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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Manto, Review: Man to man, rediscovering the Urdu writer, who died a pauper, at 42

Manto, Review: Man to man, rediscovering the Urdu writer, who died a pauper, at 42

Before the film, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) displayed categorises the language of the film as Hindi/Urdu. Saadat Hasan Manto wrote short stories and films in Urdu and there is some Hindi in the film, mainly spoken by others. Among the most controversial of Urdu writers, Manto has been the subject of rediscovery over the last decade or so for reasons unknown. Whatever the reasons, Nandita Das has made a compelling and eminently watchable biopic.

It comes on the heels of a Pakistani biography made in 2015 and Mantostaan, which filmed four of his short stories in 2017: Thanda Gosht, Khol Do, Assignment and Aakhiri Salute. We did not get to see the Pakistani film while the Indian outing, directed by Rahat Kazmi, received mixed reactions. Manto was his surname, and not his pen-name, as some might think. He was born in 1912 in Ludhiana but the family had a home in Lahore, while they moved to Mumbai as well.

His parents and his infant son were buried in Mumbai, but he had migrated to Lahore after living for many years in Mumbai, a city he loved dearly. Facing hostilities against the Muslim community, he was forced to leave much against his wishes. Not that he was a devout Muslim—a confirmed alcoholic, his only claim to Islam might have been the numerals 786 (denoting Bismillah—in the name of God) that he wrote before starting any story, and the prayer visits he made to his mother’s grave. Manto hated his late father. Muslim scholars and clerics roundly condemned his writing, often finding them un-Islamic and obscene. He died in Lahore, in 1955, aged 42, mainly as a result of alcohol abuse. All this is chronicled in the present film.

Writer-director Nandita Das’s Manto is not a true biopic, for it does not tell us too much about the personal life of the man and his family. It begins when Manto is already an established writer in Mumbai’s film industry of the mid-1940s and takes us through to his death, a decade later. Along the way, we meet many of his friends and publishers, including Ismat Chughtai (also condemned for writing stories considered obscene, including one on lesbianism), Shyam Chaddha (popular hero Shyam, who died early, like Manto but before him, after falling of a horse during shooting), Ashok Kumar (the boss at Bombay Talkies, who pooh-poohed Manto’s fears when the latter told him about repeated threats to kill him and other Muslims employed at Bombay Talkies) and many more. Ismat stood by him and the two were tried by a court in Lahore, for publishing obscene material. She stood by him all through, when the poet laureate of Pakistan, Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’, a leading light of the Progressive Writers’ Association, refused to consider his obscene work as literature at all. (The film ends on Faiz’s poem, in a tribute of supreme irony).

From the Bombay (now Mumbai) of 1946, the action shifts to Lahore, in 1948, where Manto follows his wife Safia and daughter Nighi, who had left earlier, to attend a wedding. In this city of refugees, just an hour away from the Indian town of Amritsar, he is shunned and prosecuted, and finds very little work. His drinking increases with frustration, though some more his greatest works were written there, where he learnt about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, an event that stunned him, just as partition itself had left deep scars on his psyche. These anxieties were developed into an all-time great short story, Toba Tek Singh, about madmen being exchanged between India and Pakistan, and a village which is in both Hindustan and Pakistan and, therefore, neither here nor there.

It was a sentence uttered in an unguarded moment by Shyam (remember Dillagi and the song ‘Too mera chand’ sung and picturised on him?), whose family had lost a member to the riots in Lahore and the rest of them had managed to escape to India, that finally made Manto decide to quit India. Shyam had said that he could have killed Manto in a fit of rage had he been around when the rioters attacked his family. Shyam used to nurse and humour Manto a lot. He did regret his statement, but the two met only once afterwards, when Shyam visited Lahore for a film’s release.

Das digs out a funny track that runs through the film: Hiptulla. It is a Muslim surname and we in India have had a Speaker of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) with that surname, albeit spelt as Heptulla. Reading about a cricket match in a Bombay paper, Manto finds a headline that mentions a cricketer called Hiptulla. He finds the name so funny that whenever he and Shyam indulge in any activity that is funny or entertaining, they call it “Hiptulla” or “Hiptulla-giri”.

