TIFF Review: 'Manto'

(India, 112 min.)
Written and directed by Nandita Das
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Tahir Raj Bhasin  
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Courtesy TIFF
Great voices in literature often reveal truths the public doesn’t want to hear. Particularly in times of social change and political uncertainty, the pen is the mightiest tool to give voice to the disenfranchised. Writer/director Nandita Das provides a biographical rendering of Pakistani author Saadat Hasan Manto with a stark and sobering eye for the late writer’s significance in capturing the social inequities of Partition-era India and Pakistan. Manto is a thoughtful biopic that honours the writer’s courage and his ability to capture the cultural pulse with a voice ahead of its time.

Manto’s life spanned 42 brief years in which he composed numerous short stories, screenplays, essays, and other literary works, but the film only covers the era of Partition, in which British India controversially split into the separate nations of India and Pakistan. There is much terrain to cover here and Das knows that it would be a disservice to both her subject and her audience to cover everything Wikipedia-style. These significant years provide good drama, too, and are arguably the most urgent period of the author’s biography. The film shows the sting and disconnection Manto experienced as a Muslim living in British India who faced a forced relocation to Pakistan when the nation essentially divided along religious lines. Straddling two worlds gave the author perspective and the film characterizes Manto as an astute witness to history.

Das finds a novel approach that helps Manto escape biopic convention. She intersperses the biographical dramatization with brief adaptations of Manto’s stories. These vignettes offer interludes of the stark poetic realism that Manto created in his prose. They’re also gritty and sobering portraits of the nation that existed outside of the propagandistic images of Bollywood machinery, of which Manto was apart to pay the bills.

Kissing might be a no-no in Bollywood films, but writing the dialogue that linked wet sari sequences and songs of national mythmaking emboldens Manto to tell the truth. The short story adaptations within Manto are stark and violent—as far from colourful Bollywood stereotypes as one can get. Das realizes them with an unflinching eye for darkness and brutality to reveal the elements of misogyny and cruelty Manto exposed in his patriarchal society. The characterizations of women in Manto’s work were significant and Das’s adaptations of the stories accentuate these themes best, which might help the film play well with a western audience. Her take on Manto’s violent short story “Cold Meat” is the centrepiece of the film with a raw and gritty domestic drama feels provocative sixty years after its publication.

“Cold Meat” lands Manto an obscenity charge, one of several he fought in his lifetime, and Das focuses on this case in the post-Partition years to highlight the author’s fight to reveal truths the government would rather hide. The film turns into a somewhat straightforward procedural as Manto defends literature’s right to reflect reality and awaken the masses, while wrestling with the graver charge made by one of his colleagues that his writing was not obscene, but simply not very good. The pulpy elements of his stories leave that verdict up for debate.

Whatever strands of convention the film finds in its latter act can be forgiven since the courtroom setting gives actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui a stage on which to shine. Siddiqui, who previously appeared in the Festival hit The Lunchbox, gives an excellent performance as Manto. Channelling the author’s pride, dignity, and inner turmoil, it’s a delicately balanced turn. Siddiqui’s unwaveringly strong performance does justice not simply to Manto, but to any author who has to defend his or her right to speak the truth through art.

Manto screens:
-Sat, Sept. 8 at TIFF Lightbox at 3:45 PM
-Mon, Sept. 10 at CIneplex Scotiabank at 11:30 AM
-Sat, Sept. 15 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 12:15 PM