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Manto review: This portrait of Manto is charming, engrossing, but not as provocative as his pen

Release Date: 21 Sep 2018 / 01hr 57min


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Shriram Iyengar

Nandita Das's film is a captivating portrayal of the great Sa'adat Hasan Manto, and feels timely.

"It is the lives we encounter that make life worth living," wrote the French writer Guy De Maupassant, often held as the European equivalent of and the inspiration for Nandita Das’s cinematic subject, Sa'adat Hasan Manto.

In Das’s film, Manto emerges as the sum total of his experiences, people, conversations and conflicts. The film is an attempt to create an immersive experience of the mysterious, magnetic personality that was Sa'adat Hasan Manto.

The story begins in 1946 Bombay, where the writer is carving his way up a secular, free metropolis. In many ways, the film is a tale of two cities — Bombay and Lahore — and their role in the writer’s life.

From his drinks with writers like Ismat Chughtai and Rajinder Krishan to his friendship with the dashing Shyam Chadha (Tahir Raj Bhasin), Manto is exploring every aspect of humanity and life as he sees it. He is also optimistic, despite signs of the opposite, about the country’s ability to survive the embers of communalism being fanned in these early years.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in and as Manto

Yet, the flame grows beyond his understanding or expectation. In many of Manto’s stories, the writer appears to be on a quest to examine why men stoop to such violence despite being good otherwise.

In the film, the sudden transformation of a Bombay that allowed his brave ideas to flourish into a city of closed ghettos shocks him. The final blow is delivered through the impulsive words of his friend Shyam, forcing the writer to decide to move to Pakistan, where the film is set after the intermission.

The Lahore part of the film focuses primarily on the case of obscenity over his story, Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat). As the writer finds himself secluded in a new, orthodox country, and its approach towards ideal statehood, he retreats farther and farther into himself. The film captures this with increasingly personal close-ups of the writer to display his mental state.

Collapsing into alcoholism, faltering at his familial duties, and struggling to keep up with the burden of legal fees and household expenses, the writer seems as torn as Toba Tek Singh, one of his most famous characters, between the two lands.

Das’s Manto is an engrossing portrait of a man considered one of India’s greatest writers. The film captures his sensitivity, sympathy towards the ignored and oppressed, and his hatred of hypocrisy quite beautifully.

The enmeshing of his stories with his life, however, has a mixed effect. While they help to portray a semblance of life in the Partition era, they are nothing more than fleeting incidents. The stories fail to influence the progress of Manto's arc. They are simply glimpses into his own imagination.

The use of Manto’s words as dialogues throughout the film is an effective tactic. However, it makes the film seem a little verbose and, at times, unnatural. Yet, the impact of those lines and the sharpness of their observations still hold. That is what makes Manto great, despite Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s opinion.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is on point as the conflicted, brave and fierce Manto. He flits from supreme confidence to hurt with seamless ease. Rasika Dugal as the steadfast Safia, bearing the brunt of her mercurial husband’s life, is impressive. While the film delves quite deeply, with impressive cinematography, into Manto’s mental state, it fails to explore Safia’s troubles.

Rasika Dugal as Safia Manto

Another impressive act is Tahir Raj Bhasin as the yesteryear heartthrob Shyam. The actor brings a lightness to Manto that was necessary to balance the pathos. The tender moments of his friendship with Siddiqui’s despairing writer are a highlight of the film.

The magic of the film lies in its production design and cinematography. Beautifully shot through impeccable sets, Manto brings alive the Bombay of the 1940s with equal parts hedonism and desperation. The sight of a film party filled with K Asif, Jaddanbai and Ashok Kumar, and, at the same time, the dingy bylanes of Clare Road and Foras Road turn the city into a character.

As for characters, there are plenty for trivia. The film feels like a-cameo-a-moment with several actors making interesting cameos throughout. At some point, they also feel like being used too much to embellish the character of Manto.

Siddiqui and Bhasin as Manto and Shyam

Despite the innumerable faces and stories, Manto flits through the film like a phantasm. Perhaps it is the shifts between his imagination and reality that make it difficult to compose a complete picture. Despite the director’s best efforts, he remains an enigma 63 years after his death. The film skims through the surface of his life, with his stories as the bulwark to describe his worldview. For the reader, they somehow fail to suffice.

Maybe that is for the better. It would be unfair to seek to define completely a writer who claimed to fight god for the title of the greatest author in the world.

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