Saadat Hasan Manto’s life and times is perfectly captured in his own words: Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey mun. The madness of the Partition violence, the loss of one’s country, the loss of friends, the constant struggle to get one’s nonconformist views accepted, the decay of a society quick to brush its marginalised under the carpet, alcoholism, and inability to look after his family haunted Manto. The author’s life was riddled with pain and anguish but it is something Nandita Das’ Manto ostensibly falls short of.
Nandita Das’ film is a gift to the fans of the author, especially literature graduates. If one is a bit fuzzy on the details of Manto’s life then she may miss many of the references that Das plants throughout the movie.
In Manto, Das creates two worlds. One is of Manto’s life in disarray and the other is of his stories that he extracts from the society. Das interweaves Manto’s finest works and his life seamlessly. She starts with his haunting short story Dus Rupay and peppers his life with retelling of works like Kali Shalwar, Thanda Gosht, Khol De and Toba Tek Singh. These stories are brought to life by a strong ensemble of some of the industry’s finest actors including Divya Dutta, Ranvir Shorey, Purab Kohli, Paresh Rawal, Tillotama Shome, Vinod Nagpal, Gurdas Maan and Neeraj Kabi.
Das also infuses the dialogues with Manto’s words from Letter to Uncle Sam.
The movie starts off with the country at the brink of independence. The year is 1946 and Manto is and his luminary friends of the progressive artists’ movement are ruffling up some orthodox feathers. His partner-in-crime is Ismat Chugtai who has already written Lihaaf and has been receiving anonymous hate mails for it. Manto is also close to the popular movie industry personalities from Bombay Talkies including Ashok Kumar and Jaddan Bai. He attends soirees with them, attended by the who’s who of the film industry. His closest friend is Shyam Chadda, who is still trying to make it big in the industry and does not leave his side.
Soon, the tides start turning. The celebration of Independence does not last long. With Hindu-Muslim riots and violence breaking out every day, Manto is forced to make a choice. Should he stay behind in India, his country, where his mother, father and first child lay buried, and the place he has loved and lived in his entire life? Or should he move to Pakistan, the new country where he can start afresh and not get killed for his religion? The choice is made easy, one evening, in a heated discussion with Chadda.
In Pakistan, devastated by the partition, and with orthodox authority figures, there’s nothing much for Manto. He squanders the few bucks he earns on alcohol, and pushes away family, friends, well-wishers and all.
There is perhaps no one better than Nawazuddin Siddiqui to play Manto. The wiry physique, the round-rimmed glasses, a head full of messy hair – Siddiqui appears perfect. He does flawlessly with what he is given. In fact, his portrayal of Saadat Hasan Manto is one of the actor’s finest. Rasika Dugal as Safiya is a quiet force in herself and is memorable. Tahir Raj Bhasin as Shyam Chadda is immensely likeable and the foil to Manto’s brooding and intensity.
Rishi Kapoor as a film producer, Javed Akhtar as a Pakistani academic, Ila Arun as Jaddan Bai are only some of the delights that Nandita Das offers to the audience.
However, one can’t shake off the feeling that Manto’s anguish did not quite make it to the screen and all the movie did was scratch the surface of Manto’s anguished life. There was less of Saadat Hasan Manto in the movie than the world that made him.