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Manto movie review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui pours out a glassful of Manto

Manto movie review: Nawaduddin Siddiqui and Rasika Dugal deliver internalised performances in director Nandita Das’ biopic. Rating: 3.5/5.

Updated: Sep 22, 2018 12:44:31

By Raja Sen

Manto movie review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Saadat Hasan Manto.

Manto
Director - Nandita Das
Cast - Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Rajshri Deshpande, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal
Rating - 3.5/5

 

It is always special when a writer meets a reader who cares. In Manto — the Nandita Das film attempting to unravel Saadat Hasan Manto, wizard of the short story — one such fan spots the writer and leaves concerns of life and death behind to approach the great man. He expresses his admiration (in that awkward way we do when great writers leave the rest of us without word), and enquires why, in the latest issue of his favourite periodical, there is no new instalment from Manto. “Something political must have taken up the pages,” Manto shrugs with a smile, as if to suggest that the story is merely saved for another time.

His nonchalance is deceptive. The country is being ripped apart. Hindus and Muslims are questioning whether to live in the land where their ancestors are buried, or to leave it behind for a shaky promise of peace. Manto may smile, but he was unaware of the missing story, and doesn’t know when it will see the light.



It is a sad day indeed when politics doesn’t leave room for prose.

 Watch the Manto trailer here

And vice versa. It is too simplistic to look back at Manto’s dazzling stories — stories of smells and brothels, of necrophilia and homelessness — and reduce him to the readily admired role of activist or social reformer, when he was a piercing, unflinching observer. Back when he worked at All India Radio, he boasted he could write a story on any subject in the world. Yet his very first published story, ‘Tamasha,’ was about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Every story may not be political, but prose makes room.

How do you show a writer in action? Das chooses against it. Her film barely gives us a glimpse of Manto writing. We meet instead a man who collects fancy pens but chooses not to use them, a man who proclaims the power of his pencil, a man who claims the sound of a typewriter is too distracting. This doesn’t square with legends of Manto at his Urdu typewriter. This film appears less bound by fact, and as fiction it is impressionistic. The writer’s greatest hits feature prominently: he steps out for a smoke, one of his characters offers him a light. This is a sweet, romanticised mood piece.

The film opens with Manto in Bombay, struggling to get the fattest film industry cats to pay him what they owe him. The film closes with Manto in Lahore, paid in compliments and contraband ghee. Freelance writers have always lived in uncertainty. During the partition, he finds himself carrying both a Hindu topi and a Muslim topi to get out of sticky situations, but the struggle gets stickier.

Even by Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s own standards, he is improbably brilliant in this deeply internalised role, his wariness like a protective cloak. His words are dry, his tongue is sharp and — like too many of the sharpest and dryest tongues of his generation — it frequently needs wetting. Siddiqui doesn’t resemble the writer, but strikingly embodies his restless defiance and all-knowing air.

What a character. He scolds writer Ismat Chugtai for ending a sublime story with pedestrian lines, and actor Shyam Chadda for smoking a cheap brand. When asked if he will address students at a college, he asks only if he is allowed to show up drunk. In one glorious shot, he strolls past a woman begging for money. He knows those he writes about and instinctively hands her something as he passes. She smiles. Sometimes a streetwalker needs a cigarette.

Rajshri Deshpande is superb as Chugtai, and several fine actors show up as characters in Manto’s life or stories, including Ranvir Shorey, Divya Dutta and — in the film’s most haunting moment — the great Vinod Nagpal.

Rasika Dugal shines so brightly as Manto’s wife that she threatens to hijack the production. Her role is a cliché — that of the long-suffering wife helplessly waiting for the drunkard husband to come home — but Dugal, with her eyes and her sighs, drinks Manto up. She admires him while feeling sorry for him, and in one scene she reads out a letter from Chugtai. Enraptured by the words she’s saying out loud, her passive tone flickers to life, as if she has become Chugtai by proxy, on the strength of those playful sentences. ‘Mrs Manto’ may have been a stronger film. Dugal’s mastery lies in how firm she can be with the man she loves. He may write lines, but she draws them.

The maestro Zakir Hussain provides an intricate background score, one that is occasionally highlighted by a discordant, drunken sitar twang. This sense of intoxication informs the visuals as well, as cinematographer Kartik Vijay’s otherwise-steady camera lurches into tracking shots when following Manto characters going up the stairs or entering refugee camps.

The film, however, lacks flow. Das directs with affection but can’t seem to enforce consistency. The Bombay portions feel like clips from a highlight reel, yet these scenes are buoyed by lyricism and spirit, even though the editing is choppy and some moments flash by too hurriedly. The Lahore half is more conventionally linear but feels eventually tedious, with hackneyed scenes about tormented creators and sick children. By the end of the piece, melodrama tragically overtakes wit, but the lovely lines linger.

When composing his own epitaph, Manto had famously (and only half-jokingly) suggested that his tombstone ask: ‘Who was the better storyteller: God or Manto?’ It is when writing Manto’s life that God may have come close. It is a life measured out in messy glugs of whiskey, with the writer dreaming about the bars of unsafe Bombay while drinking the unsafe liquor of Lahore. He belonged to them both, as he does to all who read him. Like the character from his most famous story, Saadat Hasan Manto was no land’s man.

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First Published: Sep 21, 2018 08:15:00

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