Monday, September 25, 2023 | Rabi' al-awwal 9, 1445 H
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Gloomy but no boring moments in Manto


If you’re not familiar with classic Indo-Pakistani writers, I’d like to invite you to watch Nandita Das’s film Manto (2018). Born in 1912, Saadat Hassan Manto was an author and a playwright who had produced 22 collections of short stories, radio series and movie scripts.

His translations into Urdu include the works of Chekov, Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, and Victor Hugo. He was a member of the Progressive Writers Movement that included prominent names such as the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ismat Chughtai.

Manto was one of the many intellects who opposed the partition of India in 1947 and ironically had to leave to Pakistan as he feared prosecution for being a Muslim. His best stories were written at that period such as Thanda Gosht (cold meat) and Toba Tek Singh. He died of alcoholism in 1955 aged 42 and was buried in Lahore.

In Das’s movie, Nawazuddin Siddiqui — the genius actor — succeeds in embodying the tormented writer. The movie period is set after the partition of India and highlights Manto’s migration to Lahore that deeply affected him and led to his premature death.

His life in Bombay before the partition is shown in few scenes, where he’s depicted as a loving family man who keeps fighting for his right to reflect society through his writings.

He was charged for obscenity six times: three in India and three in Pakistan and fined in one case only. His close circle of friends included writers and movie actors. All this suddenly changes when the partition happens. His family moves first to Lahore where his wife’s family are. He follows later after seeing the violence irrupting and people getting killed for belonging to what’s considered a wrong religion. However, his life in Lahore is a struggle as the city is filled with refugees just like him.

Censorship follows him to his new city as he’s charged once again with obscenity after the publication of Thanda Gosht. The best scenes in the movie are of acts taken from four of his famous short stories including Thanda Gosht. However, the viewer must pay attention not to mix reality with fantasy, the way Manto seems to do at times. Das’s feminine touch is evident when presenting Manto’s relationship with his wife and his close friend actor Shyam Chadda. Despite both relationships being turbulent at times, yet love and loyalty keeps prevailing.

There is no boring moment in this movie even with its gloomy backdrop. Attention to details and set and costume designs transfers you instantly into the era; as well as the movie’s soundtrack of songs composed from classic poems of the 40s and 50s. One sad thing to note: despite being in the 21st century, things haven’t changed much in India since the partition: tension still exists between different sects and writers still struggle with freedom of expression.

Other than Siddiqui’s flawless acting, the rest of the cast’s performance was excellent too, especially Rasika Dugal who plays Manto’s wife Safiya who strifes between her duties as a mother of two and a wife of an alcoholic. The movie competed in many film festivals including Cannes.

It won Best Actor and Best Producer in the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in 2018. It also won Best Costume Design in Filmfare Awards the following year. An interesting trivia about the movie is that the director had Irfan Khan in mind to play the role of Manto as he looked like him. But her final choice came to Nawazuddin Siddiqui who worked for free. Manto is a must-watch emotional odyssey for all classic and literature lovers. Available on Netflix.

Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja.

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