During Partition, many Muslim legends like Manto had to flee India but this was compensated by Hindu greats who fled Pakistan, writes Nina Martyris
Leave now and return when the madness passes. It was this injunction, so sane then, so naïve now, that made thousands leave their homes for new homelands born under the drip of a knife. They never returned, of course, except in meaningless form, such as the grand old man of cinema A K Hangal going back decades later as part of an Indo-Pak peace delegation only to find that "nobody in Karachi remembered me". Others like Sadat Hasan Manto, the bard of Bombay, who relished the decadent glitter of the film world as much as the low life, did not survive the betrayal of the city turning on him. Manto said that he began to die the minute he left Bombay. He carried it around like a wound, and in his last years in Lahore, drunk and displaced in a mint-new Islamic state that tried him for obscenity, his singularity epitomised the irony of his most famous character Toba Tek Singh, a lunatic trapped in a No Man's Land.
In that great and tragic human exchange, Bombay and Lahore, like every other big city and town in the northern part of the subcontinent, were permanently altered, their kindness and bigotry simultaneously put to the test. Lahore, then a thriving centre of the cinema world, lost its lifeblood, as Hindu actors, directors and writers, among them B R Chopra and Pran, fled by train, plane and on foot, leaving behind the mess of homes and films unfinished on the floor. Bombay Beautiful, as Gandhi often called it, was the receptacle of this exodus of talent, though the loss of Manto alone was a debit that the sleight of account books could not balance. Employed as a scriptwriter by Bombay Talkies, then co-owned by Ashok Kumar, Manto watched in growing fear as the mood in the city darkened. The studio, which had many Muslim employees, received hate mail from Hindus saying they would set fire to the premises, a threat which Ashok Kumar pooh-poohed, calling it a passing madness. "However, it never went away, this madness," wrote Manto. "Instead, as time passed, it became more and more virulent."
Before he, his wife and two children joined the human caravan out of the city, which included many elite Muslim families such as that of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Manto met in Bombay a man who had made the journey in reverse. B D Garga, one of India's finest film historians, whose scholarly books on cinema have enlightened audiences in India and Europe, was a Hindu in Lahore. Before Partition, Garga was already in Bombay in the employ of the famous director V Shantaram but had returned to Lahore to work on a film. There, when the madness took over, a man clutching a knife that he had used and not bothered to clean, made a terrified Garga and his Muslim cook recite the kalma to prove they were not kafirs. Thanks to his fluency in Urdu, Garga passed the test, but it broke him. "I was certain that I would be able to return to Lahore one day," says Garga on email from Goa. "That this did not happen was heartbreaking. The senes of loss is hard to describe it is associated with so many memories – of streets, trees, friends, food etc."
Days later, he too was part of the caravan, getting on to a plane and flying to the safety of a Hindu city, Bombay, which had never defined itself by any religion except money. Garga called on a bitter Manto who offered him a drink, which, it being four o'clock in the afternoon, Garga refused. The meeting is recounted in the foreword to Garga's book The Art of Cinema. Manto complained bitterly about how the management of Bombay Talkies had fired all its Muslim employees. "Wishing to cut short Manto's painful monologue, Garga asked what he had been writing of late and Manto, with a blank expression on his face, replied: 'My pen does not move on the page these days.'
Unable to afford a plane ticket was a tailor in a Karachi jail. Hangal was told that unless he left for India, he would remain in jail. With his wife, son and twenty rupees, he boarded a steamer. "I was a communist and had IPTA friends in Bombay who came to Bhaucha Dhakka to pick me up. We stayed for some time in this fellow's house and sometimes in that fellow's house." A Kashmiri Pandit – his wife was Kamala Nehru's cousin – Hangal had defied his father and refused to work for the British, learning cutting to support himself. Even today at 90, after 200 films, 60 plays and a Padma Bhushan, the old actor is inordinately proud of his "scientific cutting skills" and the enviably high salary of Rs 500 it had earned him. In the 1930s, in Delhi, Hangal had cut khaddar suits for C F Andrews ("Have you heard of him?") and Bhulabhai Desai, and in Bombay, before he became famous in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi, he had a little shop at Crawford Market, where among other things, he cut a suit for Pratapsingh Rane, who went on to become chief minister of Goa. "Many years later he saw me in Goa and he was very happy."
The director of Mughal-e-Azam, K Asif, also started out as a tailor – although as film writer Mihir Bose says in his book Bollywood A History, "He was keener on the ladies rather than making dresses for them." Asif did not leave for Pakistan, but the financier of his film, a Jinnah sympathiser, did, derailing a project that was to suffer monumental delay. Who did leave, albeit briefly, is the man after whom a bus stop in Bandra, Mehboob Studio, is named. Mehboob Khan, a Gujarati Muslim, crossed the border only to return, although no one really knows why. Bose writes that Mehboob came back to find that his studio had been declared evacuee property but managed to pull strings, get it back, and go on to make his Nehruvian classics, Andaz and Mother India.
Who did not return was the legendary singer Noor Jehan, who Manto said "had a voice like crystal", and whose departure created a vacuum that Lata Mangeshkar ably filled. Some film historians say that if Noor Jehan, who could both act and sing and whose baby wails were supposedly on pitch, had stayed, Hindi cinema might have gone down a different path, but others like Feroze Rangoonwala feel that she left because "there was no scope for her in India, her last few films like Village Girl had not done well, and Pakistan was always like a mirage holding out great hope". In Pakistan, where she had a legion following, she was given the title Mallika-e-Tarranum, which means Queen of Melody, a title that her friend "Latto" enjoys here, and who, according to Bose, spent many happy hours on the phone with Noor, singing songs and recalling the old days, before the madness.