Direction: Nandita Das
Production Company: HP Studios, Film Stoc, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, Nandita Das Initiatives
Writer: Nandita Das
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Duggal, Tahir Hussain, Rajshri Deshpande, Ila Arun, Rishi Kapoor
Cinematography: Kartik Vijay
Editing: R Sreekar Prasad
Sound: Resul Pookutty
Music: Zakir Hussain
Hindi / Biography, Drama, History / 112 mins / India / 2018
Saadat Hasan Manto was a writer far ahead of his times – at least 75 years ahead. But this measure is rather literal and I am saying this because the last seven decades are available to me in retrospection. For those who will remain sensitive to their times and the all-round state of affairs, Manto will become increasingly relevant in time to come. He was way ahead of his closest colleagues and competitors – even prolific contemporaries like Ismat Chughtai; a man for whom labels and cliques like Progressive Writers Association meant nothing; one who never allowed himself to be boxed in by convention and one who couldn’t care less when convention boxed him once in a while.
A man who lived life divided between his heart and life’s reality, one who made his choices whether in story writing or life, exactly as he wanted them – even though and sometimes, the choice was out of his hands. And a man who was willing to pay the price for what he chose. A man who remained unsung in Indian mainstream literature – unfortunately confined to niche circles, till well into the 1980s. He remained unsung till lesser mortals began rediscovering him and found that his work was still holding a mirror to dysfunctional souls in society. Still does. Still is – holding up that mirror.
All this and more characterises Manto. And all this and more is what Nandita Das captures in her second outing as filmmaker. She remains focused on the man, the writer, his complexities while keeping on the periphery issues that surrounded him and defined his writings – Partition, his dynamic friendships and Hindi film industry and more.
With Manto, Das has gone where few have dared to tread before. For there is a reason why writers are hardly captured on screen – its difficult to capture their complex mindspace, times and writings all in one. Beyond the obvious of a life being lived in the real world – writers live in a world of their own. To translate that world on screen is not only difficult but can be intimidating. That is where Das succeeds. Not only does she interweave his short stories like Khol Do, Thanda Gosht and Toba Tek Singh et al into the narrative, she shuttles between reality within and without, effortlessly. The helplessness and hopelessness of the times he lived in, are replicated in his own life. The six trials that he faced on obscenity are more a testimony to the shallow and absurd thought processes of those who sat on judgment than the man himself. The chaos that the country finally slips into after 1947 and the manner in which Manto slipped slowly into insanity, are not very different from each other. In other words, Manto is life unfolding itself. They are inseparable - life and Manto.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui brings to life an extraordinary man - capturing his essence, his sharp wit, his famous temper and his gentility with his wife (Rasika Duggal as Safia in a quiet and powerful performance) and two daughters. His friendship with Shyam Chadha (the famous Hindi film star of the 1940s and 50s) and his unhappiness over shifting to Pakistan all find screen space. Das along with her cinematographer cloaks the film in warm, sepia tones - over shadowing the coldness of the atmosphere as two countries burned!
Images of Partition go beyond the usual portrayal of riots and violence. Instead, the images capture mass movement of people – lost and confused. His stories are told as he saw them. There was no sugar coating the bare, naked truth. Stories that reveal a brilliant mind before descending into chaos when life becomes too much to handle; when there is too much to store and too much to cope up with. Zakir Hussain’s music haunts you long after the film is over and becomes an extension of the pathos of the depicted times.
Das has emerged as a subtle and powerful filmmaker. It’s like she reflects upon and finds more depth to her personality and delves deeper into the subconscious to remain true to Manto. It’s Manto we witness – the stories he wove on paper and strung together like beads on a twisted time chain. And chained to time.