Manto Review: Alcoholic, Absent Father, Dazzling Writer… How to Get a Biopic Right

Bollywood

Manto Review: Alcoholic, Absent Father, Dazzling Writer… How to Get a Biopic Right

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

M

idway through Nandita Das’s Manto, the biopic of Indian-Pakistani writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, I was reminded of Sanju.

I don’t intend to insult Manto’s emotional honesty by invoking Sanju, the very definition of manipulative dishonesty. But I doubt that there will be any criticism of the kind of hagiographies we are used to, which is as scathing as Manto. Although, both Sanju and Manto exist to serve celebrated men, yet Manto refuses to exalt or exonerate its protagonist. If Rajkumar Hirani went out of his way to insist that a naive Sanju be forgiven for his “mistakes”, then Das almost makes a statement against Hindi biopics by refusing to look away from Saadat Hasan’s flaws just because he was Manto.

Even before Sanju, biopics in Hindi cinema have long followed a tried-and-tested formula, trundling along the predictable “rags to riches” arc. Most Hindi biopics, like Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, MS Dhoni or even Gold, usually cram a lifetime’s worth of flaws, struggle, and sacrifice into under 140 minutes, only to lead up to that one moment of exceptional achievement. Since these biopics exist to evoke unfettered pride and awe at the resilience of men who go beyond the limitations of humanity, their imperfections are glossed over. Barring exceptions (Neerja, Shahid), most biopics are hardly rooted in the reality of the life and times of its protagonists.

Das’s Manto is having none of that. Das’s Manto is a dazzling writer, betrayed Indian, troubled alcoholic, and an absent family man in the backdrop of a divided nation.

Even in 2018, we find writers and activists, critical of the establishment having their books pulped, being branded “urban Naxals” and placed under house arrest, and in some extreme cases, killed.

Manto traces the four definitive years in the life of the Urdu writer – two years in India and the two after he moved to Pakistan. From the beginning, it’s evident that Das’s razor-sharp focus isn’t meant to familiarise or inspire audiences with the legacy of Manto; instead it peers into the timelessness of literature and mourns the consequences of writers speaking truth to power. If anything, it’s an ode to Mantoiyat, and its continued relevance.

Manto’s almost 120-minute-runtime is interspersed with five of Manto’s short stories, re-enacted with a surreal touch. It opens with “Dus Rupay Ka Note”, a story centred around the 15-year-old prostitute Sarita, who uses her fascination of cars to distract herself from the depravity of her life. And it then neatly cuts to Safia Manto (a luminous Rasika Dugal) reading out the story in present. It launches into “Sau Watt Ka Bulb” when Manto (an unforgettable Nawazuddin Siddiqui) lights his cigarette while walking alone on a dusty lane thronged by prostitutes. It’s through these stories – written before the Partition in India – that Das lets us gaze inside the mind of the author. An author who could bring out his pen and spin prose almost on command, and fictionalised the grief of those around him.

Manto

Manto’s almost 120-minute-runtime is interspersed with five of Manto’s short stories, re-enacted with a surreal touch.

Image Credit: HP Studios

For a film set in 1940s India and Pakistan, Das is sparse with detailing – but she lets us feel the uncertainty of the period through its circumstances, like a conversation between two Muslims at a shoe shop debating whether they should emigrate to Pakistan, or Manto having to carry a Hindu and a Muslim cap to avoid the temper of mobs, and the divisiveness of religion instantly melting in the presence of a Bollywood star – as relevant then, as today.

But it’s in the second half, after Manto moves to Lahore, that the film drives home the realisation that we’ve hardly progressed from the time when he was alive. Back then, Manto faced serious legal troubles for writing stories that criticised the one-note narrative of Indian Independence. Even in 2018, we find writers and activists, critical of the establishment having their books pulped, being branded “urban Naxals” and placed under house arrest, and in some extreme cases, killed.

It’s in this period of Manto’s life, when he’d all but resigned to his fate, with work drying up and alcoholism crippling his sense of duty, that the film tries harder to understand him through the context of his work. Besides “Khol Do” and “Toba Tek Singh”, Manto uses a chilling rendition of “Thanda Gosht” (Cold Meat) – a story about a Sikh man who rapes the corpse of a woman – to reflect on an intolerant society. But even then, the film doesn’t paint him as a hero. The fact that Manto was largely oblivious to the needs of his family is spelled out throughout the film, as in a scene where he spends the money meant for medicines for his ill daughter on alcohol.

Going in, I’d expected Manto to provoke and make a statement at every opportunity. What I got instead, was an unflinching portrait of a man who despised taking the middle road.

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