You expect a film about a great writer to be built around his great writing – and in Manto, writer-director Nandita Das finds ingenious ways to weave together the life and the literature of Saadat Hasan Manto. One story (Dus Rupay) opens the film, and segues into Safia (Rasika Dugal, playing Manto’s wife) reading it out in the present. Another story (100 Watt Bulb) erupts when Manto’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) cigarette is lit by… a character from the story. Much later, Manto’s close friend, the 1940s star Shyam (Tahir Raj Bhasin), snaps at him for being unable to separate real life from his writing. They’ve just heard the horrific experiences of a man who was attacked during the Partition, and Manto’s mind is already writing the “dialogues” of a story. And when the story Khol Do begins to unfold, you aren’t sure if Manto really saw the man he based it on (though we see him), or merely imagined him. The marvellously fluid editing (Sreekar Prasad) keeps us off balance.

You expect a film about a great writer to be built around his facility with the language – and Nandita delivers on that count, too. When asked why he doesn’t use a typewriter, Manto says, “Typing ki shor se mere dimaag ki titliyaan ud jaati hain!” Here’s Manto writing his own epitaph: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto, wondering if he’s the better storyteller or God is!” When Manto leaves his beloved Bombay for Karachi, he passes by a shop which makes him remember that he owes the owner one rupee. Shyam says he will repay this amount. Manto says, “Nahin. Main chahta hoon ki zindagi bhar is shehar ka karzdaar rahoon.” No translation (not mine, at least) could do these lines justice, and no other actor can possibly toss them off at this precise point between dry literary zinger and punchy masala-movie dialogue. I can’t think of anything new to say about Nawazuddin Siddiqui – the only way to write freshly about his performance, anymore, may be if he really stinks up a movie.

I can’t think of anything new to say about Nawazuddin Siddiqui – the only way to write freshly about his performance, anymore, may be if he really stinks up a movie.

Nandita uses her leading man as her emotional through-line to hold our hand during this episodic narrative, which attempts to balance biographical colour (he liked to collect pens; he drank a lot) with historical perspective – not just of its time, but also of today. Manto – which spans the years from 1946 to 1950 – is speaking to us, now, when its protagonist says we cannot keep blaming the past for our present-day problems. But the topicality that burned through Nandita’s deeply moving first film, Firaaq, is missing here. In that film (which was also episodic), she trained her eyes on various cross-sections of people trying to make sense of a problematic period – and some of that edge is lost when she’s forced to look through someone else’s eyes.

Is the biopic suited to broader political extrapolations? Maybe. But one has to decide whether you want to use a microscope or a telescope. Do you want to peer closely at a man, or gaze into infinity, pondering over his timelessness? Note the leering producer who asks starlets to strip (a too-jolly Rishi Kapoor; he should be playing the Harvey Weinstein of the Hindi film industry, but he comes off like Santa Claus). Manto, in contrast, has this to say when asked why he keeps writing stories about the lives of sex workers instead of workers’ issues or British atrocities: “Aren’t they part of society too?” But the line is too pointed – it sounds like a statement. I wondered if more time could have been spent on Manto’s life and work, instead of his (undeniable) relevance. What, for instance, will audiences who haven’t read Toba Tek Singh make of the end?

But the topicality that burned through Nandita’s deeply moving first film, Firaaq, is missing here. In that film (was also episodic), she trained her eyes on various cross-sections of people trying to make sense of a problematic period – and some of that edge is lost when she’s forced to look through someone else’s eyes.

Nandita doesn’t want to prepare (okay, spoon-feed) the viewer – and that’s her prerogative. But in choosing the panoramic view, we lose a sense of the person she clearly feels so passionately about. Because there are too many Mantos for one movie to do full justice to. There’s a film to be made about the Manto who hung around with the likes of Ismat Chugtai (Rajshri Deshpande, who’s wonderfully open and unaffected), in what could be called the Bloomsbury Group of Bombay. There’s the Manto who ran afoul of the Progressive Writers Association. There’s the Manto who fought a number of obscenity trials. (The case around Thanda Gosht occupies a huge part of the film.) And then, we have Manto, who struggled to find in Karachi the literary climate of Bombay. We have Manto, the friend; Manto, the father; Manto, the screenwriter; Manto, the husband.

One part of me wanted to applaud the fact that Nandita didn’t take the easy way out, using a personal/emotional clothesline to pin the events on. (Zakir Hussain’s score saves its swells for a few crucial scenes. Otherwise, it’s just brief, unsentimental snatches from instruments we don’t hear much in today’s films: sitar, sarangi, saxophone.) Another part of me craved this very emotion. Instead of the long trial (which says little that’s new about free speech), could we not have seen more of the friendship between Manto and Shyam (Tahir Raj Bhasin is unexpectedly stiff; it’s as though he’s trying too hard to nail the manneredness of a 1940s matinee idol)? Or the Manto-Ismat relationship (though I loved the touch of their first meeting being described through a letter)? And poor Rasika Dugal is reduced to playing the millionth iteration of Long-Suffering Wife of Difficult and Troubled Genius. What about a film that used this marriage as its narrative engine?

Manto goes after a bit of everything – the result is a solid work with many affecting passages, but without the focus that might have made it a greater film. Nandita Das proves, again, that her most distinctive quality is understatedness. The production design (Rita Ghosh) and semi-sepia cinematography (Kartik Vijay) don’t oversell the period detail with posters and cutesy knick-knacks. Brief flashes of an event, instead, clue us in. An Achhut Kanya song is hummed. Jaddanbai (a fantastic Ila Arun) sings, with a coltish Nargis (who isn’t introduced as so-and-so) standing nearby. Shyam and Suraiya rehearse Tu mera chand main teri chandni, their soon-to-be-chartbuster from Dillagi. Fireworks go off when India gets independence. Thousands of Muslims move to Pakistan (in a single scene). Gandhi is assassinated. And through it all, Manto keeps writing.

Rating:   star
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