“My stories are mirrors for society to see itself,” asserts author Saadat Hasan Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), on trial for obscenity. Dramatizing Manto’s struggles as he excoriates humanity during the most tumultuous time on the Indian Subcontinent, actress-filmmaker Nandita Das’ “Manto” is elegant and old school, epic without losing sight of the personal. However, Das’ heavily expository style is almost too respectable to do justice to the scathing and sexually provocative nature of Manto’s short stories, considered some of the most powerful in the Urdu language. Siddiqui, the chameleon actor of “The Lunchbox” and “Gangs of Wasseypur” gives a tour-de-force portrayal of the writer’s intellect as well as his very human flaws.
“Manto” could garner support among the educated bourgeois crowd in India and Pakistan who likely know the protagonist’s life and oeuvre well; the film’s high-mindedness might not be as readily appreciated by general audiences abroad.
The action opens in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1946, with India’s independence from British rule. Manto, a non-practicing Muslim of Kashmiri origin, is flushed with pride over his nation’s autonomy, as conveyed in his animated discourses with best friend Shyam Chadda (Tahir Bhasin), a Hindu actor, and his optimism for the bright future that awaits his baby daughters. The social gatherings Manto attends re-create the heady buzz of Bombay’s literati, with a wry glance at fledgling Bollywood, for which Manto wrote scripts.
Before long, however, the country becomes galvanized by violence, hatred and mass dispossession. A few taut episodes of escalating tension between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs evoke Manto’s agony in witnessing the destruction of what he sees as his city’s soul. He’s forced to move to Lahore, in the newly created state of Pakistan, where the family of his wife, Safia (Rasika Dugal), lives.
Eschewing spectacle, Das nevertheless expresses the human cost of the greatest upheaval in the history of the Indian Subcontinent: She vividly depicts the dereliction of Lahore in 1948 in contrast to the swinging mood of 1946 Bombay, and delves into Manto’s darkening psyche. Recreations of his short stories also give a sense of the chaos and cruelty running rampant all around him, and the anger and pessimism he feels.
The film scores its highest points by so smoothly weaving extracts from Manto’s stories into the fabric of the narrative that it’s not easy to see the line between the author’s life and his fiction; placed at the center of a scene, he simultaneously observes and engages with the imaginary characters. Credit goes not only to the bold cutting of Sreekar Prasad, but also to Siddiqui for his ability to move between multiple worlds of reality and imagination with subtly differentiated expressions.
Siddiqui effectively reveals Manto’s alcoholism and emotional instability as a gradual deterioration, using quicksilver shifts of mood rather than flaming melodrama. However, his failing marriage is not developed enough to deliver a more tragic impact. Compared with earlier scenes of harmony, clearly built on a matching of equal minds among husband and wife, it’s a pity Safi’s reaction to Manto’s downward spiral is not detailed.
The film also betrays weakness in its account of Manto’s challenge against patriarchy and male violence (his stories abound with rape and other sexual abuse), or his compassion for the most reviled or stigmatized strata like prostitutes or sexually abused women. Although this is mentioned in the story re-creations, it doesn’t consolidate into an over-arching theme.
According to screen titles, the author has been tried in court as many as six times for obscenity. The film’s last act focuses on one such trial, in which he and his publishers are sued for the short story “Cold Meat.” His speech in his defense, in which he compares himself with Flaubert and Joyce (both taken to court for their masterpieces) detail his lifelong stance — and struggle — as the scourge of society. But here and elsewhere, there’s a fundamental problem with the dialogue; containing generous portions of Manto’s own words, the film gushes with eloquence but also sounds verbose and stuffy.
Tech credits are well-appointed, particularly the full-bodied, mournful score by master composer Zakir Hussain. Sneha Khanwalkar’s closing song boasts lyrics that express the essence of Manto’s beliefs.