No interpretation of Manto’s work and life is without his heartbreaking journey from India to Pakistan as partition took place in 1947. His stories and his writings bore and exude the same heartbreak. As does the Nawazuddin Siddiqi and Nandita Das project “Manto”. Partition of one country into two, communal tensions and Manto’s short stories being interweaved into Manto’s real life story as a husband, father and friend are the key elements of the film.
Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s “Manto” took the same interpretation. It took partition, Manto’s life and Manto’s stories and amalgamated it into one narrative with dramatic liberties with surrealistic retelling of some of Manto’s tales.
One of the real powers of Manto’s stories is the organic and raw portrayal of humanity, the stories of people that no one wanted to tell. Manto’s style doesn’t borrow from anyone or anything but finds its pace in the ugliness of real life and finds its truth in death and discord. In the era that Manto wrote, Urdu literature was in a world of upheaval like its geographical birthplace. Manto’s works are evident of the angst and the pain that is borne out of such a tumultuous epoch.
At one point in Nandita Das’ film, someone asked Manto to contribute or use his talents to more ‘positive’ and ‘constructive’ causes instead of writing about prostitutes. Manto responds by saying that he had seen these women swallowed by darkness in front of him, why shouldn’t he write about them? There was something about telling the story of the unspoken underdog, the vicious underbelly of a respected society that no one dared speak of. Manto ruffled feathers along with his peers such as Ismat Chughtai, and Manto’s stories “Thanda Gosht”, “Khol Do” and “Toba Tek Singh” shook the core of the literary circles of the time.
Kartik Vijay’s excellent cinematography captures the era of yore without relying too much on the sepia gradient. The attention to detail is also fairly precise except in maybe one or two places where locals in Lahore are speaking in very non-Punjabi accents. But these are small flaws in the face of a very good film.
With friends and family turning on each other and communal tensions rising, writers, poets and artisans have taken sides. Some rebels, like Manto, spoke of reminding people of their humanity. Whereas some stuck with the status quo or chose to enforce a ‘positive’ outlook. This is where the screenplay is at its strongest but doesn’t go further from this point onwards. However, Nawazuddin Siddiqui explores this conflict, takes his time and uses his extremely expressive eyes and his slow, measured dialogue delivery to bring the essence of the film to forefront. The film also is yet another proof of Siddiqui’s phenomenal talent as an actor and as a performer. The film is less Nandita’s triumph and more Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s. He completely morphs into a tortured artist and writer. There is no hint of any other role that Siddiqui has played before. He plays Manto’s dual sided life to perfection: while Manto is a loving father and a doting husband, he is also losing contact with reality and fighting a somewhat lonely war against an invincible social and political upheaval.
For powerful supporting performances by Rasika Duggal, Tahir Raj Bhasin and Rajshri Deshpande and a beautiful depiction of Manto by Nawazuddin, the film packs a punch and delivers it without you even realizing it.
Verdict: 3.5/5 stars.