To divide Saadat Hasan Manto, the celebrated Urdu writer, along the lines of nationality would be the ultimate irony. He took the Partition so much to heart that it broke him. So I was very keen for the film to be released simultaneously in India and Pakistan. He equally belonged to both countries and that is why I wanted the film to be released in them simultaneously.

I was fully aware of the fragile nature of the relationship between the two countries and the frequent banning of cross-border movement of art and artists. But we did manage to get one of the best distributors on board due to the popularity of Hindi films there and the buzz Manto had generated. After much back and forth with them over the past few months, I just got the news that Manto was not passed by their Censor Board. The reasons cited are that “the film has anti-Partition narrative theme and explicit scenes, which is against the norms of Pakistani society”.

Censorship is not unknown to us in India. I personally have had to face similar committees for Firaaq and Manto. In both instances, after several hours of negotiations, I managed to limit the cuts to only a few audio ones.

In any case, the whole process of censorship is so subjective and arbitrary that one can only hope to reason it out. Unfortunately, this time around, I won’t get the opportunity to present my case to the Pakistani Censor Board. In the last six years that I have been working on Manto, not only his family but many others in Pakistan have been waiting anxiously to see it on the big screen. So while this explanation is in defence of freedom, it is also for them.

Manto (2018).

To call a film “anti-Partition” is actually a startling way to criticise it. With two million dead and 14 million displaced – the largest mass migration in the world to date – Partition has made an indelible mark on our shared history. But the trauma of Partition is more complex there than in India. I was sensitised to this during my first visit to Pakistan in 1996. As an Indian, I did not understand that for them, the pain of Partition violence and the joy of the birth of a new nation are deeply intertwined. Their very existence is linked to it. Yet, the reality of the violence cannot be ignored.

From the feedback the film has received, it is clear that most have looked beyond the nationalistic narrative. Instead they have deeply empathised with Manto, who had internalised the pain felt by millions on both sides of the border. This was best expressed in Manto’s story, Toba Tek Singh, which reminds us of the absurdity of the mindless violence in ways that history and statistics do not.

Manto showed us what we, as human beings, are capable of doing. He always believed that the best of us have shadows and the worst can be redeemed. And it is this grey area that the film attempts to explore. Even Manto has not been spared and I feel he would have liked it no other way. To reduce a deeply human story to labels is to misrepresent and misunderstand it.

Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui on the sets of Manto. Courtesy Aditya Varma.

The other issue raised by the Censor Board is “explicit scenes”. Not sure what they are referring to, as there is no nudity in the film at all. In fact, it got a U/A certificate in India. Manto’s works were similarly labelled and they faced much neglect and years of obscenity trials. He was finally embraced in Pakistan in his centenary year in 2012 and posthumously conferred the highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. How can such honour be bestowed upon him when his work is still being considered inappropriate? Ironically, some critics seemy interpretation of his stories as being “too sanitised”, so I was really surprised by this reasoning.

There will be some who will take these thoughts and use them to polarise us further and turn this into an India-versus-Pakistan issue. Even in India, not surprisingly, the state-run International Film Festival of India did not select Manto despite it being officially selected by prestigious film festivals like Cannes and Toronto. One of the IFFI jurors offered baffling reasons like, “The film was not understood by South Indians…neither is it dramatic nor is not non-dramatic!” Perhaps they were straining to justify a decision already made.

So I refuse to be drawn into the binary of “them” and “us”. If at all it exists, then the “them”are the authorities that are trying to silence “us”, the people. I have been part of many Indo-Pak, people-to-people initiatives where on both sides of the border, we are united in our pursuit of peace.

However, peace cannot be achieved without justice and freedom. Without a trace of doubt, censorship anywhere, and in all forms, is dangerous as it silences voices that need to be heard. Manto had to fight for his freedom of expression 70 years ago and many of us are having to do the same today. The silver lining is that the internet subverts archaic censorship for better and worse. Yet it is only through freedom of expression that we grow as people, as a society.

So I am delighted that Manto is now available on Netflix. While not a perfect solution, as it remains a platform for the privileged, at least in our part of the world, it is one step closer to freer expression.