Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) remains the most popular and translated of Urdu short story writers, 63 years after his death. Manto, the long-awaited Nandita Das film chronicles Manto's final life-altering years.
We first meet Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) as a Bombay-based short story and film-writer in the mid-1940s. The partition and its hate-fuelled aftermath force Manto to settle in post-independent Lahore, Pakistan with his wife (Rasika Dugal) and two young daughters.
As alcohol and chain-smoking takes over Manto's life, ill-health, poverty, depression and loneliness follow. Manto also writes his best stories during this period. Interwoven to the narrative are some of these intense, nightmarish stories, most reflecting Manto's hellish echoes of partition and the death of humanity.
The shocking revelation of Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) makes an appearance, so do other searing stories like Dus Rupay (Ten Rupees) and most tellingly in the movie, Toba Tek Singh.
Quiet Beginning, Sombre End
Don't look for Bollywood escapism in Manto. The writer's fans will understand and go with the movie's melancholy tone. Manto wrote of prostitutes, rapists, murderers, pimps, madmen and vile hearts. Truth, basically. Yet, even for readers of literature, Manto doesn't flow straight like one of the writer's timeless, gritty stories, though the superb art direction (the amazingly recreated 1940s) transports us to the era and the performances add depth.
We never see Manto experiencing the horrors of partition. The story sources are mentioned fleetingly. We do not exactly know where they sprout from, but for vague suggestions. No scene towers or stands out in sheer intensity.
To her credit, Das stays true to Manto's spirit, makes no fictional assumptions. She unravels his middle-aged life with painstaking faithfulness, but the screenplay lacks bite and has an in-transit feel, devoid of cinematic magic.
Manto is still an admirable attempt at what was always going to be a cliffhanger storytelling achievement. Just how does one engagingly tell of a self-destructive, angst-ridden, stubborn, fading writer? Nandita Das gets there in huge bits and parts, but by the end credits, the effect is of part-exhaustion and part-satisfaction of viewing a smoky, adorned-with-sadness film.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui makes a good cut of the slowly sinking Manto, a balanced, intelligent performance. Raskia Dugal is apt as the supportive wife, as is Tahir Raj Bhasin as Sundar Shyam Chadda: the film star friend. Rajshri Deshpande as noted Urdu writer and friend Ismat Chughtai makes most of her short role. Many actors like Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta, Gurdas Maan, Bhanu Uday, Neeraj Kabi and writer, poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar play brief, important parts.
Manto, the Nowhere Man
The film finally comes together in its last ten minutes, when the lunatic narrative of Toba Tek Singh is compared with Manto's plight. Like the story's protagonist and the film's beautifully done title design, Manto is caught between the illogical parting of two nations and a city he longs for. The end.
Manto, the Movie
There is so much in Manto to love, the well-etched characterization, the detailed and evident documentation and research, some great dialogues, the understated beauty of the Urdu language, and the stark visuals. Despite all its strengths, Manto doesn't hit as hard as the director's first, Firaaq (2008). But I will still recommend Manto, though mitigated, this is a sincere, slow burn of a movie.