25 Sep 2018

Movie Review: Manto: Tragic, melancholic slow-burner, seeking depth

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.

Performances Rule! 
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.

2 Sep 2018

Movie Review: Stree: Fresh Funny Take on the Horror Genre

There is a lot going for Stree. It starts on a spooky note, mines some great laughs, has a cast at the top of their game, and you just don't know where it will go. For the most part of the over 2-hour running time, I was plugged in. This lively horror comedy, set in a sleepy village in Madhya Pradesh has lots of freshness and spark.

The Stree Story 
Vicky (Rajkummar Rao) is a gifted ladies village tailor who falls for a beautiful mysterious woman (Shraddha Kapoor). Strangely, Vicky sees the girl only four days a year, during the festival season. Meanwhile, a witch, simply called stree (woman), terrorises the village at night. In a nice horror genre reversal, it picks up men and disappears, leaving behind their clothes.

Vicky's friends, Bittu (Aparshakti Khurrana) and Jaana (Abhishek Banerjee) suspect that his beautiful friend is the witch. When Jaana is also kidnapped by the witch, Vicky's suspicion grows. Who is stree and what does she want?

Great Funny Treatment, Smothered Ending 
Stree blends humour with the horror genre to great effect, riffing off one funny sequence after another. The horror is not in-your-face, but cleverly added and improvised. The film falters and stumbles in its last 15 minutes, with no particular resolution or message.

The Nora Fatehi body show goes against the film's spirit. Women must not be treated as objects, is a  mildly suggested message. Gender equality is merely brushed over, and the final revelation doesn't add up. Though the non-consequential ending hampers the movie, by then I was quite satisfied with the entire movie in general.

Performances, Sound Effects  
Shraddha Kapoor nails her mysterious character impressively, this is her acting redemption. Aparshakti Khurrana is a good sport as is Abhishek Banerjee. Pankaj Tripathi rocks as Rudra, the witch expert and scholar.

But it is Rajkummar Rao who reaches out to us in many shades. From a stammering lover, rebellious son, blabbering friend to a "my-eyes-are-a-measuring-tape" tailor, he lights up the screen again. Watch out for how Rao, cornered and afraid, expresses his love to a witch. That's just one of the scenes he dazzles in. Rao sets a new acting standard, for the second consecutive year.

Applause for dialogue writer Sumit Arora, for screenplay writers Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K.and director Amar Kaushik. A note also for the sound department for some very effective and clever effects.

Stree Review
Stree may not make it to our Best Hindi Films of the Year list, but I couldn't help liking about 100 minutes (out of 127 minutes) of it. Its novel, out-of-the-box and damn too funny to be ignored. Totally worth watching in a cinema hall.