Nandita Das’s Manto, based on the life of Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, knows how to see – and see through – a writer: through his stories and characters. Because no matter how deceptive or performative a writer is in real life, he is naked on page. Writing, by its very intent and design, is ‘obscene’. Das, a writer herself, who has written both the films she’s directed, remembers Manto the way he’d have approved: by opening and closing her film with his stories.
Her film opens to a teenage girl in a Bombay chawl playing with her friend. Moments later, she’s taken to a car seating affluent men who appraise her worth. It’s a brutal, heartbreaking segment – not devoid of moments of unexpected tenderness – that takes its time to reveal its source, ’10 Rupees’, one of the several short stories of Manto that appear in this film.
Das begins Manto with this piece without any expository information (it may take you some time to figure out that this story isn’t about Manto but by Manto) – this story-within-a-story approach, in this biographical drama, signals her true intent. That no matter what Manto gestures or says, the way to understand him is not by observing, or listening to, him but by reading him. He, like most writers, hides in his stories – where people retain their innocence (and remind others what they’ve lost), where their extreme and perverse cynicism leads them to their humanity, where they first lose their land and then their mind.
This is a very understated, yet assured, approach to the biopic genre. Das intentionally skips over many customary biographical details – the thorny relationship with an estranged father; the ill-treatment of his mother, a second wife; the ‘tamasha’ of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre seen by a seven-year-old boy – which would have been undoubtedly melodramatic but could have rendered the movie structurally monotonous, robbing it of its economy and light abruptness, traits central to a vintage Manto short.
Manto instead opens in 1946, in Bombay, when the writer was 34-years-old and eight years away from his death. A part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and a regular fixture in the Bombay film circle, Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is initially seen through a warm, life-affirming gaze. His friendship with a future Bollywood star, Shyam Chadha (Tahir Raj Bhasin) – often riffing on a strange last name “Hiptullah” – has shades of boyish innocence. His banters with Ismat Chughtai (played with effortless charm by Rajshri Deshpande) are marked by evident fondness and literary one-upmanship. His relationship with his wife, Safia (Rasika Duggal), renders him both indulgent and selfless, where a desultory afternoon in a park becomes tender and romantic with the aid of an impromptu shared short story or, otherwise, converts this fiery, perpetually-smoking writer into a calm householder: someone who presses his wife’s clothes, plays with his children.
Seen through Das’s eyes, Manto is difficult to slot. He is given to bouts of drunken melancholia yet always retains a sense of playfulness, a reverence for the life’s absurdity, causing him to laugh at it and himself (channelised superbly by Siddiqui). Manto is a caring father yet, soaked in despair and alcohol, forgetting his child’s medicine. He misses his Bombay friends yet never replies to their letters. Manto in Manto is how people usually are: logic-defying, contradictory and not above surprising their own selves.
Although Manto is the centrepiece of this story, the film also derives its credence (at times, dramatic mileage) from the performances of other actors. Five stories of Manto appear in the movie – some of them featuring credible names such as Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta, Paresh Rawal, Tillotama Shome – regularly hitting you with some impressive performances. Even in the main film, the list of supporting cast is long – Rishi Kapoor, Gurdas Maan (haunting and affecting), Javed Akhtar (the only false note) – but the one who stands out in this ensemble is Duggal who plays Manto’s wife with the right mix of hesitation and determination: playing an anchor to a man always in search of home.
Manto sees Manto the way he would have liked himself to be seen: as a writer. Or at least as a certain kind of writer – one who simmers with quiet arrogance: refusing financial assistance from a friend, recognising the futility of disenchantment yet giving in, craving approval from a literary giant even amid a tense court proceeding. At one point, when Manto is facing charges of obscenity (for his story ‘Cold Meat’) in a court in Lahore, the then editor of Pakistan Times and a noted literary figure, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, is called to testify. Faiz says that he didn’t find the story obscene, adding, somewhat gratuitously, that it was another matter altogether that it “didn’t hold up to the standards of good literature”. And that’s what stings Manto the most: not the cops rummaging his house, not the utter humiliation of the Kafkaesque trials, not the violation of his fundamental rights.
Writers are petty, self-absorbed and narcissistic, tying their sentences and pieces and stories to the cosmos – and it takes one good writer to hurt the other. Manto examines this duality – between a writer and a citizen, a writer and a companion – with reassuring clarity. When Manto turns poetic, commenting on the religious violence in the country soon to be partitioned, his friend Shyam, who lost his relatives in the bloodshed, tells him to shut up, for art seems inadequate in light of life – an assertion, the film later implies, Manto disagrees with. Das keeps Manto-the writer at the forefront of this story, constantly causing us to ponder the ties between life and art. Manto the man and Manto the writer often seem to be orbiting around two different centres. As the man ventures out on his own, defeated and dejected, increasingly taking refuge in literature and liquor, the writer springs to his defence, saying, “In the end, all that remains are characters.”
But Manto is unsettling not just because it’s an unflinching account of a man’s descent into paranoia but the eerie similarities it presents between the Indian and Pakistan of then and now. During Manto’s court trials, a lot of discussion is centered on evaluating a work in its context, dissuading blanket bans – things we still discuss, as a nation, whenever a film or a book gets censored. So, in today’s times of hypersensitivity and censorship and draconian regimes, Manto is, of course, relevant. But look beyond the obvious, and he remains disconcertingly relevant for another (lesser discussed) reason.
The direct outcome of an oppressive central government has been the rise of a moral brigade, which often likes to pat its back simply because it’s not as regressive as its opponents. This has led to complacency and lack of nuance and an unending supply of outrage. Now, as a journalist or as an artist, your work needn’t have artistic truth or merit: just saying the right things, with a lot of anger and conviction, is enough. The real problem still remains the regressive politics at the centre – there’s no denying that – but in a bid to look obsessively outwards we’ve forgotten to look inwards and, in the process, created demigods and cults for the flimsiest of reasons. We’ve created an alternate rulebook where morality has replaced quality.
Manto would have sniggered at that. The focus of Das’s film isn’t this line of thought, but she comes so close to Manto that, at times, the man speaks to us beyond this movie. Like the writers’ short stories, the film never repeats itself, has no patience to state the obvious. Even the writer’s descent into hallucination, for instance, a well-known fact, which could have been milked for melodrama, is simply observed through two short scenes. Which is why its excessive reliance on a maudlin background score is disappointing, because it’s one of the rare instances in the film that prods us how to feel. Manto, who captured life as he lived it, would have thought less of it.