Bombay. 14th August, 1947. Or should I say, 15th? The clock has just struck 12. A writer who would be conceded as a nonconformist speaker of truth in the days to come, is standing by the window. The sky is lit up with a thousand firecrackers. He softly wakes up his pregnant wife. Yeh Khushiyan Toh Hum Saath Hi Manayenge. He touches her blossoming belly and whispers, ‘you will be born in a free India’.
The very freedom that cost Saadat Hasan Manto his literary rebellion, the city he held dear, his sanity and later his life.
Nandita Das’ Manto begins with a hypothetical portrayal of one of his stories, a style of narrative that Das has repeatedly used in the film. Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a writer with a gallon of objections to the contemporary society and its feudalism, is mostly neither heard nor understood. Deeply distraught by the pre-partition chaos, he almost wants to stir a movement but how? The more uncomfortable his stories get, the closer they are to truth. And the more truthful he gets, the more the society alienates him. Isn’t that what happens to speakers of truth, through ages?
And one day he perceives, he is not just Manto. He is also a Muslim. There he departs with his beloved Bombay and heads to Lahore where his wife Safia (Rasika Dugal) and daughters are already awaiting him. A departure that never healed.
There’s a mention of a paanwala called Govind. Manto still owes him a rupee. On a broader scene, Govind probably stands for every piece of himself that he is leaving behind. His mother’s grave, his box of ink pens, his dear friend Shyam Chaddha (Tahir Raj Bhasin), his favourite brand of cigarette. Above everything, Manto is a true love story between a dejected author and an old city he will never come back to. Hence, when he meets Shyam days later in Lahore, his eyes sparkle up. He asks, ‘how’s my Bombay?’ And the pang of separation is where the crux of this film lies.
But it is as much a story of crisis in many layers. Manto is a thinker way ahead of his own times. His honesty is understood as obscenity and his opinion is understood as audacity. He slowly loses himself into the pigeonhole of uncalled judgments and humiliation. But what probably hurts the most is knowing that the purpose of his literature isn’t assimilated by the society. We see a tranquil, loving Manto slowly turning into an alcoholic who is running away from everyone including himself.
Nawazuddin as Manto is prolific. He speaks just as much, even when he is not speaking. He radiates the feel of his character. But after him, the second most important role is that of Rasika Dugal. She’s this helpless wife of a wounded author who is torn between trying to comfort him and seeking some comfort for her own self and the children. And she strikes a chord as both. Apart from Tahir Raj Bhasin, Divya Dutta and Ranbir Shorey too deserve a mention for the intensity and dimension they brought along.
But the question is whether Manto, as a film, serves its purpose. The answer is, yes and no. While Das gets the context and the performances absolutely right, the narrative itself is underwhelming at times. We’ve plenty of moments to come back with, but we probably looked for more.
Manto is a thoroughly well-researched and well-shot film with a highly important story. It will remain one of Nawazuddin’s best performances till date. However, a little more impact, especially in the first half, would not have hurt.
But give it a watch, for it upholds an essential freedom we are yet to entirely achieve. Bol Ke Lab Azad Hai.