Manto movie review: Writing with Sa'saab

Manto

Perhaps you have read a little Manto and are curious about the man. Perhaps you have read all of him and think it your duty to watch Nandita Das’ quietly, uncomfortably stunning tribute to his life.

Perhaps you are imagining the moment you will walk out of the theatre and tell a friend about that one thing you didn’t know about him before. But here’s the thing about Manto. It’s rather stubborn.

It leaves you looking for a grand narrative it refuses to deliver. This is not a film about a writer. This is a film about a man who wrote, and Das makes sure you experience her work the way he would’ve written one of his stories.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Saadat Hasan Manto), Rasika Duggal (Safia Manto), Rajshri Deshpande (Ismat Chughtai) and Tahir Bhasin (Shyam Chaddha) seamlessly inhabit a Bombay and Lahore of the 1940s, a world so carefully curated it never draws attention to itself, so expertly understated that by the time Manto is charged with his fourth count of obscenity and Faiz Ahmad Faiz appears as witness to his innocence, the line between history and fiction has been blurred.

You watch the poet walk from bar to stand as though you were being allowed a rare glimpse into the past and wonder by what impossible technology this moment is available to you.

For many of us, Manto and Chughtai were the first writers who showed us, almost irreverently, that the most extraordinary stories were to be found in the crevices of the everyday.

They lay tucked in the corners of living rooms, in the folds of an old blanket, in the tensions of siblings’ quarrels. This much we accepted. Then Das comes along and says, “This is all there was to their lives — make of it what you will”. We’re happy when writers borrow from their lives to write their stories; it is ickier to be reminded of how much their stories stole from their lives.

In one scene, Safia remarks, “You are only able to empathise with your characters. What about the people who are alive, the people who love you?”

“All that remains are characters,” the writers respond. It is not said with cruelty — in fact, Manto’s relationship with his family is one of the most grounded, uneccentric depictions of an artist’s private life.

The statement does make you consider, however, what happens when a writer becomes his own character. Manto won’t tell you about the writer’s life. It will let you briefly write his stories with him. You might not want to thank it once you have. Do it anyway. When you weren’t looking, it changed how you will experience many stories after it.

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Manto movie review: Writing with Sa'saab

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