Director: Ketan Mehta
Cast: Pankaj Kapur, Vinay Pathak
Streaming platform: ZEE5
Ketan Mehta’s 73-minute movie is a very bland, word-by-word and almost children’s-film-like adaptation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s final short story. It revolves around Bishan Singh (Pankaj Kapur), an inmate of a Lahore asylum that has been instructed to exchange its Sikh and Hindu lunatics for Muslim ones from India after the Partition. Bishan Singh, an enigma from the town of Toba Tek Singh, and a man who hasn’t slept for ten years, is unsure of where he belongs. He stood in India, and without moving, suddenly finds himself in Pakistan. As an imposter, no less. The subtext is poignant – not even the clinically insane can understand the madness of dividing a nation with a pen.
In that sense, Toba Tek Singh isn’t a bad film, but it certainly defeats the purpose of translating words into moments. Mehta seems so content with merely lending form to the Pakistani author’s perspective that he forgets to interpret it. Only the literal physicality – the “legend” – of a mental asylum is brought to life, not its metaphorical significance or satirical rage. It has a distinct retro-television texture, with characters that sound and react like they exist only to depict Manto’s designs rather the emotional repercussions on their own environment.
Take, for example, Mehta’s decision to introduce Vinay Pathak as Manto himself: an empathetic writer who becomes the asylum superintendent in search of new stories. Or the device of his assistant: a veteran who serves him tea and narrates to him the bio-data and nature of each patient on his arrival. This lays the ground for a literary voiceover – that is, Manto’s writings are merely read out across corresponding images rather than sensed. None of them have a personality beyond their descriptions on paper.
In essence, this Toba Tek Singh then comes across as the student who mugs up the answers from study guides and refuses to venture outside of the holy syllabus
There’s a scene in which Manto reads out one of his verses to a rape survivor in the women’s ward. It’s an evocative image, yet it’s difficult to be moved by it because it has no bearing on the author’s character in context of Bishan Singh’s fate. It’s just there. The history of what is happening beyond the asylum walls is never quite palpable, because we are fed each detail not from the life of a film but from the pages of a book. Some of the inmates, under the guise of mental disability, even express their opinions directly to the camera. Most of them behave like stage actors who’ve been instructed to appropriate the new medium instead of elevate it.
Kapur is fine as the man who keeps standing, but remains at the mercy of an unimaginative script that refuses to exploit his stature. In essence, this Toba Tek Singh then comes across as the student who mugs up the answers from study guides and refuses to venture outside of the holy syllabus. Translation: It regurgitates the look of a land being broken, but fails to reflect the pieces of it.