If Manto as a movie experience were to be summarized in a one liner, it would read – A film that is ‘designed‘ for the festival circuits! It is not to say that it does not deal with Saadat Hasan Manto’s life seriously, it does. The issue is that it takes itself a bit too seriously, and builds on certain assumptions that does not go with its intent.
Firstly it assumes that the entire audience of the film will be intensely familiar with every detail of his life, and would have internalized his entire body of work to know where his writing comes from. And with that assumption itself, the film instantly loses a big chunk of the audience, many of whom would have wanted to understand him more through this film. Because the film wants to thrive upon intense dialogs which are definitely powerful in themselves, but do not help in building a life story fluid enough to be immersive. They just exist as verbose communication between characters of a novel, but do not appear as soulful exchange of thoughts or emotions between real people. It all feels rather staged and hence subtext in the conversations get lost in overindulgence.
It also wants to score points by trying to integrate Manto’s stories with his life to show how his characters were reflective of him and his thoughts of the times, but honestly lot of this integration appears forced and feels on the surface. More importantly it doesn’t do justice to the depth of the stories, and in the process compromises on the actual turbulence and cynicism that Manto goes through. As a result, Manto does not land any deeper within us through the film than what we would have already known reading about him and his work. That is a definite minus to the intent and purpose of Nandita and team behind the film.
Another big issue in the film that it does not bother in investing time or craft in developing any other character in the life of Manto other than his wife Safia and to an extent his friend Shyam. And yet the film lines up a host of good actors in one scene roles, but doesn’t even make those scenes as intense to need such skillful actors. In a way, it felt like that the actors were asked to be in the film more to add some weight to the performance powerbrand of the film. Yes, Rasika Dugal clearly comes out a winner and possibly even outshines Manto in many scenes, but it will be a performance lost in the film’s pretense to greatness.
Basically its the poor writing of the film that fails it and is the root cause to all the above issues that spoil the overall experience of the film. Nandita Das fails more as a writer here actually, because as a director she gets the technicalities of the film pretty spot on. Kartik Vijay‘s cinematography and Pt. Zakir Hussain‘s background score is especially spectacular, as is the overall production and costume design. With their help, she gets the period all right, but somewhere falls short in adding soul to that period through her writing. In its current form, all she delivers is a series of scenes, few of them beautiful, many of them pale, but not cohesive enough as a unit to make a film as intense as her own take on riot hit times of Firaaq, or as powerful and melancholic a partition drama as M S Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. I am not even going to Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa which you will remember watching Manto, more to think how immensely much more moving and intense it is to date.
This is sad for Nawazuddin Siddiqui as well, because from his side he breathes in all of his craft into Manto. He is completely in character here from looks to gestures to dialog delivery, and had the script supported him, this could have potentially become his all time best performance to date. In a way then you feel for him when in a scene, his response to his friend’s question (on how much of a muslim he is) states ‘itna to hoon ki maara ja sakoon‘!
It could almost be his legitimate grudge to the filmmaker stating that ‘itna to likh do ki afsaana yaadgar bana sakoon‘!
Politically incorrect possibly for a cinephile to not like a ‘thinking‘ film like this one, but it is Painful when expectations are not met to this extent!