Quietly Compelling

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 22 Sep 2018 10:31:43




By Aasawari Shenolikar

Nandita Das, the actor, director and firebrand activist is known for being unconventional - be it for her choice of films or for supporting the many causes afflicting the society. She, who was totally floored by the life and work of Saadat Hassan Manto, took five years to draft, redraft and work in detail on the chosen subject so she could bring to life, on the screen, the controversial and the maverick writer whose pen once ruled the literary circles of Bombay.
Das encapsulates years of her research in reels that run for under two hours and bring to fore ta few tumultuous years of Manto’s life.

Set in the late 1940's, Manto traverses between Pre independence era and the independent India formed after partition. Saadat Hassan Manto, based in Bombay is known for his literary genius. He moves in circles where he hobnobs with the glitterati and the intellectuals. As the nation, in 1947, is divided, Manto, is forced to choose between Bombay and Lahore. The decision is difficult, for Bombay is the place which has given him everything - name, fame and success. But the animosity that he faces, even from his best friend Shyam, at one point forces him to choose Lahore. Uprooted from the city to which he longs to return, he is a dejected soul. Slowly disillusionment takes over. The circumstances stifle him, he is bogged down by the strict authorities, the intolerance and the loss of freedom of expression, as his writing is labelled ‘obscene’. Shuttling between home and the court, this egoistic writer finds solace in alcohol. His downfall begins.

In this biopic, writer director Nandita Das must be given credit for casting the uber talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the protagonist. Nawazuddin, on his part, becomes one with the character - and his projection of the arrogant writer, who at times is also vulnerable, is not amenable to criticism of any kind, has a huge ego but is overly sensitive too, is top notch. The intense, bespectacled, crumpled kurta clad writer who fights his battles - in life as well in court, Nawazuddin’s act is a class apart. But then a movie, to be engaging also requires a taut narrative and a convincing story. Inclusion of a few stories penned by the writer in the narrative does not make the plot interesting. Manto’s writings, relevant even today, were a reflection of the society and while many thought they were obscene, Manto begged to differ for his conjecture was that through his stories, he was stating the truth. The lines between fact and fiction, in Manto’s case, were blurred. But a few advocating morality were the protesters and not particularly happy with the ‘truths’ that he told through his stories.

There are many intense moments that leave one speechless, a few light ones like friendly banter between Ishmat Chugtai, Manto and Shyam, provide the much needed relief. But this happens in the first half. Post intermission, the movie is dark and dreary with the focus being on the court case and Manto’s drinking binges. Those who haven’t read any of his work, would be totally at sea and wouldn’t be able to decipher the stories that have been integrated in the plot. And those who have read his stories would definitely be appalled at the way the stories have been treated in the films - they, at best, come out as tepid. These five stories, that Das picked up from Manto’s repertoire, do not do justice to the writer’s writing that has enthralled, shocked, shaken, scandalised, outraged and also been loved by the readers. The written one, in this case, is much stronger and hard-hitting than what is projected on the screen.

Of the five stories, it is only Thanda Gosht that leaves you a bit shaken, for the strong portrayal by Divya Dutta who sizzles as Kulwant. Khol De is traumatising, but if you are not paying attention, you will have lost out on the essence.
Of the cast, Tahil Raj Bhasin as Shyam is vibrant. And Rasika Duggal as Safia, Manto’s wife and his pillar, is a revelation. Many others - Ila Arun as Jaddan Bai, Javed Akhtar making his debut, Paresh Rawal, to mention a few, are there for a couple of minutes on the screen. The seasoned actors impress. 

Manto is compelling in parts, melancholic where the actor’s distress and anguish at the system is seen to take its toll, but it leaves one, at some level, unsatisfied.

The Hitavada Rating: OO1/2