Manto movie review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui is the best he has ever been in Nandita Das' stirring portrait of a genius
Nandita Das makes her Manto a stirring, sensitive portrait of a tortured genius from an era seemingly long past yet tragically mirroring our troubled present.
castNawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Divya Dutta, Ranvir Shorey, Vijay Verma, Tillotama Shome, Neeraj Kabi, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Inaamulhaq, Ila Arun, Rajshri Deshpande, Javed Akhtar And Rishi Kapoor
In a memorable passage mid way through Nandita Das' film, writer Saadat Hasan Manto is addressing a gathering of bibliophiles in Lahore when a member of the audience tells him that his works are so dark they could drive anyone to depression. Manto rebukes the man, not because he was critical but because he sought to speak on behalf of readers other than himself.
The scene could well have been aimed at present-day censors and morality warriors who presume to speak for entire populations while curbing the creative freedoms of artists. It is also possibly a cautionary note for film critics who make it their business to predict whether a film will strike a chord with audiences, and be a hit or not. Manto's admonition put me in an introspective mood, reminding me not to try to answer in this review the question that preyed on my mind through the film's 116-plus minutes running time, "Will it work for those who do not know Manto's works well?" and instead to focus on the only question a critic should answer in this space: "Did it work for me?"
Das' Manto - her second film as director after the critically acclaimed Firaaq - weaves several of the legendary writer's short stories into the story of his own life, providing a running commentary on the heartbreaking socio-economic realities of Partition. When the film opens, Manto is thriving in pre-Independence Mumbai's vibrant literary and film worlds, spiritedly clashing with tone-deaf producers and with the morality police (he was tried in court for obscenity six times, thrice in British India, thrice in Pakistan), debating censorship with his fellow writers including Ismat Chughtai, being a loving husband to his wife Safia and fond father to their daughter.
Manto is a happy man at the time, basking in the company of his friends, family and the characters he creates, in the perennial presence of his beloved whiskey and cigarettes. In private conversations, when he puts pen to paper and on his sojourns in courtrooms, he minces no words, simultaneously endearing himself to vast sections of the masses while shocking others.
At first, Manto is optimistic about Independent India, but Hindu-Muslim tensions take their toll on his psyche, and he finally tears himself away from Mumbai and moves to Pakistan. The downward spiral begins from there. This, after all, is "not the dawn we dreamed of".
Das' finely detailed screenplay provides a fertile playing ground for Nawazuddin Siddiqui who has, in recent years, been largely tapped by directors for his ability to play wackadoodles and kinky criminals or for the mischievous glint he summons up in his eyes like no other while taking on the roles of slightly eccentric regular folk. He has been good in all of them and brilliant in many, most especially Anurag Kashyap's under-publicised Raman Raghav 2.0 and Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox. In Manto though, there is not a trace of anything he has done so far. His physical transformation for the part is in itself quite astonishing. This is a ruminative, considered performance, in complete empathy with the person whose shoes he steps into for it, and without question his best till date.
(Possible spoiler ahead) Some of the conversations in Manto are like a punch in the gut, and could easily be transposed to a more conventional Bollywood film where they could well be histrionically interpreted as bombast - to striking effect. Imagine, for instance, a young Bachchan in a biopic directed by Manmohan Desai in that scene in which a friend tries to dissuade Manto from leaving for Pakistan. Manto was born Muslim but is clearly not a devotee, and so the man points out, "You are hardly Muslim," to which comes the reply, "I am Muslim enough that I could be killed for it." Drum rolls, please. This paragraph is not an effort to diss Bachchan and Desai - I thoroughly enjoy both - but to point out that Das and Siddiqui's work here comes armed with absolute clarity about the film's tone and the space it inhabits in the cinematic realm. Dialogues are not delivered in Manto, lines are spoken as naturally as life is lived. (Spoiler alert ends)
Siddiqui as the fulcrum of the cast gets excellent backing from Rasika Dugal playing Manto's loving but exasperated wife, and Tahir Raj Bhasin as his close friend, the real-life Bollywood actor Shyam. Just as important is the attention to detail in the casting and writing of the minutest roles, as a result of which multiple characters remain significant and unforgettable despite the few seconds to few minutes they get on screen.
Das' naturalistic storytelling style is complemented well by Rita Ghosh's sepia-toned production design (particularly notable in the shift from prosperous pre-Partition Bollywood to decrepit, post-1947 Lahore) and Kartik Vijay's atmospheric, moody camerawork that remains intimately involved with the characters in the story, never choosing instead to pan out and emphasise the ambitious nature of this period project.
The seamless switches from fact to Manto's fiction in the narrative are born of smart writing and some great editing by veteran A Sreekar Prasad, the transitions fashioned in such a way that it often feels like we are observing scenes play out while standing beside Manto.
The only bumps on this otherwise smooth ride come when Das gets too obtuse in filming a couple of Manto's shorts. Thanda Ghosht (Cold Meat) is perfect and as soul-shattering in this film as it is when I first read it, as are most of the others that find a place in this script, but I found the telling of Khol Do (Open It), for one, too dense and - god how I hate to use this word for a film that otherwise means so much! - somewhat pretentious, coming across as if it was trying to walk a tightrope between wanting to be clear to those who have not read the story and wanting not to be too explanatory to those who have. The pressure causes it to fall right off that rope.
Through all this, what leaves a lasting impression is the realisation that when it comes to communal divisions and censorious, interfering social, political and religious overlords, little seems to have changed between colonised India, Manto's Pakistan and the India of today. (The words "Manto lives on" flashing on screen in the end are incongruous. They were not needed, the point was already made...very well.) Manto was unrelentingly vocal in his objections to injustice, prejudice and stupidity. Das, for her part, has remained consistently outspoken about her concerns - reflected over the years in Firaaq, her public pronouncements on various platforms, and now this film - without allowing herself to become a sermoniser in her directorial ventures.
The messaging in this film is for us to imbibe if we wish, as she chronicles a remarkable, dramatic true story in an engagingly unmelodramatic style. In doing so, Das makes her Manto a stirring, sensitive portrait of a tortured genius from an era seemingly long past yet tragically mirroring our troubled present.
Ahead of the International Emmy Awards on 22 November, Nawazuddin Siddiqui discusses his nominated performance from Serious Men, his fears as an actor, and his favourite performance of self, in an exclusive interview.
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