For those unfamiliar with the subject – Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) was a prolific storywriter who supplemented his earnings by penning film scripts. His writings could be acerbic and vitriolic, but more of that latter. Biographies are generally arduous to navigate, leaving the filmmaker with a tough choice – whom to appease – the paying public or the subject’s heirs, without whose approval the ‘official’ stamp is missing. This was a biopic waiting to be made, but director/writer Nandita Das, by limiting the timeframe of Manto’s life (1946-1952) has missed out on contouring the literato’s early life.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui absorbs Manto’s persona well. Fleeting portrayals of Ismat Chugtai, Ashok Kumar, Jaddanbai, actor Shyam, and by Rishi Kapoor (denigrating whom I strongly suspect is the legendary stalwart Ardeshir Irani, whom Manto has vilified in his writings) cover various periods of Manto’s life.
Moving to Pakistan after partition proved a disastrous decision – he was out of work besides charges of obscenity in his writings being levelled against him, only to be acquitted on the testimony of Pakistani writer Abid Ali Abidi (Javed Akhtar in his film debut). Of Manto’s five short stories covered in the film, ‘Thanda Gosht’ featuring Ranvir Shorey and Divya Dutta is the most evocative. And while in Pakistan, Manto’s Parsee landlord causes him to remark, “Thank God for Parsees, it reminds me of Bombay.”
The production design (Rita Ghosh) and sepia-toned cinematography (Kartik Vijay) enhance the period setting of the film; while Zakir Hussain’s background score lends the film a sombre touch.
“In the end, all that remains are the stories and their characters,” says Manto, who never missed an opportunity to wet his lips, even in Pakistan.