In 2015, Nandita was toying with casting Irrfan for the role, but finally ended up picking Nawazuddin Siddiqui. There is no quarrel with the decision. I am sure Irrfan would have done an equally good job. Das recreates the ambience, but names only a few of the luminaries who shone on the film scene: Jaddanbai (mother of Nargis and grand-mother of Sunjay Dutt), Nargis, Himanshu Rai, Ashok Kumar, Shyam, and an unidentified “producer”, who asks girls to strip before he decides who to cast.

Manto’s work as writer of hit films is not addressed at all, except in one scene, when he gets infuriated on hearing some characters speak bookish, Sanskritised Hindi, whereas he had penned some other lines for them. One good scene is when K. Asif comes up to him and asks him his opinion about a particular script. Manto says he charges for giving opinions, and Asif promptly pays him. “Trash”, laughs Manto. Asif agrees. It was this K. Asif who had made Phool in 1945 and then went on to make Mughal-e-Azam. There is no mention of specific films Manto had written, like Kisan Kanya (1937), Naukar (1943) and Shikari (1946). It does appear odd that in a film adaptation of a literary figure’s life, his work in films is not highlighted at all.

Actress Das remains behind the camera, while the director in her paints pictures of locations and people in two cities, from the red-light ghettos of Mumbai’s Foras Road to the railway station that must have been the CST Terminal of 1948. Although the cars and costumes and interiors ring true, exteriors sometimes can be identified as sets/miniatures/computer images. Technique-wise, she begins with a short story (Das Rupaye) and brings Manto in only towards its end. Subsequently, she often has him in the beginning, as part of the milieu, like a silent spectator who is writing what he sees. Manto always maintained that he wrote what he saw, and that his writing was almost entirely fact, not fiction. He lived for some time in the red-light district because that was where he could get the cheapest accommodation, and so it was only natural that his works include tales of prostitutes and pimps.

Except for some predictable staccato, memorised dialogue delivery, which is trade-mark Nawazuddin, he does a splendid job in bringing out the sorrow and tragedy of Manto’s life. Rasika Duggal as Safia, his wife moves from the totally submissive to the bold and confrontational ever so gradually. Tahir Raj Bhasin as Shyam looks quite a bit like the original actor and performs well. Feryna Wazheir as Nargis has a walk on part, though Ila Arun as Jaddanbai gets to sing a whole ghazal. Javed Akhtar as Abid Ali Abid is a surprising bit of casting and is initially unrecognisable, till he starts speaking. Also almost unrecognisable is Gurdas Mann as Sirajuddin. Chandan Roy Sanyal as Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi is another bit player, in a scene reviving memories of Devdas. Vinod Nagpal as Bishan Singh is in good form in the Toba Tek Singh segment. Rishi Kapoor as “Film Producer” plays voyeur in a ‘blink and miss’ appearance. Just a bit longer on the screen is the presence of Paresh Rawal as a pimp.

Very good support comes from Inaam-ul-haq as Hamid, Ranvir Shorey as Ishar Singh and Divya Dutta as Kulwant Kaur (both in the Thanda Gosht segment), Rajshri Deshpande as Ismat Chughtai, Tillotama Shome as the Prostitute, Shashank Arora as Shaad Amritsari, Danish Husain as Asad Zaidi, Salim Arif as the Judge, Raghav Dutt as Naushad (music director), and Purab Kohli as the prostitute’s client Kifayat. Sadly, the actor playing Faiz Ahmed Faiz could not be identified. Deserves kudos. Also, there is an actor portraying Ashok Kumar who does not do so well.

Four songs are included in the title track. Three of them are composed by Sneha Khanwalkar: ‘Nagri nagri’, written by Urdu poet Meeraji and rendered by Shankar Mahadevan, ‘Ab kya bataun’ from the pen of acclaimed poet ‘Seemaab’ Akbarabadi, sung by Shubha Joshi and ‘Bol ke lab aazaad hain’, Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’’s iconic nazm, in the voices of Rashid Khan, and Vidya Shah, which come on as the end credits roll. ‘Mantoiyat’ is a kind of rap track, composed by Raftaar, featuring Raftaar and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

It takes some believing to see what pride of place women enjoyed in his works, written 70-80 years ago. And he always spoke man to man, human to human, in the language of the characters. Sreekar Prasad, editor, shows his skill in condensing five stories and some 15 incidents in Manto’s life, an epic span, in a remarkable 1 hour and 52 minutes only duration.

Manto aims high, but just misses bull’s eye. It must be seen, nevertheless.

Rating: ***½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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