, for example. In addition to the aforementioned, Das’s use of language in the movie added a degree of authenticity and historical truth. Since Urdu was the language of the educated elite and the literary community, we occasionally find Manto using it when he is writing stories in that language. Das attempted to replicate the aesthetic of Bollywood films from the 1940s, even down to the production and cinematography techniques. The scenes, which feature low lighting, extended takes, and deep focus, are evidence of this.

The film portrays Manto’s life and his experiences in Bombay as being shaped by significant historical events such as the division of India. These experiences have influenced his work and personal growth. Both countries saw a substantial rise in intercommunal fighting during this time. Minorities were the focus of attacks and home evictions. Coincidentally, Manto's friend Shayam's uncle ends up in Mumbai one day after escaping from Pakistan. They visit him and inquire about his life in Pakistan and the reason for his return to India. His uncle was telling the heart-stoppingly horrific tale of mob approaching their house and yelling “kill them.” Despite his orders for his family to hide in the store room, they were unable to protect their oldest son Manjeet from the angry throng. Shayam became filled with wrath and a desire for vengeance against the Muslim community after learning what had happened to his family. He even makes threats to harm his friend Manto since he is a Muslim. He appears to be quite angry and irrational. Manto was distraught and felt betrayed by Bombay after the division and the killings that followed. In one of the most endearing scenes, Manto says goodbye to Bombay and realises that he owes a shopkeeper one rupees. His friend Shayam offers to make the payment on his behalf. However, Manto has no interest in doing the favour. He says, “I want to stay indebted to this city forever” (Manto 41:52).  Manto had a love-hate relationship with Bombay, which is obvious in his writings, and the film beautifully explores this delicate relationship.

Thus, the biopic’s depiction of Manto's life in Bombay offers a compelling and complex portrait of the influence the city had on his compositions and creative growth. In addition to being a background aspect, Bombay’s urban landscape plays a crucial role in comprehending Manto's life, creative process, and the societal setting of his favourite city and workplace at that period. In a nutshell, exploring Bombay's urban landscape contributes to Manto's enduring reputation as a writer who encapsulated the essence of the city and the stories of its citizens. By using Manto's stories, which he wrote and imagined based on the socio-cultural realities of the society he saw while residing in the city, Nandita Das creates a rich and complex portrait of Manto's Bombay. The film demonstrates how the city had a significant impact on Manto's life and art. It resulted in the overall creative growth of the writer as well as the individual. She has demonstrated how crucial Bombay is to the formation of Manto's creative and cultural identity by emphasising the city more when narrating Manto’s life. The city is regarded as a character that has helped to establish Manto as a writer who is still relevant today, rather than as a mere backdrop element.

Works Cited

Ayaz, Shaikh. “Manto from Another Sky: The Writer of Partition Spent His Best Years in 1940s Bombay as a Film Reporter.” The Indian Express, 19 Sept. 2018,

Koppikar, Smruti. “Manto’s Bombay Stories and Mumbai’s Debt.” Hindustan Times, 26 Sept. 2018,

Manto. Directed by Nandita Das, performances by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Rasika Dugal, and Rajshri Deshpande. HP Studios, 2018.

Singh, Jairaj. “#mumbaimirrored: The City Manto Loved and Lost.” Mumbai Mirror, Mumbai Mirror, 26 Sept. 2019,

Slatch, Amrita Kaur, and Mohammed Esa Shaikh. Manto and the City Called “Bombay,”

Walsh, Joseph. “Manto: The Writer Who Felt the Pain of India’s Partition.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Sept. 2018, india.