Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Rasika Duga,l Rajshri Deshpande
Director: Nandita Das
Rating: 3.5 Moons
Nandita Das’s representation of celebrated author Saadat Hasan Manto’s life on celluloid concludes with one line: “Manto died at 42. Manto lives on.” He certainly does. Not just through his stories but also with the help of filmmakers capable of understanding the tragic dilemma of his soul and metamorphosing it on screen through actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Das’s decision of casting Nawazuddin in and as Manto is coherent from the first scene itself. Yes, Manto lives on – through his routine of seeking solace in tobacco and alcohol, his ideologies of the catastrophic consequence of partition, his perception of presenting the exact scenario of society or coyly dismissing a prostitute. In Manto, Das has not just touched upon the writer’s intellect but the dire straits as well that circumscribe his existence after India achieves independence.
If writing is Manto’s first love, Bombay is his second while his conscience is an amalgamation of both. Over coffee-table intelligentsia naatak, Manto is advised to center his short stories around the arduous circumstances of mill workers or the atrocities of the British in the pre-independence era instead of “empathizing” with sex workers. However, fraternizing with Manto indefinitely implies complying with his ideology irrespective of whether it converges with that of the rest.
“Agar mere afsaano bardaasht nahi kar sakte....iska matlab yeh hai ki...zamaana hi nakabile bardaasht hai,” Manto’s cutting riposte in response to myriad opinions is static as he espouses that society isn’t worthy of toleration if it refuses to condone his stoic representation of it. With independence though, Das shifts the scenario to the most evident context – division through religion. Ahead of August 15, 1947, Muslims in Bombay contemplate settling in Pakistan in the fear of being ‘destroyed’ by Hindus. Manto overhears a particular conversation as such between two employees at a shoe-store but shrugs it off. It does influence him subtly, after a riot ensues around the same time, but not enough to convince him to settle in Lahore with a job as per the whims and fancies of his family.
But religion ultimately interferes through a conversation between Manto and his close friend, an aspiring actor, Shyam Chadda (Tahir Raj Bhasin). Shyam’s distant family witnesses the consequence of a mob attack in Bombay during their visit from Rawalpindi. Manto’s habit of pronouncing their anguish through poetry is relinquished as “dialoguebaazi” by Shyam as he furiously exclaims, “Muslims should be killed”. Manto, stupefied by Shyam’s comment, enquires whether Shyam would kill him as well on account of his religion. Shyam’s answer results in Manto’s decision of abandoning his beloved Bombay and relocating to Lahore.
In Lahore, Manto finds himself in a distraught scenario burdened with the repercussions of partition – killings, abduction and destruction while he struggles to find the essence of Bombay in Pakistan. He fails to the extent that he avoids association with his friends from India and also refuses to respond to their letters. His wife Safia (Rasika Dugal) stands beside him like a pillar and while she forcefully reads a letter from Bombay to Manto, he battles to compose himself in an attempt to push his revered city away from him because of existing at a point of no return.
His plight, in no time, multiplies as his short story Thanda Gosht ends up offending clerics and the community in Lahore and Manto is dragged to court, accused of using “offensive” language in his narration depicting the unfolding of events after the birth of India and Pakistan. While Manto reinforces Thanda Gosht as do his supporters – the chief editor of a prominent newspaper and the principal of a college, the writer is fined as the court finds him guilty of the cause.
Nandita Das, in her endeavor of personifying Manto on celluloid, has also been successful in directing the various shades of his character – a loving husband and a doting father. But Manto is such that his predominant personality of a writer overpowers the rest. Safia insists that his books might end up causing misery than reverence but Manto is sure about the fact that he is way ahead of his time.
Manto, possibly, wouldn’t have been even half of what it is without Nawazuddin’s phenomenal show and Das’s meticulous direction. The screenplay is such that actors, who appear for probably a minute, will hound your soul long after their part is over. Be it Paresh Rawal as the inundating flesh-peddler, Tannishtha Shome as a harassed prostitute or Gurdas Mann’s longing search for his daughter Sakina in the midst of the wrath escalated by the partition. Every character in Manto has been precisely plotted in the storyline. Safia and Shyam – Manto’s closest clan, exude brilliance on screen effortlessly.
Manto poignantly transports to the 1940s for not just the exhibition of characters but also because of Zakir Hussain’s background score – it feels real-time. Manto, thus, lives on beyond the hours in the cinema for reasons that Das has managed to disseminate in our spiritual being forever.
Before departing for Lahore, Manto reminds Shyam in the taxi while passing Marine Drive in Bombay that he owes a rupee for a pan to Govind, the owner of the shop. While Shyam insists that he will settle his dues, Manto directs him to refrain from doing so because he wants to remain indebted to the city. Just like we will be to him and Das.