Where the heart is free – thoughts on Manto

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During his stint in Amritsar, Manto stepped inside the office of the newspaper Musawat to meet his friend Abdul Bari Alig. He saw a press pass for a movie lying at Bari’s desk. Bari had no interest in the film and gave it to Manto on the condition that he pen a short piece on the movie for the daily after watching it.  Writing regular reviews for Musawat marked the beginning of Manto’s career in writing, for newspapers and later, films.

Having spent some time in Amritsar and Delhi, Manto had an extremely memorable innings in Bombay in the 1940s. His time in Bombay and his stint in the film industry are very well recorded. Manto’s life and works have not only been reviewed by scholars and historians but also by Manto himself. His self analytical write-ups are extremely critical and contain dark humour, as did a lot of his other writings. Nandita Das uses this abundant literature to craft her film.

The film starts a little before independence, leaving out a huge chunk of Manto’s happy days in Bombay. Yes, we see a bit of film parties and some of the train sojourns with his comrade in arms actor Shyam (Tahir Raj Bhasin). We reach partition and his move to Pakistan much before the interval and the film dwells on his struggle to be heard out in Lahore. It’s a new city, washed with the blood of partition. Manto cannot even forget the fact that the house he occupies belonged to a Hindu family that fled for India during the riots. His pen hasn’t lost its sharpness still. It still speaks the truth in a way very few can digest in his new homeland. He is charged with obscenity for his stories and he drinks away to destruction, as his family helplessly watches on.

Manto is a film made with a lot of passion and love. It’s visible in the efforts put in to get it right, down to the fine details. The actors are a terrific lot. Veterans like Ila Arun, Paresh Rawal and Vinod Nagpal appear in five-minute roles to leave an indelible mark. Ranvir Shorey and Divya Dutta too shine in their small appearances. But many others are used like props without any real effect. Film personalities like K Asif and Naushad are strewn around like seasoning, without any real consequence. There’s Rishi Kapoor playing a film producer asking girls coming for audition to strip down but you are not told that it’s AR Kardar.  You see Suraiya and Nargis without even being told who these characters are and their identification rests solely on the viewer’s knowledge of  vintage Hindi cinema. This despite the fact that Manto has left a rich treasure of his experiences with the film world in a series of stories compiled under the title Dastavez, which is a major point of reference for Das to write the parts involving Ismat Chugtai and Shyam. In fact, of all these characters, it’s his friendship with Shyam that has found ample space in the movie and emerges with all its depth.

And there lies a major part of Manto’s problem. It expects the viewer to know a lot before coming to the hall. Nandita Das has weaved in five short stories of Manto in the narrative but not all of them are easily identifiable as his works of fiction and a viewer, who is not a reader of Manto, might be left confused about the purpose of that specific story in the movie. Also, his move from a city that he loved to bits to Lahore seems rushed. The riots in Bombay and his conversation with Shyam are largely the reasons revealed in the film for his exit from Bombay. But further reading on Manto tells us that he had tumultuous relationship with people in Filmistan and later, in Bombay Talkies. Ashok Kumar choosing the script of Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal instead of the one suggested by Manto and his friend Ismat Chugtai’s story being chosen to be made as Ziddi did not go down well with him. He took to heavy drinking even during his last days in Bombay.

But I watched it to see the life of a writer I have admired for more than a decade and it was quite a fulfilling experience that way. You can understand the writer’s agony and feel his joys and sorrows as you traverse his path through the narrative. Nandita Das successfully resurrects the last days of the writer and his unshaking beliefs and outlook on life and society. Manto is revealed to us as an iconoclast, a humanist, friend and a very loving family man. Even while showing his downfall, no attempt is made to justify his weaknesses. Das is at complete ease while showing his vulnerability. Besides Manto, what you will carry on with you for a long time after watching this film will be the songs composed by Sneha Khanwalkar. There are three songs in the film and they are priceless works. Ustad Zakir Hussain’s background score tugs at your heartstrings.

To make this, Nandita Das would definitely have lived with this story for a long time. But the man who brings the dead back to life is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in one of the greatest performances seen in recent times in Hindi cinema. Nobody else can today be imagined in this role and he infuses the portrayal with a rare honesty that you forget Nawazuddin while you watch Manto. A complete surprise is the wonderful portrayal by Rasika Dugal as Safia, Manto’s wife. She plays the interventionist and the silent spectator with a lot of integrity.

While Nandita Das takes the non-readers for granted in places, her film will definitely spark an interest in the writer among those who haven’t read him yet. You cannot be more honest about Manto than he has been about himself. This movie is a lesson on making biopics where you are honest with the character and the story. And for those who have grown up on Manto, this wonderful work will bring the master of storytelling come alive with his own stories. To do complete justice to a man like Manto, one would need an entire series, not just a film.

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