Director: Rahat Kazmi

Cast: Raghubir Yadav, Sonal Sehgal, Veerendra Saxena

I’ve learned, over the years, not to be fooled by the shiny film-festival laurels that precede the opening credits of a low-key Indian film. Many use the prestigious Cannes symbol to condition our minds, conveniently not mentioning that it may have played in the ‘market’ section – where virtually anyone can screen their unfinished cuts to attract funders for their incomplete project.

From the looks of it, Mantostaan, directed by Rahat Kazmi, clearly didn’t find any international collaborators. The ‘work-in-progress’ look is unfortunate, made even more glaring by its failure to visually translate some very famous Urdu literature. Like many others of its kind, it relies solely on the fact that its content is inherently disturbing, popular and “serious” enough to not mock. If only.

Based on four separate Partition-based short stories (Khol Do, Thanda Gosht, Aakhri Salute, Assignment) by Saadat Hasan Manto, this film is visibly a product of ardent admiration for the playwright. Kazmi seems to more of a fan than a fellow craftsman, desperate to optimize his tribute, irrespective of obvious budgetary constraints. As a result, what could have been four effective short films is forcibly ‘woven’ into one greedy, disruptive, disjointed narrative.

Kazmi evidently has a lot of things to say. Some useful, some outdated. He might just be using the wrong medium

The four threads try to convince us that they’re happening simultaneously in 1947: a Muslim man separated from his daughter after a violent massacre in Amritsar, a distressed girl caring for her ill father in their family compound, rival soldiers exchanging friendly nostalgic banter across the Kashmir border, and a sexually charged Sikh rioter shacked up with his jealous girlfriend after going on a murderous spree. On their own, these stories are worth imagining. Here, they feel like unnecessarily scattered pieces of a chaotic jigsaw puzzle.

Make no mistake, they’re still shot as different period films in disparate environments, but they’ve been chopped up into scenes and merged together in the hope that the concept of emotional continuity is a mythical legend. So we have the maker cutting (or, at times, just fading to black) from a person dying in one narrative to a person being killed in another – and none of the scenes are allowed to realize their full gravity, because the screenplay wants to play around like an errant child with no control over its moods.

These silly digressions are the structural equivalent of me mentioning that I like crocodiles because they seem to have this perpetual goofy grin on their faces (snouts?) in the middle of this review, and then playing Jawaharlal Nehru’s Freedom at Midnight speech immediately after.

There’s one particularly powerful scene of a rescued girl, traumatized by images of her rape, triggered by a command, subconsciously pulling off her clothes in front of her father. She is so disoriented that she responds, heartbreakingly, to a fleeting memory. But this shot is divided into two parts, separated by three other stories equally desperate to reach the finish line. By the time we register the shock on her father’s face, the other characters have annoyed us way too much to care.

It doesn’t help that the soldier portion is populated by awkward faces that behave like they’ve been asked to emote with guns to their heads. Or that strange Ram Gopal Varma-ish framing techniques (poor Raghubir Yadav often struggles with the weight of the strapped-on Steadicam) are supposed to disguise the technical lack of finesse.

I remember reviewing the director’s previous film, a ditzy effort on contemporary war-torn Kashmir, called Identity Card (2014). That, too, ended with a PPT-style slate of numbers serving as a history lesson – the kind that most clumsy, self-important ‘social-message’ dramas employ to compensate for their infantile storytelling. Nothing has changed. Artistic expression is still an afterthought. Kazmi evidently has a lot of things to say. Some useful, some outdated. He might just be using the wrong medium.

Rating:   star

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