The ‘thehraav’ that has been missing in our films since days of yore finally makes a ‘comeback’ with Nandita Das’ latest offering, Manto. The old world charm finds resonance in the film’s scene, where Saadat Hasan Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his wife Safia (Rasika Dugal) are sitting in a park and weaving a silly story around a couple seated opposite to them. Devoid of the ‘Mantoiyat’ school of thought, this lighter moment from the film still establishes Manto as a sharp observer who can spin a tale around the world he inhabits.
The beauty of Manto’s screenplay is the way Manto’s short stories like ‘Dus rupiye’, ‘100 watt ka bulb’, ‘Khol do’, ‘Thanda gosht’ and ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and even the essay, ‘Muftnosh’ seamlessly blend in its narrative. The lines between fact and fiction begins to blur with each progression of the scenes and Nandita Das recreates this magic all through the film’s 120 minutes of runtime – a difficult feat to pull off for any screenplay writer or director worth his/her salt. Respect.
Nandita Das, in a recent interview stated that Nawazuddin Siddiqui is an actor who melts himself into the mold of his character. This film goes on to prove that he is one of the finest actors of our times, who never ceases to surprise us with his breathtaking performance. The actor morphs into Saadat Hasan Manto right from the first frame to the closing scene.
Be it musing over the world around him, delivering fiery speech at Jogeshwari College, debating on what’s obscene and what’s kosher in the courtroom, being petrified at the thought of being incarcerated (Despite his bravados that could land him in jail), drowning helplessly into the quagmire of alcohol, to taking a jibe at his fellow writer and friend Ismat Chugtai’s work, ‘Lihaaf’ – the actor nails each scene and owns it.
Safia, played by Rasika Dugal could have been yet another role of a suffering wife, but Rasika leaves a mark with her flawless performance Rajshri Deshpande (The brilliant actress who plays Ganesh Gaitonde’s wife in the Netflix series, Sacred Games) as Ismat Chugtai is spot-on, just like the actor who essays Ashok Kumar with panache, using the tone of his voice to perfection. The other actor worth mentioning here is Tahir Raj Bhasin as the star-in-the-making Shyam. Tahir leaves an impact on you, especially in the scene where he is parting with his friend Manto. A brilliant performance is impossible without equally brilliant reaction of the other actor and Tahir never hits a false note.
Manto has an eclectic mix of actors making an appearance, right from Rishi Kapoor, Purab Kohli, Gurdas Maan, Ranveer Shorey, Divya Dutta, Paresh Raval, Ila Arun, Vinod Nagpal, to Javed Akhtar, who makes his debut in films as an actor (He did a cameo in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Corporate, where he played himself, here he’s playing a character, hence the closing credits mention his name as ‘Introducing Javed Akhtar).
On a personal note, I was quite delighted to watch Ahmedabad-based theatre actor and director, Abhinay Banker playing the role of a Muslim who rescues Manto from a communal riot. He had staged a wonderful play, ‘Chalta Firta Bambai’ based on the short stories of Manto. The play’s title, finds a mention in the film when Manto proclaims, ‘Mein chalta firta Bambai hoon!’
Terming these roles as cameos would be a misnomer, more so because these artists appear in the film as a tribute to the ace short story writer and screenplay writer, Saadat Hasan Manto.
Kartik Vijay’s camera captures the 40s without resorting to the usual gimmicks of focusing on objects and backdrops that scream, ‘Look, how well the art director has recreated this era with minute details’. The 40s, through Kartik Vijay’s lenses and ably cut by Editor Srikar Prasad, show Bombay and Lahore as silent spectators who witness a dichotomy that goes on to define India, Pakistan and Manto. The music by Sneha Khanwalkar and background score by the maestro Zakir Hussain beautifully merges with the film’s overall tonality and add a distinct characteristic to every scene.
Manto’s world is far-flung from the Nehruvian optimism of India’s post-independence era. The timeframe that director Nandita Das chooses to mount her canvas of Manto’s portrait is when India is at the cusp of independence till the time when it is at the cusp of intolerance.
There’s a scene in the film where Manto tells his audience that before independence we were fighting for freedom from the British regime, and post-independence, what’s there to fight for? The line is a sharp comment on our times, when we seem to have lost our sense of purpose and the two caps (Hindu and Muslim caps) are perhaps a jibe at our politicians, who wear the religion cap as per the political situation’s demand.
Beginning from the Bombay of 1946 and ending with Lahore of 1948, this period was crucial not only in Manto’s life, but also India’s history. The freedom that we won in 1947 is ironically set on fire by the intolerance of our own people. In hindsight, Manto could well be writer Nandita Das’ metaphor for freedom, and not a biopic. While we’re at it, Manto is undeniably a textbook for our biopic filmmakers.
Manto, to sum it up, chronicles the journey of the written word, not just a particular person. The film, though set in the 40s, is still relevant for our times. Writers being paid peanuts, freelancers not being paid on time, publishers wary of printing work that questions the norms, hypocrite readers, communal disharmony, laws that curb freedom of speech, skewed notions of obscenity – Who says times have changed?