In her upcoming biopic Manto, one of the ways in which Nandita Das approaches the renowned Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s life is through the stories he wrote. The September 21 release which stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the fiery writer, dramatises some of Manto’s best-known stories, including Thanda Gosht and Toba Tek Singh. “The film’s narrative is seamlessly interspersed with some of his most powerful short stories where the lines between his work and his life get increasingly blurred,” Das told in an interview in May.

The artist and his art are indeed inseparable in the case of Manto, as Fareeda Mehta revealed in her 2002 movie Kali Salwaar. Mehta’s film casts Kay Kay Menon as Manto and places him in the same milieu as the characters from his stories. Manto observes and interacts with his creations. As they tell us their stories, the characters also tell us something about their creator.

Kali Salwaar (2002).

The film’s title is inspired by Manto’s story of the same name. Sultana (Sadiya Siddiqui), a prostitute, migrates to Mumbai from Muzaffarpur in search of a better life. (Manto set the original story in Delhi but Mehta, with the help of artist Bhupen Khakhar, convincingly changes the setting to Mumbai.)

Manto meets Sultana for the first time on the stairs of Sultana’s chawl. He is concealing a bottle of alcohol in a newspaper, and Sultana teases him about it on the staircase, first with the sound of her footsteps and then through her seductive expressions. The wordless sequence ends with Sultana descending the stairs. “What a queen, I name you Sultana,” Manto says in his mind as he watches her leave the building and out into a new world.

This poetic interaction between an author and a character alludes to the process of writing itself – about the control wielded by characters on their creator.

The unfortunate Sultana’s story in Mumbai is, however, hardly regal. The city pushes her towards loneliness and obsession.

Kali Salwaar (2002). Courtesy National Film Development Corporation.

Another character who jumps off the page is M’ahmmed Khan, a local don whom Manto describes in his writings as a man with a thick moustache, a dagger tucked in his waistband, and a reputation of being both macho and extremely charitable.

Kali Salwaar features several conversations between Manto and M’ahmmed Bhai (played by Vrajesh Hirjee). What emerges through these conversations is another story about self-discovery. Is M’ahmmed Bhai really as fearless as he claims to be? What’s the secret behind that thick moustache? These questions are slowly addressed with Manto acting as the facilitator.

Mehta uses Manto to not only give us a glimpse into his world, but to also tell us what he thought of that world. The film is filled with references and examples of Manto’s sharp, witty and acerbic writing. Kali Salwaar also tells us about the years Manto spent as a film writer in Hindi cinema, his alcoholism but most of all, his humanity.

Kali Salwaar (2002). Courtesy National Film Development Corporation.