Nandita Das directorial 'Manto' is a biographical drama based on the life of Pakistani literary writer Saadat Hasan Manto who was born in Ludhiana, India during the British era. Not beginning with his birthplace, the film's narrative jumps off to vintage Bombay during 1933 where Manto serves as a screenwriter and we do see Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the shoes of one of the greatest writers of independent India. The sequence where Manto negotiates his delayed payment with a producer played by Rishi Kapoor settling his dues in cash justices his profession. The man has characterized quite ruthless who utter words with the caricature of human demons being a natural offender to his friends and co-workers speaking the bitter truth of reality in his Urdu alfaz.
Though Das has focused much on his short dark stories for which the writer faced trial for obscenity for six times in the end. However, the birth of him as a writer completely missed out. A chapter omitted by Das where Saadat Hasan graduates from Aligarh Muslim University or takes his aspirations from the greatest literature role models like Anton Chekov and Alexei Maximovich Peshkov. Manto came into limelight when he translated the prestigious work of Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde in Urdu that moulded his career in writing completely. After penning down a few of his work, Manto gets recognition from Urdu Service of All India Radio in 1941 and we are glad his association with the Indian Progressive Writers' Association [IPWA] was not missed in this feature film.
Being politically correct, Das presents the partition phase from Manto's point of view and the writer manoeuvres these dark stories from the ink of his heart which got global recognition in the field of modern literature. It is Manto's closest friend Sunder Shyam a struggling actor played by Tahir Raj Bhasin with the thin moustache that gives him an authentic vintage look. Bestowed with an irreplaceable affection and care there are Hindu- Muslim riots that leave many slaves with prejudices and religious fanaticism; even after their independent nation emerging a new boundary Pakistan where a broken-hearted Nawaz moves on. A writer picks up his pen only when his sensibility is hurt," is Manto's philosophical statement in Lahore session court.
Rasika Dugal as Manto's wife Safiyah Manto plays a strong woman who stands by her man supporting him emotionally. Everyone has a breakdown point where one surrenders and Rasika has outplayed this role by being the spine of the most controversial writer. Paresh Rawal has a short cameo to play. Ranvir Shorey and Divya Dutta serve their acting prowess presenting the horrendous tale of Thanda Gosht and we are thoroughly shaken by this dark tale, Toba Tek Singh the most impressive work of Manto till date has struck our emotion chord and the only story we found the intensity at peak was this one. The old actor has performed so honestly as a psyche old man standing for fifteen long years who falls dead in search of his land that was neither in India or Pakistan. "Although the film lacks big time in narrating the creation of characters in these horrifying dark stories. Interestingly, Javed Akhtar has a pivotal cameo to play where he defends Manto reviewing his literary work. He is spot on with his role he essayed getting the minimum screen time.
Where did the inspiration come from? These characters created by his saddened soul who often talk to him in person through narration were missing. Mastering the human psyche and resonating with the criminal backstory we do not see Manto creating these characters on his own nor he is narrating the depth of his artistic work. Whether it was Farheeda Mehta's directorial 2002 movie 'Kali Salwaar' starring Kay Kay Menon as 'Manto' or the 2015 Babar Javed's critically acclaimed film of the same name each of them showcased Manto playing around with the characters he gave birth to. These interactions with these characters as hallucinations in his head was missing as all-time high on alcohol and cigarettes Saadat Hasan Manto essayed by Nawaz is totally wasted, if he doesn't feel and cherishes these characters run by his imagination. No that doesn't really connect keeping it straight.
Looks like the whole film follows the freedom of expression agenda and the character from these tales, its originality and existence through the mind of the greatest writer Manto didn't bother them. The struggle that Manto's family faces was so casual and not at all intense as compared to the other Manto films. They were brutally taken by the critic not so modern society of those time. While being in the backdrop of Lahore Pakistan the criticism part was let off completely. Although a bit of reality is well adapted when the members of writer association join healthy political debates at Lahore's iconic Pak Tea House. Nandita opts to commit certain important perspectives and that's a bit disappointing when we do not see these characters talking with the creator.
The film is a cinematic powerhouse and what a replica of charming vintage Bombay is laid credits to the impeccable surreal production design garnered by Rita Gosh and team. The broken Lahore post-partition is showcased in a rustic raw way showcasing the deets of victims who lost their loved ones. Nandita Das' screenplay is dull in the second half although it is Kartik Vijay's cinematography that turns out to be a match winner who has captured some brilliant shots to the narrative. Even these cult gazal-like Urdu dialogues are some plus points of the film but that's never enough.
Overall Manto misses out on the relationship of a writer and his character, rather screams on just one and only agenda of Freedom of expression.