In Manto, Nandita Das directs a moving and spirited account of Saadat Hasan Manto and his ideas, as expressed in his rightly praised stories of real people. Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) himself excels at digging out truths of daily existence, whether in pre-independence Bombay in 1946 or after he has moved to Lahore, in the post-partition state of Pakistan a year after independence. Scenes from his writings appear on screen as if he is seeing them in actuality, directly experiencing them. Suspending disbelief as we do, we too are there, even if vicariously via the camera lens. This is striking. Though in retrospect we can recognise scenes from his stories, at the time we experience them as part of a lived reality. And sometimes that is a brutal reality, exposed to our view unflinchingly by both the late author and the current auteur, who magnificently carries us along with her and her excellent cast and crew. Five of Manto’s stories are thus woven seamlessly into the fabric of the film.
This is no dry exposition. This is real people at the sharp ending of colonial India and then an India deliberately fractured into two opposing states. Cry as you may, and the tragedy of Partition presents much to cry about, Manto gives us hope in women and men’s resilience, humour, and savoir faire. Living with this author is no bed of roses and Manto’s wife and life partner, Safia (Rasika Dugal), has a lot to put up with, what with Manto’s constant drinking. They both feel an ever-present pain of loss of their young son: but as Safia says, he will only really die when both his parents are no more. Both empathetic and so right for their parts, Dugal and Siddiqui clearly have enormous rapport with each other and with their director.
There is usually drama in court scenes and so it proves here in the film’s second half in Pakistan. Though only one prosecution of Manto is depicted, in fact he was prosecuted in both India and Pakistan several times for alleged obscenity in his writings, but only fined once. All these prosecutions were of course politically motivated. As his wont, we see Manto cut away the cant and legalistic verbiage, and go for the jugular (as one of his characters does). Here, as elsewhere in Manto, DOP Kartik Vijay’s camerawork stands out.
Truly a man of his time, Manto chronicled the disastrous and bloody period of the creation of India and Pakistan through Partition and its aftermath. Instead of one united country, Britain ‘granted independence’ to two hobbled ones constantly at each others’ throats (and they’re still at it, both with nuclear weapons now). How convenient for India and Pakistan’s ruling classes to have an enemy just over the border! To be able to bamboozle each state’s population by suggesting the foreign ‘hidden hand’ behind each domestic failure and catastrophe, instead of each ruling class’s culpability. It is still the basis for Islamophobia within India, dividing and ruling to this day and engendering hatred toward the world’s third largest Muslim population (after Indonesia and Pakistan). Indeed, India’s current prime minister Narendra Modi, a member of the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), oversaw the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002; he is the champion of Hindu ascendancy over Muslims.
Manto’s 1955 story Toba Tek Singh stands in literature and in this film as a fitting epitaph to Partition. A tale of abasement: in 1950, both states agreed to the forcible exchange of mental hospital patients – India deported Muslim inmates to Pakistan while Pakistan deported Hindu and Sikh inmates to India.
Manto is screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 11 & 12 October 2018. It opened in France in May 2018 and in India on 21 September 2018.