You may love it or hate it, but you won’t be able to ignore it. Manto, director Nandita Das’ second film after an intense Firaq (2008) on ordinary people’s emotional journey post Gujarat genocide, is an art house cinema. Laced with a no-nonsense approach, a film on Saadat Hasan Manto, a bold short story writer, essayist and philosopher, born in India died in Pakistan in just 42 years of age, had to be, but a grim reality exposed.
Manto is a result of Das’ four years of research. Hence, perhaps she had a problem of plenty in what to say and what to leave. Therefore, the easiest route was perhaps, to keep it to his signature stories, their making and Manto’s personal life.
The film begins with Manto’s one of the stories; a delightful scene leading to an unexpected turn of events. An innocent, bubbly girl in her pre-teens, accepts her fate, gleefully, being rented out by her poor pimp father to three men, for a day, in lieu of a good amount. This is the milieu, the people, where Manto lives, and gets his hard-hitting, poignant, true short stories.
Das uses the back and forth technique to narrate events that hint at the making of Manto. The much controversial writer owing to his openness of language and writing style traverses among his characters and locales and that’s how his most popular stories like Khol Do, Thanda Gosht, Toba Tek Singh, Kali Shalwar and others emerge in the film. It is a short guiding tour to Manto’s relations with close friends, rebel writers Ismat Chugtai, Krishan Chander, poet Nadeem Ahmad Qasmi, actors Ashok Kumar and Shyam Chaddha, jealousies of the literary world represented by the likes of Faiz Ahamd Faiz, Professor Abid Ali Abid (the principal of Dayal SIngh College), Manto’s visits to Hindi film studios, its crude realities like casting couch and modest payments to talented writers, et al.
Before this film, less was known of Manto’s personal life in the absence of any reference, even any voice sample. Das’ meeting with Manto’s two daughters Nuzhat and Nigar revealed a drunkard and a chain smoker Manto, who, however, was a perfect family man.
The film builds an atmosphere of restlessness in which its main characters fear separation from each other, courtesy the Partition. The stress of being mobbed during communal riots is indicated not through bloodshed or violence but just ‘feelers’-- Das’ signature style. For instance, Manto buys and keeps “aik Hindu topi aur aik Muslam topi” to use them accordingly in riot-affected area.
In a scene, Manto is travelling in a jeep with actor Ashok Kumar. Fearing Ashok could be killed in “Muslamano ka muhalla”, Manto hurriedly mounts the Muslim topi on his skull. But Ashok is confident that people love him. And he is right. Looking at the actor, the mob, favourably spares him. The scene hints at people’s love for their film stars, beyond religion.
The film significantly reveals why exactly Manto left for Pakistan. Sample this. Shyam, Manto’s best friend’s family is being butchered by Muslims. As they return hearing the horrific tales, a distressed Manto’s weaves words aloud, “What happens to bones whose flesh have been peeled off. How will you recognise if they were Hindu bones or Muslim bones; will you burn them or bury them?” To which Shyam roars infuriatingly, ‘These are not characters in your story. This was my family. Outraged, he fumes, “These Muslims should be…” Manto asks, ‘if you hate Muslims so much now, you would have probably killed me too. ‘Yes, I would have… Shyam thunders.
This prods Manto to leave the room he is sharing with Shyam. Referring to his drinking habit, Shyam urges him to stop, “…Arrey tum to vaise bhi kaun sey bade Musalman ho”? Manto’s reply, “Itna bada to hoon ki mara ja sakoon”! Seeing him off to the ship Shyam makes up, “Us din jo maine kaha, Mujhe afsoso hai”.
‘Nahi, mujhe maar kar tumhe zyada afsos hota’, hinting why he left for Pakistan. Das should be thanked for bringing out the pain hidden in such conversations, the pain that created the author’s most powerful creations.
Das does not spare Pakistan’s grim realities either. Manto’s reaches Pakistan to a similar situation, broken houses being rebuilt, refugee camps and an old man (played by Gurdas Mann) looking for his abducted daughter Sakina.
The film gives quite many frames to Manto’s life after his story Thanda Gosht was banned and his struggle to win the case to continue writing till his death in his country of residence. The courtroom drama in which Manto fights his own case, before a biased judge, just a few pals in his favour and most in the literary world who found it an opportune time to demean him, are stressed upon to indicate how an exceptionally gifted writer becomes a victim of the narrow-minded section of a society. Manto was banned in Pakistan till 2012. Here, scenes depicting a penniless, ill Manto parading around newspaper offices to get his long over-due payments for his columns, escaping the sight of a friend whose debt he has to pay leave their stark imprint in the mind.
Till the interval the film depends upon just ‘incidents’ in Manto’s life. It meanders and doesn’t have a binding tale to tell. But gradually it catches up to prod, pause, think and feel immensely-affected by the life of the accomplished writer, dying in penury.
The sharp and crisp dialogues are the best vehicle, on which the film rides to drive home pertinent points. Manto’s quick rebuttal in dialogues like “Maine tumhe apna dost banaya hai, apne zameer ki masjid ka imam nahi” and Neem ke patte kadwe sahi, khoon to saaf karte hain, are worth taking note of.
Nandita’s choice of Nawazuddin Siddiqui couldn’t have been better. This will be the best feather in his cap; a milestone. Nawaz’s most powerful scenes are ones in which an ailing, poverty-stricken, but self-respecting Manto meets rich and celebrated friend Shyam surrounded by sycophants, but refuses to take money.
For Rasika Dugal, who plays Manto’s wife Safia, it is the role of a life time. She comes across as an effortless, powerful, convincing actor, never over doing her somber parts. Rajshri Despande as Ismat Chugtai, Bhanu Uday as actor Ashok Kumar and Tahir Bhasin as Shyam get to do memorable roles and they don’t disappoint. But Vinod Nagpal as Bishan Singh of Manto’s compelling story Toba Tek Singh and Gurdas Mann as Sakina’s father Sirajuddin in Khol Do, take the cake. However, it wastes veteran actors like Rishi Kapoor as a lusty film producer, Paresh Rawal as a pimp and Ela Arun as Jaddan Bai.
Why should we watch Manto?
We did not have parameters to judge Manto, the film creates one. So much has Nandita loved Manto, that she has detached her viewers from him. Manto has been shown as a pitiable character who died in penury, which might hurt a few of his ardent admirers, or the new generation which might be idolizing him. One was expecting a bit on his childhood days, his mentors, and various influences on him. It also leaves many questions unanswered. Why does Manto pray for only his mother and not the father on their graves; a collector of best of pens, why he keeps them in a closet and starts writing with pencil in Pakistan, remains a mystery.
Manto refuses to leave your mind long after you leave the cinema hall. It is grim, dark and true. The backdrop being replete with scenes of broken, dilapidated homes, refugee shelters, dingy, old libraries, unwelcoming, sad looking newspaper offices does not let you relax. But they are true to their time. The immense hard work to create such ambience is commendable. Perhaps a little more dosage of Manto’s exceptional wit could have lightened the film to some extent.
The film seems to be more for those who knew Manto, or have read at least his signature stories. For the uninitiated, the film might do two things; either he would be prodded to read about him more, or to avoid reading him for his grim reality.
Manto is recommended to understand how Bollywood has matured enough to dare a film like Mulk and Manto, Newton and Pakhi. It is also an excellent document in history, and a literary legacy both India and Pakistan should feel proud of.