Being a Literature aficionado, of course one knew of Manto. No recounting of great short stories can be complete without the mention of Guy de Maupassant, O Henry, Hemingway, Jack London, Balzac, EM Forster, Chekov and our own Mulk Raj Anand, Munshi Premchand….and of course Manto. So since the time one first heard of the Nandita Das biopic on Manto, I eagerly awaited the September release. Felt doubly excited to hear Manto was premiered at Cannes Film Festival this year. It is a great introduction to Manto, the person.
One had read some stories of Manto and admired the man’s clinical control of his craft. Every story of Saadat Hasan Manto always leaves you gasping, shaken, stirred & exposed: to the core of your being. Nandita Das’ second movie (after Firaq, on the aftermath of the Gujarat riots) Manto does the same.
The movie is set a few years before Partition and ends, just 7 years after 1948, with Manto’s death, when he was just 42 years. While talking of this small slice of Manto’s life, the movie manages to etch in your heart Manto’s love for Bombay, his difficulties with both the “Establishment” in the Bombay film world; his fierce independent stands, amongst the Progressive Writers of the pre Independence days; his dependence on alcohol which would eventually lead to his ruin; his monetary challenges and debts; his total disdain of the editors who sat in judgement of his writings; his friendship; his love for his children; his abrupt decision to shift to Pakistan. Alongwith all these, you see the Manto who exposed himself to the underbelly of dark side of the human condition. Manto explores what people (his fictional(?) characters) experience: prostitution and debauchery on one hand and the harsh pangs of Partition on the other hand. Religious bigotry and one sided thinking is exposed and challenged. And in doing all this Manto suffers, as you do, bleeding while experiencing the movie!
Das has used a very clever trick of interleaving some of Manto’s stories like Thanda Ghosh, Khol Do, Boo, Toba Tek Singh into the recounting of Manto’s life. Indeed these two are inextricably intertwined! What the author Manto saw, the man Manto experienced!! Possibly, writing about all these pains, and that of Partition, was in no way cathartic for Manto. Rather, he sinks deeper into brooding depression and deeper into drinking, progressively moving away from his family and descending into a personal hell. Das depicts this very realistically and logically. She has been aided in this task by an ensemble cast which includes some really fabulous actors like Rishi Kapoor, Ranbir Sheorey, Divya Dutta, Gurdas Mann, Javed Akhtar and Paresh Rawal who recreate Manto’s life and experiences so starkly that it leaves the viewer gasping, and struggling for breath!!
Counterpoint to such a heavy dosage of clawing reality, are two positive side stories: of Manto’s friendship with Shyam (played by Tahir Raj Bhasin) an upcoming actor-star who makes it big; even as Manto’s star is descending on the horizon. Secundo is Rasika Duggal, playing the suffering wife Safia, a true soulmate who understands what Manto is going through, tries her best to build bridges between their daughters and Manto, even understands and condones (?) his excessive drinking binges. But both these positives cannot negate Manto’s self-curse… driving him deeper and deeper into a self-created inferno, which finally ends in his oblivion.
For me 2 sequences stood out and will haunt me for a long long time to come. One was Manto’s speech challenging religious bigotry by both Hindus and Muslims alike when he is invited to speak at a forum for authors. His impassioned arguments turn your own thinking upside down and force you to re-evaluate your own stance on religion and Partition. The second one, is his impassioned defence before the Pakistani court where he has been hauled for obscenity of content and language. His arguments make you revalue what is literary and what is obscenity; what is an author’s responsibility to reflect his experience and external “reality”; what is right; and who can be a judge of what is right??? Some pithy questions raised there. It is interesting that Manto is more hurt by Faiz Ahmed Faiz’ comment that Manto’s writings are not “literature” grade; least bothered that Faiz actually supports his case against obscenity.
Obviously this is Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s place under the sun. His portrayal of the brooding Manto is heart-wrenchingly true to character. The artist’s descent into hell and beyond, is realistically enacted by Nawazuddin. Resultantly the viewer would end up with a better appreciation of Manto the man, Manto the author, Manto the father, Manto the friend, Manto the husband as Nawazuddin has really got under the skin of Manto the character.
As Manto noted: “आखिर में अफसाने ही रह जाते हैं, और उनके किरदार” In the end, all that remains are the stories, and their characters.
If you are a connoisseur of good & serious cinema, vote with your feet: go see Manto!
जिंदाबाद Manto जिंदाबाद!! जिओ Nandita Das!! : in supplication, vikas