Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Duggal, Rajshri Deshpande, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Neeraj Kabi, Rishi Kapoor, Danish Hussain
Director: Nandita Das
Rating: * * * ½
A biopic on the revered British Indian, Urdu writer, playwright, author Saadat Hasan Manto (11 May 1912-18 Jan 1955), who was born in Ludhiana and relocated to Pakistan a year after the partition – this cinematic tribute to his life interspersed with characters from his stories (Kali Salwar, Khol Do, Thanda Gosht, Toba Tek Singh) is a compellingly woven drama about how a sensitive, creative personality falls prey to despondency brought about by alienation from his home in Bombay following the riots. Much of his work was scathing commentaries on the festering communal hatred and victimisation that occurred before, during and after the riots that devastated India and Pakistan to such an extent that to this day both the country’s citizenry are unable to heal the rift that split a unified nationwide open.
Nandita Das’ nuanced offering has Manto challenging the norm, chronicling life around him with a mirroring verbosity that was deemed inappropriate by the powers that be. The contemporary writer is shown serenading the city of Bombay with the choicest of his life work. His interactions with fellow writers and friends including his long-suffering wife Safia (Rasika Duggal), soul-sister Ismat Chugtai (Rajshri Deshpande), Ahmed Nadeem Kazmi (Chandan Roy Sanyal), Shad Amritsari (Shashank Arora), Asad Zaidi (Danish Hussain), Faiz, actors Shyam Sunder Chaddha (Tahir Raj Bhasin), Ashok Kumar, and several others form the bulwark of this representation that has a number of befitting heavyweight cameos including that of Rishi Kapoor, Ranvir Shorey, Paresh Rawal, Neeraj Kabi, Javed Akhtar, Ashwath Bhatt, Raghav Dutt, Vijay Verma, Ila Arun, Tillottama Shome and Divya Dutta.
While Nandita Das’ debut directorial effort Firaaq – on the riots in Gujarat left us wounded and questioning our own gullibility towards incendiary indoctrination and inhumaneness towards our fellow humans, her ‘Manto’ takes us back in time to shed light on the history behind that hatred. Since the focus here is not the riots during partition, but the wounds inflicted by harsh words and pernicious interpretations, it may not be as wounding. But the depth and affect are just as strong and hurtful. Manto’s troubled personality finds a voice in Nawazuddin’s interpretation of it. The sepia-tinged cinematography by Karthik Vijay, the period-specific production design by Rita Ghosh, almost seamless editing by A Sreekar Prasad, costume design by Sheetal Sharma, make-up by Shrikant Desai and music appropriate to a bygone era by Sneha Khanvilkar, makes this experience of a tragic life that much more fascinating and engaging.