Director Nandita Das’ Manto is a poignant and hard-hitting biopic about the controversial, Indo-Pakistani, Urdu short-story writer Sadat Hassan Manto. It is her tribute to Manto, albeit one she renders with honesty as she presents the celebrated writer with all his failings and greatness. The film opens in Mumbai where a young and raring-to-go Manto is slowly but surely making his presence felt in the Indian film Industry. With the partition breaking out, circumstances compel Manto to move to Pakistan and his life changes.
The film portrays how circumstances can break a straightforward and talented man who depicted the society through his unapologetic writing. The Director succeeds in allowing the audience to be privy to the life of this author who lives in Lahore but has his heart belonging to Mumbai. The narrative flows smoothly and the origination of some of his short stories like “Toba Tek Singh”, “Khol Do” and “Thanda Gosht” are successfully depicted.
Like every character-driven film, this film too moves at a slow pace but manages to keep you engrossed. The drama is in the inner turmoil within the character. You can feel Manto’s frustrations as he feels incapacitated when in Lahore and this is enhanced by the circumstances and times he lives in. The film touches your heart especially in the scene where he says, referring to Mumbai: “My father is buried there, my mother is buried there, and my son Arif too is buried there, but I can’t call that place my country.”
The dialogues strike the right chord and are mostly Manto’s own words. They are poetic and hard-hitting. An anguished Manto lashes out at the judge when accused of obscenity in his writings. “My stories mirror the Society. If you don’t like the mirror, what can I do?” But there are also moments that ring a false note especially when English words like “dry clean” or “miniature” are used in the period drama.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Manto with ease in an author-backed role. The character of it is a fragile man with a strong voice which he expresses through his writings - is palpable. Manto is every inch the person who spoke his mind through his writings, without fear. The humane side of the writer comes across strongly too, as he is loaded with shortcomings.
Rasika Duggal as Safia, his wife, is earnest and real. She essays her character effortlessly with restraint and conviction. Unfortunately, her performance is restricted by the sketchy script that limits her character. Tahir Raj Bhasin as Manto’s close friend, actor, Shyam delivers a strong performance and leaves an indelible impact.
In cameos, Divya Dutta as one of the characters of Manto’s short stories, Rishi Kapoor as a Parsi producer, Ila Arun as Jaddan Bai and the actors who play Toba Tek Singh and Ashok Kumar, deliver power-packed performances. The mellifluous and mournful score by Zakir Hussain imparts an interesting dimension to the narrative.