Saadat Manto and Ismat Chughtai are two Urdu Indian writers who have been brushed off in an age of Noble laureates and bestsellers. But not for long as Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley group of thespians revive them through a series of shows based on their writings.

Manto Ismat Hazir Hain is a compilation of two short stories by Manto and a short story and essay by Chughtai. With ‘obscenity’ as its theme, Shah has picked short stories that were most controversial during the time they were published.

Manto’s Bu (Odour) borders on erotica as a man’s one night stand with a ‘bhangan’ woman leaves him obsessed with the smell of her body. Neither sweet like attar nor stale like body odour, he tries to find it years later on his own wife.

Titwal Ka Kutta is a tragicomedy about life on both sides of the Indo-Pak border and what happens to a poor dog who dares to love everyone.

Lihaaf (Quilt) is one of Chughtai’s finest stories. Maybe because it happens to be true. A little girl learns why her mothers ‘sister by name’ isn’t ruffled up by her husband’s blatant homosexuality when she is left in her care for a few days.

Un Byaahataon Ke Naam is based on Ismat’s essay on the Lahore High Court summons that accused her and Manto of obscenity. It is a touching, brave and a hilarious account of the torment and discrimination she and Manto faced.

Shah’s direction is excellent and he couldn’t have picked a better set of actors to play Manto, Chughtai and friends. Not for a minute does it feel like they’re just rambling on and about. Their conviction takes the audience on a vivid journey through their recitals, acting out several parts and emotions.

Manto Ismat Haazir Hain is a must watch if you want to journey back in time and rediscover an India that was different, yet so similar to the one we live in today. Courage, not obscenity is what these writers are all about and Motley, as always has picked a winner, niche as it may seem at first.

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