By Deepa Gahlot
Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, has been the go-to name for those who wish to proclaim their liberal and humanist beliefs. His reputation as a chronicler of human misery and depravity is mostly based on a dozen of his short stories that have been selected for anthologies, stage plays and some films. But the life of the writer with a prolific output (22 collections of short stories plus radio plays, essays, movie scripts and a novel), may not have been as interesting as some of his stories, if Nandita Das’s handsomely mounted film, Manto is to be taken as a gauge.
He grew up in Foras Road (near Mumbai’s red light district), so many of his stories are about pimps and prostitutes; he worked in the Mumbai movie industry, so he has written about the stars, and then the tragic tumult of the Partition that produced some his most brilliant stories—the greatest being Toba Tek Singh. When accused of writing bleak or depressing stories, he claimed he wrote the truth of what he saw for himself. Das expertly introduces some of his stories into the narrative, and the device works wonderfully
From being the toast of Mumbai’s literary and film scenes, Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) chucks it all up after Partition to move to Pakistan, where his life goes into a downward spiral of alcoholism and despair, (he died at 42 of cirrhosis of the liver). More than the mind of the man himself, Das captures the period—the film industry portions have real life characters like Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Jaddan Bai, Nargis, K.Asif, and also contemporary writers like Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Latif and Krishan Chander flitting through the film.
His wife Safia (Rasika Dugal) is almost a stereotype of the suffering woman in the life of a man more attuned to the lives of his fictional characters, than his own family—however, he is potrayed as an attentive father.
He was tried six times for obscenity (the last case for the truly shocking story Thanda Gosht), and seemed to become a poster boy for freedom of expression, though other writers of the time also wrote about the Partition with as much, or more, sensitivity.
The film is not so much about Manto as the idea of a writer as iconoclast; there is a certain banality about the story of the artiste who drank himself to death, suffered because the society around him was “unbearable,” he didn’t get his due while he was alive. Manto’s work has survived because he did write with a voyeuristic style that was fascinating precisely because it horrified the reader.
What Nandita Das’s script does capture is his dry wit and honesty—he did not care about endearing himself to anybody. Siddiqui looks the part and wears the cynical smirk and glower well, unfortunately, the other parts are so fleeting, there is nobody to spar with. Das has filled the screen with dazzling cameos—Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Javed Akhtar, Gurdaas Maan, Divya Dutta, Ila Arun and many others.
If nothing else, the film might just get its viewers to read Manto’s stories and discover for themselves what the fuss over him is all about.
Director: Nandita Das
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Rajshree Deshpande and others
Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best known entertainment journalists. A National Awardwinning film critic, Deepa has watched more movies and theatre than most people in the country. An author of several books on film and theatre, she has had an extremely successful run as head of theatre and film at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, during which she helped nurture several original productions. For Xyngr, Deepa Gahlot reviews theatre and cinema.