A Manto-lover’s view on ‘Manto’

Manto Nawazuddin Siddiqui

By Jameel Gulrays

While we carried our film and theatre expert Deepa Gahlot’s review of Manto last weekend, given that the film is about the famed Urdu litterateur, we thought it would also be good to get a point of view from someone who has lived the literature of Manto over many years. We invited Jameel Gulrays, an expert on Manto, to tell us what he thought of the film.

Jameel Gulrays is a veteran advertising professional whose initiative Katha Kathan, is an attempt to bring people closer to Indian languages through literature. In recent years, Gulrays has evangelised the Urdu language via readings – on-ground and via a YouTube channel and Facebook Live. Among other events, Katha Kathan organised ‘The Other Side of Manto’ where four lesser known works of the writer were presented.

Read on…

Re: So what do you think of the movie?

J: Hmmm….

Re: What does that mean?

J: What did you think?

Re: Well, does that girl in the opening scene know why she was being taken in the car?

J: That.. that was from Dus Rupai..

Re: Oh.. and how would I know that?

J: That’s why you must read

Re: Not fair. I do not know Urdu literature and I have not read it… how was I to know… like also that woman, who kills the man with a bulb

J: You mean the scene that was based on Sau candle power ka bulb

Re: Uff! Again, how am I supposed to know that!

This is an excerpt of a conversation between two people who came out seeing Nandita Das’s ‘Manto’. One who did not know Manto that well, the other a Manto aficionado.

Filming real people who have walked this earth and have left behind a legacy of thoughts and philosophies to follow is always a challenge. An example is Gandhi, who came alive as real as the man himself in Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi, and also came alive for his ethos that reached the audience – cloaked in their times and their language, through Raju Hirani’s ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’.

Filming the multi-faceted Manto, could not have been an easy task for any filmmaker, and I would doff my hat to Nandita for taking on this arduous challenge. Her work is a piece of passion and gives the youth of today a glimpse into the complex character of one of India’s greatest writers. Nawazuddin Siddiqui has gotten into the skin of Manto, as Ben Kingsley did into the skin of Gandhi. The director’s eye for detail can be seen in the body language, and mannerisms she elicited, from one of the finest actors of Indian cinema.

As a Manto aficionado who has read all of his 300+ pieces of writing, the movie is an on-screen warp-and-weft of his life, interspersed with his stories. It was easy to put together the puzzle and decipher the pieces as they floated-by, on-screen this was a tapestry of what I have read through my 50+ years of journey through Urdu literature.

The regret though is that the movie could have done more justice to how the author was introduced to a generation that is anything, but familiar with who this man is. The movie was a chance to introduce the writer and the realism in his writing, which is akin to some of the greatest authors like Mark Twain, PG Wodehouse, Maxim Gorky (whose writings were translated into Urdu by Manto) etc., in a comprehensible manner to this set of people.

The film falls short of bringing forth the ‘why’ of Manto, and all that influenced his writing to the fore. The pressure of saying a lot in a short time results in not delving long enough on an aspect that could be understood by a Manto novice. A lot of the viewers may not understand the film completely if they haven’t read the Jogeshwari speech, ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’ or the stories- Mr. Mehmooda, Khol Do, Thanda Gosht, Toba Tek Singh, Siyah Hashiye collection, Sahay etc., which were touched upon in the film.

Another regret I came away with was that the movie again typecasts Manto as a brooding personality and a dark writer. It does not delve much on the witty and generous facet of his life. In this, I do feel, the film will does not do Manto any favour in terms of changing the colours that he is painted in, and though that is not the intention of Nandita Das, most of those who see the film, who are likely to fall in the 18-35 age group that is meeting Manto for the first time, will leave the theatre with a picture of a sombre, frustrated and failed writer.

But despite these chinks, the effort and love behind Manto is unmissable, which is demonstrated in the fact that it is a movie that draws you to it as Nandita Das puts it together in a form that people can sit through the one hour, fifty two minutes of the movie’s running.

in pictures here: Left: A Wikipedia image of Manto, the movie poster in the centre and on the right: Jameel Gulrays

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