Mumbai, 04 May 2017 12:00 IST
Rahat Kazmi's film blends four of Manto's short stories together, without allowing any of them space to breathe.
In the genre of short stories in Urdu, one name towers above all — Saadat Hasan Manto. The sheer intensity, rawness, and dispassionate view of society that emerges through his stories, particularly those about Partition, set him apart as a giant in Indian literature. Rahat Kazmi's Mantostaan attempts to transpose this very universe on to the big screen through the medium of cinema. Sadly, it fails.
Kazmi's film adapts four of Manto's well-known stories on the theme of Partition — Khol Do (Open it), Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat), Last Salute and Assignment. Each of these stories is set in the most divisive period of Partition, and depicts the tragedy of human lives in the midst of religious conflict.
The first story, Thanda Gosht, takes place in the life of Ishar Singh, a rapacious looter revelling in the Amritsar riots. Khol Do belongs to a family separated during Partition resulting in the father's search for his young daughter. Last Salute has an almost Garm Hava (1974) touch of a retired Muslim judge who refuses to leave his neighbours in the time of riots. Assignment refers to two soldiers, friends, assigned to fight each other under the different flags of newly born nations.
From an overview, these stories gel with one another on account of the common theme — Partition. However, the thematic unity is destroyed by a mangled screenplay. The film intercuts among the stories in rapid succession, preventing them from breathing. The lack of time for character development leaves them looking like poor sketches. This is a fatal flaw in the handling of Manto's stories — a writer known for creating stark, unique characters. The jump-cuts also make for disturbing viewing of the film, deviating from storylines without binding together with situations or elements.
The acting is another sore point. In their attempt to do justice to the iconic stories, the actors have overdone their parts. The director himself is guilty of this in the segment 'Assignment'. Playing the soldier from the Pakistani side, Kazmi indulges in lines that are unnecessary and delay the progression of the plot. On the other hand, Sonal Sehgal's performance as Kulwant Kaur, the woman at the centre of one of Manto's iconic stories, feels underdone. It is the performances of the veterans, Virendra Saxena and Raghuvir Yadav, that manage to inject some pathos into fairly sketchy characters.
Apart from the seizure-inducing intercuts, the dialogues slow the film down, almost making it unbearable. A lot of the dramatic tension is lost on account of unnecessary conversations between characters. The poor dialogue delivery (heavily accented) makes the film seem inauthentic. The poor production values and clearly fake and overdone effects drag attention from the story completely. The dramatic end, when it arrives, feels too late. Unlike Manto's sniper-like kill shots, Kazmi's film feels like a botched surgery conducted with a rusty blade.
A short story functions well on account of its minimalism, direct approach, and dramatic conclusion. Manto revelled in this. He was known to write some of his stories standing up, in the span of an hour, leaving people stunned. His stories are so compact that any addition, or subtraction, of words would ruin them. Rahat Kazmi's Mantostaan (Manto's World) attempts to build a montage of the universe Manto's characters come from but fails to keep it to the point.