A young girl in a makeshift clinic in a refugee camp during the horror times of partition is asked by the doctor to open the window to let some fresh breeze come in, the girl on just hearing the word khol do (open it ) undoes her shalwaar ( the girl has been raped again and again and again). Khol Do was the first short story of Saadat Hasan Manto which I read so many Septembers, Novembers ago. A devastating masterpiece that had had a lasting impact on me, such strong and relevant is the impact that even after decades ago, just a short remembrance of the incident in MANTO by actress turned writer-director Nandita Das starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, gave me the same goose bumps and its astounding to find that the relevance of the story has not changed since the last 70 years..
After the brilliant 2008 FIRAAQ starring Naseeruddin Shah and Paresh Rawal, it took almost a decade for actress turned filmmaker Nandita Das to churn her next MANTO and the wait is worth. A brilliant filmmaker (Das), a legendary writer (Manto) and a top class actor (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), on paper it seems excellence guaranteed but it’s not that easy. Expectations scale is quite high and rightly so is the challenge to twine the stabbing realisms of Manto’s writings into a cinema that essays the journey of the fearless, powerful writer. Undeniably, Nandita Das MANTO in almost a masterpiece does it ingeniously by coining the life and the literature of Saadat Hasan Manto to an everlasting effect.
Interestingly, the writer director opens it with Manto’s beautiful DUS RUPAY which is lighter and in a way feel good where the message is wrapped in innocence that celebrates humanity, from here the most tumultuous four years in the life of the maverick writer Saadat Hasan Manto aka Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who loved Mumbai (Bombay in those times), made friends with the 40’s actor Shyam (Tahir Raj Bhasin) even Ashok Kumar (Bhanu Uday Singh), argued with a film producer (Rishi Kapoor) tried for obscenity thrice before India’s Independence in India and thrice after Independence in Pakistan but never got convicted. Made Lahore his home after partition after hearing his best friend Shyam’s reaction to the shocking after effects of the madness on his family, he says, jo meri jaan ki keemat, wohi tumhari, nahi toh kisi ki nahi (rough translation – the value of my life should be the same for all other wise there is no value for life). With a heavy heart Manto leaves his favorite Bombay (called Mumbai today) and on his way passes by a paan wala shop which makes him recollect that he owes the owner one rupee. Shyam gives the offer that he will repay the amount, Manto immediately replies by saying, Nahin. Main chahta hoon ki zindagi bhar is shehar ka karzdaar rahoon (I wish to remain indebted to this city for my whole life) an amazing amalgamation of reel and real – a progressive writer who writes on the darker side of humanity wants to be indebted to the city of dreams on his way to a fantasy nation dreamed for his community by his leaders. Where do we find such brilliance, depth and enlightenment in cinema nowadays?!. Manto reaches Lahore and a saddening picture of Pakistan thwarted by the devils of partition is seen, in a telling shot, we see the portrait of Jinnah lying tilted with no takers in an empty burned and bruised house, that reminds of the magnificent Adrien Brody wandering down the streets of Poland after the World War II holocaust in the incredible Roman Polanski’s strongest movie THE PIANIST (2002). With no friends and right admirers for his work, Manto restores to alcoholism and a tribute to the maverick Guru Dutt’s cult masterpiece PYAASA is felt, in Guru Dutt’s movie, the writer went on self destruction due to the disenchantment of the ‘duniya’ (world) around him which he hated and was saddened by the rejection of his love of life who opted for a comfortable option rather than be part of his struggle. Here Manto had a wife in Safia (Rasika Dugal) and children but the prose of the progressive poet got halted by rigid politics and lack of acceptance.
Running parallel with his family life, the biopic further infuses his stories that begins with DUS RUPAY KA NOTE, SAU WATT KA BULB’, KHOL DO, THANDA GOSHT and ending with TOBA TEK SINGH. ‘Sorry’ ‘Petrol’ are recited by Manto in a gathering. A charge of obscenity creates havoc in the life of the progressive writer who then dies at the age 42.
