Manto: Nandita Das’ film is as much a revolution as Manto’s literature

Ghalib sunane se masle hal nahi hote Sa’saab

-says a heartbroken Safia as Manto and she sit in a park, overlooking their kids playing on the swings in one of the most breaking scenes of the film…

In a court scene in Manto, we see Nawazuddin Siddiqui arguing that one of the writers’ works, Thanda Gosht, is not obscene but a work of literature. He calls upon a colleague, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, to say something in favour of his work in front of the entire courtroom. And Faiz says that though the work isn’t obscene, it’s not Manto’s finest and doesn’t match the standards of literature. Losing this case, and having to pay ₹300 as fine doesn’t affect Manto as much as Faiz’s comment does. That was the trust Manto had in his work of art, that was the kind of abandon he had also. And that’s exactly the kind of faith writer-director Nandita Das, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rasika Dugal have in this script and their individual talents, so as to make Manto one of the finest films coming out of Hindi Cinema.

I watched this film in the evening yesterday, but couldn’t put myself to sit before my computer screen and type words. I almost felt that my words won’t be able to do justice to either Manto himself or to Das’ film. But Miss Das, if I may, I want to ask, how does one deal with so much conflict, internal and external, and present this maturely written screenplay! In the hands of some other director, Manto would’ve been a sloppy mess. But along with editor Sreekar Prasad, Nandita Das tackles the internal conflict of Saadat Hasan Manto with grace.

The film involves a seamless weaving of five of Manto’s most famous works –10 Rupaya, 100 Watt Bulb, Thanda Gosht, Khol Do and Toba Tek Singh – into the main narrative as if Manto is living these lives himself, along with the people around him. Saadat Hasan Manto’s work is known to excel in the areas of prostitution, the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. When the film starts, Manto is in Bombay, a city which is not just a city for him but his sort of best friend. To personify a place as a person on paper is tough, but doable, but to do the same on screen is even tougher and people usually don’t succeed. But when it’s Nandita Das, you see her fly high. When, after the partition, Manto moves to Lahore, Das makes you believe that her protagonist hasn’t just changed cities but that a character is missing from the narrative.

The story starts in 1946 and winds up around the mid-’50s so don’t expect a full-fledged biopic. Don’t come out and say “I wanted to know more.” These are the few years of Manto’s life that Das wanted to show, and she has done that beautifully.

And the fact that the creation of Bombay and Lahore, and the horrors of the Partition are so real, Das seems to hint at the reality that exists around us today. She tries to tell that all the atrocities that were a part of Manto’s time are a part of our time too, so where is the progress?

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tahir Raj Bhasin

Manto was a man with too much conflict, mostly internal. To portray this in times of war, when there is so much conflict around oneself, Das needed an expert, she needed someone who would shed off everything he had of himself and become Manto, accept his problems, and most importantly, become his conflict. She needed someone who could make her audience believe that socio-economic-political struggles don’t necessarily need to be fought against at the forefront, but that works of art have the power to do so too. Because Manto is a man who is against so many atrocities, but he never starts a revolution, he never goes into the battlefield. That too, becomes a part of his conflict. And Nawazuddin Siddiqui is just that person. He not only looks exactly the part, but plays Manto to his fullest. If on watching his previous films, you think Siddiqui is a master of his craft, after watching Manto, you’ll know that he’s a master of that master too! This is his best performance to date, and the best I’ve watched this year.

Complimenting Nawaz at every step is Rasika Dugal as Manto’s wife, Safia. She’s the anti-Manto. She’s not against her husband but Safia is most of the things that Manto is not. In a scene when both Safia and Manto are sitting in a park, trying to create stories out of people around them, she remarks, “afsane toh aap likhte hain.” I wish I would’ve seen more of this woman, but I’m not complaining at all. And what a talent Dugal is! Like Nawaz, she too strips herself off herself and becomes Safia, she abandons Rasika and gets into the skin of Safia as if she is her.


Manto 5
Rasika Dugal


There are many more actors in the film, who play cameos and appear in either of the short story depictions – Purab Kohli, Tillotama Shome, Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta. And each of them are as fine as Siddiqui and Nawaz! Not one person seems to have thought that this 10 seconds of screen time is too less for me. They’re all so committed.

There also is Tahir Raj Bhasin, playing Shyam, Manto’s friend first and then a Bollywood star. For me, Bhasin was the weakest link in the film. Or maybe he wasn’t. Maybe I think so because he shares all his scenes with Nawaz, and in front of Nawaz anyone can go weak in their knees, except Dugal (in this case).

You might also miss the true meaning of the climax if you haven’t read Toba Tek Singh, so I’d suggest reading it and going, or at least read the summary before you watch the film.

All in all, Manto is as much a revolution as were the works of Saadat Hasan Manto…

If I had to rate the film, this is the first film for which I’m going with five stars…

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