Manto movie cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Rishi Kapoor, Danish Husain
Manto movie director: Nandita Das
Manto movie rating: Two stars
Saadat Hasan Manto was born to be filmed. His life and much-too-early-death teems with so much drama, and is drenched in so much history, that it is surprising the movies took so long to put Manto in the centre of his own narrative.
And, on the face of it, there couldn’t have been anyone better than Nandita Das to helm the movie. Her debut feature Firaaq, set in the aftermath of the Gujarat killings of 2002, is an unflinching look at how religious extremism can damage us from within. Firaaq was powerful and affecting, and I really liked it.
Manto the movie should have been an appropriate second act. It harks back to a time when the subcontinent was being hacked apart, and carved into India and Pakistan, with Manto embodying the tragic senselessness of the Partition, leading to those crucial questions: where did he belong? Was he condemned to rootlessness and restlessness? And finally, damnation?
At best, Das’ iteration skims the surface, and we are left searching for the bruised depths of Manto’s stories, which feel even more relevant today. Reading his best stories (Kali Shalwar, Khol Do, Thanda Gosht, Toba Tek Singh) can leave you shaken, and one of the devices that doesn’t quite work is how they are woven, uneasily and fitfully, into the film. I was prepared to be wrung, but that didn’t happen.
Bombay, 1946. Our man Manto (Siddiqui) is on the cusp of everything that’s interesting in town. He is part of the progressive artists’ movement, bantering with Ismat Chugtai (Deshpande). He spends a great deal of time with the up-and-coming handsome star Shyam (Bhasin), trawling through Bombay’s burgeoning film industry and bustling studios, searching for inspiration and paying work. Manto’s talent is never in any doubt, but his streak of self-destruction is clear early on in his flashes of temper and willfulness: he is a handful, for his friends, and his wife and constant companion Safiya (Dugal).
And then comes 1947, and Manto is forced into making a choice. India or Pakistan? He chooses the latter. His struggles with narrow-minded authority figures and binge-drinking, and we see the downward slide of a man squandering his prodigious talent, and the affection of his loved ones.
There are some striking moments in the film, but they remain moments: a soiree with Ashok Kumar and other popular stars of the 40s is particularly lovely. Dugal, as Manto’s pillar of strength, shines, and Bhasin’s Shyam is vivid and alive.
The same cannot be said of Nawazuddin’s playing of Manto. There is a gap, a curious distance, between the vision and the execution, and much of the film, including Nawaz, resides in it. There is no other actor who could have done this role; he looks the part—crumpled kurta, thick-framed glasses, stained teeth, and sounds just right too. The wry humour, the bitterness and frustration, qualities which permeate the author’s work, are only visible in flashes, though. The outline is there, but the filling is patchy. You keep wanting more.
Both from him. And the film.