Nandita Das in a brilliantly crafted piece of art, maintains the old school charm, we are haunted by the presence of Manto played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in stories like KHOL DO, TOBA TEK SINGH, was he actually there, we don,t know but the way it comes out its sheer magic and the casting is pitch perfect.
What to say about Nawazuddin Siddiqui as MANTO, he was born to play may sound cliché, so if we say if Manto would have appeared on reels in real, it would look the same way as Nawazuddin Siddiqui does in this film won’t be an exaggeration. MANTO is Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s master class, his best till date.
Rasika Duggal – what a screen presence she gets in this movie, amazing done. Tahir Raj Bhasin as Shyam is arresting and cool. Surprise, surprise Bhanu Uday Singh as Ashok Kumar nails it. Rishi Kapoor of course as the producer is class apart. Paresh Rawal is outstanding as the pimp. Tillotama Shome proves her brilliance once again in that one scene. Divya Dutta as the jealous wife in THANDA GOSHT is remarkable, Ranvir Shorey as Divya’s husband is fantastic. Javed Akhtar’s debut as an actor playing a poet and educationist Ali Abid Ali is noteworthy. Shashank Arora as Shad Amritsari is really good, Ila Arun as Jaddan bai is fine. Rajshri Deshpande is just brilliant as Ismat Chughtai, Raghav Dutt has one scene appearance as Naushad and he is good, Inaamulhaq as Hamid – Manto’s nephew leaves his mark, Purab Kohli as the driver in the opening story is very good. Gurdas Maan as Sirajuddin the father in KHOL DO is so natural. Chandan Roy excels as Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi Manto’s friend. Vijay Varma as Ansaar Shabnam Dil has his moments. Feryna Wazheir as Nargis Dutt makes herself gets noticed in spite of very minimum dialogues.
Technically nothing short of a masterpiece with solid production values, Nandita Das vision is captured in arresting ambience by Kartik Vijay’s camera. Rita Ghosh’s art work gives the right authenticity; Sreekar Prasad’s editing is flawless. Zakir Hussain’s background score is just brilliant. Bol ke lab azaad hai by Rashid Khan and Vidya Shah is heart rendering and soothing at the same time.
The flipside is MANTO is that this rare piece of art which is nothing short of a masterpiece somewhat falls a bit short in its topicality that can sweep through. The devastating impact created by the maverick poet’s prose doesn’t get the same level of impact on reels, it’s almost impossible to transfer Manto’s aghast, pain and suffering on paper to reels in exactly the same manner. Those who have read Manto may find this difference though you feel the goose bumps but that is because of the everlasting impact created when you read for the first time. Another highlight is there is no spoon feeding in the entire narration so it may be a hurdle for those who have not read Manto. Major time gets spend on the trial of THANDA GOSHT while surprisingly the trial of UPAR NEECHE DARMIYAAN is missing.
Even after its share of flaws, MANTO keeps on haunting, probing and makes you wonder how the movie that talks about prejudice and mindset during 1947 still holds relevance, MANTO was not just a poet, he was the aghast, the voice, the cry of humanity which declined drastically and stood in the company of beasts during the partition. In simple words –the word sensationalism (sansanikhej) had the best brand ambassador in Manto – sensationalism in his stories where not for manipulation, they where stark, dark, real and disturbing. logo ko waishyaon ke pass jaane ki aazadi hai, humko unpar likhne ki nahi was is argument.
We conclude with recollecting this scene from the film when Nawazuddin Siddiqui after offering prayers to his deceased mother in an argument with his sister reacts jokingly and says which is now the famous epitaphs, Yahaan Saadat Hasan Manto Dafan Hai, Uskay Seenay Mein Fan-E-Afsana Nigari Ke Saare Israar-O-Ramooz Dafan Hain, Woh Ab Bhi Manon Mitti Ke Neeche Soch Raha Hai Ke Woh Bada Afsaana Nigaar Hai Ya Khuda (Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. And with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of story writing. Under mounds of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater story writer – god or he.
Going with 4 an extra for the poet Manto, the actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the lady – Nandita Das who brought that ehsaas (feeling, nostalgia, remembrance), the Mantoniyat back.