A young girl is playing with her friend. Her father beckons her and asks her to get ready. She dresses in a half-saree and goes with her father to meet three men in a car. That moment, we realise she is a prostitute. The men are, at first, uncomfortable with her age. However, she is carefree and her boldness eases their discomfort. After a whole day of frolicking on the beach, the tired men return her home. She gives them back her tip and on asking why, she replies that she hasn't done anything to earn that. With this uncomfortable and yet humour-laced retelling of a short story, we are introduced to the works of Manto and the man himself.
Instead of showcasing his whole life journey, Nandita Das's film delves into the time when Saadat Hasan Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui)'s popularity was at its peak. It also coincides with the time when India gained freedom and also suffers from the partition. Settled in Bombay, Manto has been getting recognition in Hindi cinema as a writer, but angry protests of Hindus asking Muslims to go back to Pakistan unnerves him. He is also battling censorship legal battle along with fellow writer Ismat Chugtai (Rajshri Deshpande).
While he steels himself to stay in the country, changing stances of his own friends make him change his mind. Rehabilitating himself and his family in Lahore, Manto faces more censorship battles, as he struggles with alcoholism, penury, family responsibilities and trying to figure out the society's discomfort in accepting reality through works of art. Manto Song Mantoiyat: Raftaar Slammed by Korean Band BTS Fans For Plagiarism; Rapper Responds Saying NOT His Fault! Watch Videos.
Actress Nandita Das made an excellent debut as a director in 2008 with Firaaq. The movie showcased how Gujarat dealt with the aftermath of the 2002 riots through the POVs of a few individuals from various factions. Nawazuddin Siddiqui had a supporting role in the film - a Muslim man who suffers huge losses in the riots and wants to direct his anger in participating in attacks on the Hindus, leading to tragic consequences for him.
As Das returns to the director's chair after a gap of ten years for Manto, Nawazuddin takes the lead this time and just like their first collaboration, Manto is an arresting piece of cinema that deserves a wider audience. It would be unfair to call the film a biopic, because Manto is much more than that.
Its main thread is definitely Manto's fight against censorship and his own inner demons, while also showing an insight into his supportive and yet troubled family. But Manto the film is also a scathing commentary on how we inject our constrictive views on any form of literature. It questions what and who decides if an art form is obscene for the society. Should we deduce how an artist wants to interpret his or her characters? Even though Saadat Manto had been facing these issues more than half a century ago, we still persist in narrowing our views on our surrounding realism and letting a select few decide what we want to see, read and talk.
Don't know if it is a coincidence that I watched Manto the same day that Anurag Kashyap was complaining about the forced edits in his Manmarziyaan. Sadly, when it comes to creative expression, we haven't seen much freedom even with the passage of decades.
There are also digs on Hindi cinema's obsession with fair skin through Rishi Kapoor's sleazy film-maker, while also throwing shade at snobbish criticism. It is not the discussion of these ideas that make Manto great. It is the treatment.
While Manto's life is interesting enough, Nandita Das uses her smarts to bring in the author's works, the potpourri of '40s Bombay and the fine use of cameos to create a fascinating narrative. It was exciting to see the movie name-drop some very popular icons who rubbed shoulders with Manto like Ashok Kumar, K Asif, Ismat Chugtai, Naushad and even though they aren't mentioned by their names, Nargis Dutt and Surraiya, in the first half.
Five of the author's short stories are retold at various junctures of Manto's life, each showing his state of mind, and featuring some talented, well-known actors. Though each story is equally impactful, the effect that the recreation of his most controversial work Thanda Gosth leaves in unforgettable. Ranvir Shorey and Divya Dutta are excellent here.
It is also this tale that creates the moral conundrum for Manto as he fights (and loses) a legal battle, though he does manage to make the biased court accept that Thanda Gosth is a piece of literature, even if it sees it as obscene. The second half is darker as we see Manto struggle in being a fish out of water in Lahore away from his more liberal friends in Bombay, drowning himself in alcohol and cigarettes. Yet, he doesn't abandon his stubborn self-respect refusing charity even from a dear friend, seeing it as an insult.
The little victories in Manto are how Nandita Das manages to make conversations so amazing. A playful banter between Manto and his wife Safia (Rasika Duggal) in a park will make you smile despite yourself. Another conversation between Manto and his actor friend Shyam (Tahir Raj Bhasin) in a train shows how even close friendships can get affected in negative political light, promoting Manto to leave the country. Later, when Shyam points out to Manto that he is not even a practising Muslim, Manto's calm response is that that he is Muslim enough to get killed. Oh, did I say that the dialogues deserve a lot of applause? Despite powerful dialogues sprinkled generously in Urdu for authenticity, there is no forced jingoism and apathetic Hindu-Muslim chatter.
Even though the budget of the film is relatively small, great attention has been paid to recreate the period setting, including local trains of that era and even some popular places. Zakir Hussain's BG score is subtle and doesn't overshadow the narrative. Cinematographer Kartik Vijay, editor A. Sreekar Prasad and sound designer Resul Pookutty help in making Manto a vastly engaging cinematic experience.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a director's actor and Manto is just another fine example of the acting excellence in this man. It helps that he resembles the real Manto physically, but he also brilliantly captures the pathos and the anguish of a man way too ahead of his time. Performances like these make us want to forget aberrations like Genius.
Rasika Duggal is an underrated actress who has never delivered a bad performance to date. She is just too good as the supportive wife, who dismally sees her husband ebb away into the throes of insanity, as he prefers his written characters over his loved ones. Tahir Raj Bhasin underplays himself as the good-hearted, emotional (and ill-fated) yesteryear star Sunder Shyam Chadda, and it works well for his character. Rajshri Deshpande leaves an impact in her brief role. Sacred Games- Rajshri Deshpande Called Porn Star By Trolls After Her Nude Scene Gets Leaked!
Manto features an ensemble star-cast filled with good actors, even though many of them only appear for one scene. Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Ila Arun, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Tilotthama Shome, Shashank Arora, Vinod Nagpal, Purab Kohli, Swanand Kirkire, Gurudas Mann, Neeraj Kabi, along with Ranvir Shorey and Divya Dutta, are all excellent.
- The performances
- The narrative
- The direction
- The dialogues
- The production design
- Slow-paced post-interval
Manto is one of the best films to come out from Hindi cinema in recent times. Led by a brilliant performance from Nawazuddin Siddiqui and astonishing handling by Nandita Das, this is a must watch!