‘Manto’ Is A Messy Ode to Messy Stories
Nandita Das understands that stories and by extension films cannot be polemics.
There is a pivotal moment almost halfway through Nandita Das’ Manto, when Saadat Hasan Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his best friend Shyam Chadda (Tahir Raj Bhasin) are sharing a train ride together after meeting some of Shyam’s relatives who had barely escaped from what would soon become Pakistan. Shyam is seething, and something he says about Muslims out of anger becomes the catalyst for Saadat to decide he no longer feels welcome in his home of Bombay.
But the moment that struck me was a few seconds before Shyam’s jibe at Saadat for being a Muslim. Shyam notices that Saadat is scribbling away in his notebook and lashes out at him.
“This is real life! Those were real living people! They aren’t characters in your little stories!” he spurts. While Saadat is not one to keep words to himself, he genuinely has no response to this. There is a brief moment of existential crisis in his eyes, before Shyam continues his tirade. Manto doesn’t know anything but his stories.
A Nandita Das-directed feature on the life of Saadat Hasan Manto could have been many things. In fact, it was expected to. From the very first promo from the film, it was already being considered a statement on freedom of speech and artistic expression. Manto’s stories - and Manto’s story - are nothing if not topical. It is blistering hot material. “Manto is more relevant than ever!” they said.
Manto is not exactly that. It imbibes those ideals through Saadat’s beliefs and struggles, but the film does it so subtly that I was pleasantly surprised. Nandita understands that these issues were only part of the writer’s life. She is more interested in telling Manto’s story – and his stories. She is an intelligent filmmaker who understands that stories and by extension films cannot be polemics.
‘Manto’ does not subvert the biopic at all. It is a very surface level view of the writer’s life. The film’s success is in leaving the audience wanting for more. For Saadat’s Bollywood days, for his adventures with Ismat Chugtai. There are entire films playing out just outside the frames of Nandita Das’ picture. (Manto Cinematic Universe, anyone?)
There is an added meta-level to all of this, as Nandita has stuffed the film with cameos from her friends (I chuckled at “Introducing: Javed Akhtar”), making the film feel even more like a passion play.
One of the best throwaway scenes is early on in the film when Saadat is in the park with his wife Safia (Rasika Dugal) on a sunny day and together they craft a story around another couple they are playfully spying upon. Saadat is established as someone who lets his imagination run wild and makes up stories on the spot. “I write what I see” is something he says often in the film. Depending on what he saw, his stories could be joyous and full of life, even when they dealt with the scum of society.
Shyam’s concern in the train is not an invalid one. There is an ethical quandary in authors and artists scavenging off real-life victims for their work. At the same time, it is difficult to deny the trauma Saadat goes through by witnessing and writing stories around partition.
Even as he defended them to his last breath, even as he felt the inescapable urge to tell those stories, he got no satisfaction from them. He wrote what he saw; what could he do when all he saw was dark?
Manto opens with a lovingly shot retelling of Saadat’s short story Dus Rupay. At first I did not realise the fact, having not read this particular tale. It felt like a great little snippet of 1940s Mumbai. When the camera cuts to Nawaz as Saadat reading the story out to his wife, I found it a brilliant way to kick off a film about the writer. Remarkably, the film repeats this conceit multiple times, recreating some of Manto’s greatest short stories. The film very subtly segues from “real life” to fiction; where the camera leaves Saadat and enters his written words is almost impossible to mark.
It’s a fascinating bit that could be dismissed as a gimmick, technical show-off, as most things that resemble polished filmmaking are these days. What it is, is a an age-old storytelling device. Stories within stories are not new, but seeing the trick pulled off so well still delights this <ahem> writer. Not all of the segments in the film work, and hardcore fans will definitely have a bone to pick with the retellings of their favourite stories. However, it’s this device that makes Nandita Das’ Manto stand apart as a tribute to storytelling.
There were murmurs after my screening, how it took a while for some viewers to realise the snippets in the film were based on actual Manto stories. They couldn’t believe something so subversive could’ve been Urdu literature. They were excited to find out if the stories held up to the film’s version. Boy, will they be surprised.
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