Mumbai: Writer-director Nandita Das’ gently subversive film Manto, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Duggal, Rajshri Deshpande and Tahir Raj Bhasin premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday.
Competing in the Un Certain Regard section, the film’s screening began after a warm reception during which Das, looking exquisite in an ashes of roses saree, acknowledged her “Baba”, painter Jatin Das, who was in the audience, and later basked in the standing ovation with her cast and crew as the credits rolled.
The film, whose script has been researched and written by Das, ploughs through the tragically short life and the ingenuous, searing body of work of one of the best short story writers the world is yet to acknowledge.
The film opens in 1940s in what was then Bombay — a city of filmmakers, struggling but exceptionally talented writers where Manto lives with his wife Safia (Rasika Duggal) and daughter — and ends in Lahore in 1950s. It’s through this journey that the film narrates the bloody tale of a nation splitting into two as it notes the moment when Manto, a man in love with Bombay, decided it was time to pack bags and move to Pakistan.
In Mumbai we meet Manto’s friend and co-accused Ismat Chughtai (Rajshri Deshpande), his dear friend and 1940s actor Shyam Chaddha (Tahir Raj Bhasin), a very young Ashok Kumar at Bombay Talkies, Jaddan Bai (Nargis’ mother) and K. Asif, all conjuring together a film industry in its golden era.
The film continually switches between Manto’s life and work. When it’s with Safia, we see the ordeal the family of the pencil-wielding, unflinchingly honest chronicler of human behaviour in a time of momentous change and violence was subjected to, and when it’s with his friends and editors, there are references to his works.
Manto treats us to dramatised vignettes of his short stories, including Toba Tek Singh, Khol Do, Thanda Gosht, Dus Rupay and 100 Watt Bulb, as well as the obscenity charges — levelled six times in court but amounting to nothing except heartache and hardship for the writer and his family.
This shifting between real life and fiction is seamless for those familiar with the man and his writing, but is likely to baffle others as little explanation, preface is offered.
But these bits — like when Manto says in court, “If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable” in defence of his stories which strip down human behaviour to its best and worst — offer an insight into the journalistic standards of truth telling Manto stuck to in his fiction writing despite criticism, including, from Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and court cases.
Most of Manto's stories that were challenged in courts were about mindless, psychotic violence during Partition, especially against women, or about the spark of humanity he celebrated in “bazaroo” women.
Das’ film gets its magic from the nostalgia it seduces us with and two performances — that of Manto by Siddiqui, and his wife Safia, played by Rasika Duggal.
Talking about preparing for the role, Siddiqui said that since there were no audio or video recordings, he had to rely on Das’ research and Manto’s own writing. “Unki writing se pata chalta hai what he was like, how he thought. I believe that you can figure what a human being thinks, is like, through his/her work. Once you get do-chaar moti-moti cheezein, then you assume the rest. Once you have got the character properly in your head, jab aapne brain mein betha liya character ko, then brain order deta hai puri body ko, kis tarah se react karna hai, kaise aapki body chalegi.”
Among the do-chaar cheezein that Siddiqui picked and internalised were Manto’s anger against the society’s hypocrisy and double standards, his deeply-felt empathy for “bazaroo” women, and, Manto’s daring.
“Daring thi unki writing mein, jo aaj bahut kam log kar paate hain. Us waqt usne kiya tha… Itna daring se likha us time pe, aaj soch hi nahin sakte,” says Siddiqui.
Born on May 11, 1912, in Ludhiana, Manto died at the age of 42 in Lahore in 1955. Booze, court cases against his stories in Pakistan, his inability to take care of his family financially and a longing for Bombay contributed substantially to his work and untimely death.
Yet, he remained prolific throughout his working life. He wrote radio plays, translated works of Russian writers, wrote short stories, screenplays and columns in Urdu for several magazines and newspapers in both, undivided India and Pakistan.
Everyone, especially in north India, has a moment, a story, an episode, an image about Partition that has stayed with them. For me that moment is when Manto decided to pack his bags and move. For me that’s the day the music died.
Siddiqui says for Manto that decision was made when “his best friend Shyam said, ‘Main Musalman ko maar sakta hoon…’ and then added, ‘Tu thodi na Musalman hai, tu kyun bura man raha hai?”
“And Manto replies,‘Itna toh hoon ki mara-jaa sakoon.’ That’s when he though ki abhi kuch nahin bachcha, ab nikal leta hoon.”
The dialogue you will hear in Nandita Das’ Manto will make you weep for an India that died then, and simultaneously you'll hear the wail of that same nation as it dies everyday now....