Director: Nandita Das
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Rajshri Deshpande, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Shashank Arora
Most biopics celebrate the human in the artist; Manto looks for the human in the art. At one point in this film, the formidable Urdu writer, who is being tried for obscenity by a Lahore court for yet another short story, decides to argue his own case. He presses on about the importance of "context" – don't judge a word or a line in isolation, but in context of the writer's career, his surroundings, his worldview. This could very well have been the filmmaker directly addressing the viewers of Manto.
Director Nandita Das beautifully stitches five of the famous Urdu author's short stories into the narrative of his life's definitive five-year period. But perhaps her film's most distinctive trait is its contextualization of his life through his work, rather than vice versa. It's the equivalent of Sanju choosing to use his movie roles, instead of sidelining them, to depict the psychology of his transformations. Or Dhoni: The Untold Story using his cricket as more than just narrative dressing. Here it's Manto, the person, which is weaved around the five stories.
For example, in the first story, Dus Rupay, we see the young girl apply a fairness cream of sorts before she leaves for the beach with a set of clients. Some scenes later, this observation is mirrored in life when Manto confronts a sleazy producer (Rishi Kapoor, playing Romy Rolly's evil brother) about his script: the man is busy judging two disrobed starlets, before rejecting the dark-skinned one. Manto's eyes meet hers for a second.
The Partition tales – Khol Do, Thanda Gosht and Toba Tek Singh – dot his disillusionment in Pakistan, away from the India he dearly misses. He has lived through the tears of separation; he has seen the agony of division.
Two of his prostitute-and-pimp tales, Dus Rupay and 100-Watt Bulb, dot his time in pre-Independence India. As a non-practicing Muslim, religion is yet to make his words. When fellow provocateur Ismat Chugtai (a supremely charismatic Rajshri Deshpande) teases him about the extent of his own voice in these stories, he storms out in a rage. He knows she's right – he may empathize with sex workers, he may notice and imagine them, but he hasn't lived what they go through. In a nation united by British chains, he simply privatizes the pain of the maligned and marginalized.
The Partition tales – Khol Do, Thanda Gosht and Toba Tek Singh – dot his disillusionment in Pakistan, away from the India he dearly misses. He has lived through the tears of separation; he has seen the agony of division. As a man who has been forced to recognize his own religion, he rebels against it; he drinks, smokes and writes about sex, corpses, death and depravity. In a nation divided by margins, he simply publicizes the pain of the severed and the detached.
Each of them plays out like a short film with an independent set of actors. In each, there's a different piece of Manto's being. And each of them bears the visual physicality of a dream. They become an extension of a scene, refusing to demarcate fact from fiction – essentially replicating the emotional grammar of the "mental demons" that often plague, and inform, the personality of a troubled writer. In a way, they seem to suggest: Ordinary writers are haunted by nightmares; Saadat Hasan Manto is haunted by words.
The remarkable thing about Nawazuddin Siddiqui's performance is his ability to blend into the era rather than advertise its aura. Most actors play real-life characters like they know the future, the importance, of the legacy. An example here is the otherwise-promising Tahir Raj Bhasin (as Manto's best friend Shyam Chaddha), who behaves like he knows he is playing a 1940s matinee star; when he is on screen, even the period details and the sepia-tinted frames look a little…designed. Another false note is Shashank Arora as a Pakistani drinking buddy who, like Jim Sarbh in Sanju, acts like he exists only to prey on the conflicted protagonist's weakness.
But Siddiqui doesn't play the Manto. He plays a screenwriter, journalist, friend, frustrated freelancer (even in 1948, freelancers had to beg for their dues), husband and alcoholic. He goes from a writer who sees a story in everything to an artist who uses everything – including his fading sanity – to tell a story. Rasika Dugal plays his long-suffering wife Safia with the kind of gentle ambiguity that forces Manto to come across as a selfish partner who is saving all his feelings for his characters. As a man who opts to live for writing rather than write for a living. As a man who, when faced with a hefty fine, would rather dwell on Faiz Ahmed Faiz's comment on the "standard" of his literature than appreciate the poet's defense of his morality.
While each of the stories give us different portions of his mind to form a whole, they take from him until there's no mind left. Toba Tek Singh, in particular, is exemplary of this condition. A few weeks ago, I was unmoved by Ketan Mehta's 75-minute web film adaptation starring Pankaj Kapur. Today, after recognizing when and how it might have been conceived – context – it becomes more than just a story; it becomes a voice, a time, and most importantly, a real person. Because for Manto, literature is merely the language of madness.