For those unfamiliar with Indian-Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto, Nandita Das’ inspired Manto offers a heady introduction to one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Pungent, violent, sexual and shocking, his short stories written in the Urdu language of northern India in the 1930s and ‘40s recall Isaac Babel in their brevity and lethal impact. Many of them are re-enacted in the film and woven into the writer’s biography so seamlessly that they seem to be part of his unquiet life.
Bowing in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, this fine festival film is a strong follow-up to her first directing effort, Firaaq, set during the Gujarat riots in 2002. But as few international viewers are likely to know who Manto is, the feature will have trouble reaching beyond borders. A few explanatory titles at the beginning might be a helpful leg up.
This is not the first movie about the fascinating writer; the most recent was a 2015 Pakistani film of the same title directed by and starring Sarmad Khoosat, which was subsequently developed into a TV series based on the short stories. Here, the versatile Nawazuddin Siddiqui (he was the cheerful apprentice accountant in The Lunchbox) is transformed into an astounding resemblance of the writer, in what may well be Manto’s definitive screen persona. Siddiqui hurls Manto’s talent, wit, self-destructiveness and tragic gravity at the world like a punch in the stomach — in fact, very much like the stories he was writing after 1946, when the film takes place.
Das’ screenplay zeroes in on the years following Indian independence from British rule and the bloody Partition of India and Pakistan that followed, in which 14 million Hindus and Muslims were displaced and over a million killed in religious rioting. Manto was a Muslim, and many of his violent stories from this period spring from the horrors he witnessed during Partition. These short, chilling tales give a unique twist to his life, becoming the background to his wrenching decision to leave literary Bombay (where he also wrote screenplays for the film industry) and move his family to Pakistan.
However, the stories, which pop up throughout the film, make it seriously difficult to construct a narrative arc, and the pic’s pacing suffers accordingly. The first half is noticeably slow, though it picks up in the more engrossing second part.
As independence dawns, Manto and his wife, Safia (Rasika Dugal), are at the center of Bombay’s literary life, where he finds lots of support for his legal battles against obscenity charges. Like D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, the literary quality and true-to-life narration in his work are no guarantee against prosecution. (He fought six trials on obscenity charges, three in British India and three in Pakistan.) The film opens with an unsettling story about a young girl from the slums whose father sells her to two men; they take her to the beach where she innocently plays with them and their driver, before being abused.
In another story, a brutish man drags an exhausted prostitute out of bed and beats her while she begs him to let her sleep. In the scuffle he hits his head and dies, and she gratefully returns to bed.
Manto has just between acquitted in one of his trials and he celebrates with his friends in a cafe with his wife and close friends. His Bollywood buddies include the famous actors Ashok Kumar and Shyam Chadda (Tahir Raj Bhasin). One day he’s in a car with the Hindu Shyam when they suddenly encounter a Muslim mob. Manto panics, but there’s no need: When the crowd recognizes the actor, they are jubilant and forget which religion he belongs to.
“Either everyone’s life matters, or no one’s does” is Manto’s creed, but it is hard to press ideals in the midst of mindless violence. Shyam takes him to the harbor and sees him off in a scene of mass immigration that is very sad and preoccupying. “This is not the dawn we longed for,” he says upon hearing of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
In the ruins of 1948 postwar Lahore, Manto struggles to support his wife and small daughters without compromising his work. He starts drinking heavily. He is arrested and defends himself in court in a sterling speech about the need for writers to recount reality.
A memorable scene has him speaking to a well-heeled literary club where, after making some inflammatory remarks, he promises to read three of his stories. Each turns out to be a few sentences long, and each is brilliant. Possibly through an error in the English subtitles, one story is lost. In it, a Muslim slices his victim cleanly down the thorax with his knife, only to discover he is circumcised and therefore another Muslim like himself. The subtitles make it seem that his exclamation, “I made a mistake,” refers to regret over destroying some fancy pajamas.
The handsome Siddiqui, flashing the cleft chin and defiant gaze of an Indian Marcello Mastroianni, is riveting even when Manto enters a downward spiral of alcoholism in the final scenes. He tells a concerned friend that people drink either to endure pain or to silence their conscience. His death at 42 comes as no surprise.
DP Kartik Vijay creates an arresting ambience in scene after scene, working with Rita Ghosh’s stunning sets of old Calcutta and Bombay, which give way to the postwar shabbiness of Lahore under reconstruction. The dramatized short stories are aptly translated to the screen with a dreamlike sordidness.
Production companies: Nandita Das Initiatives, Filmstoc, HP Studios, Viacom 18
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Tahir Raj Bhasin
Director-screenwriter: Nandita Das
Producers: Nirang Desai, Sameer Dixit, Jatish Varma
Executive producer: Sanjeev Kumar Nair
Director of photography: Kartik Vijay
Production designer: Rita Ghosh
Costume designer: Sheetal Sharma
Editor: Sreekar Prasad
Music: Zakir Hussain, Sneha Khanwalkar
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
World sales: Radiant Films International