“Manto” doesn’t begin with the main subject of the film but with the story of a girl and a 10-rupee note. Those who have read writer Saadat Hasan Manto will know that it is his short story “Dus Rupay (Ten Rupees) that is being played out.
Director Nandita Das uses this narrative device several times in the film, as Manto’s story segues with the many tales he wove, almost indistinguishable from one another.
He and his wife, Safia (Rasika Dugal) are new parents and their life in Mumbai seems almost idyllic, other than the odd obscenity charge that Manto must fight because of the explicit nature of his writings.
It’s almost as if Das cannot get a handle on this period in Manto’s life. The first half of the film consists of a chain of incidents that are pieced together. Events like partition and the resulting riots happen with almost no context, and Manto’s reaction to those events, which eventually lead to his emigration to Pakistan, seem almost muted.
The film picks up steam in the second half, as Manto moves to Pakistan and the horrors of the Partition unfold around him.
Even as he is writing stories that will be read by generations to come, Manto himself is crumbling. He cannot get over Mumbai, a city he leaves almost on a whim.
He is slapped with another obscenity charge, and struggles to keep the home fires burning in a country that is still finding its feet.
All this has been well-documented in writings about Manto, but Das cushions the blow, choosing not to show the full extent of the writer’s struggle.
She also pays lip service to his feud with the Progressive Writers Association, and the near penury he left his family in, choosing instead to intersperse the film with several of his stories, including “Thanda Gosht” (Cold Meat) and “Toba Tek Singh”.
We never quite see Manto’s internal turmoil, his often volatile personality, and how that affected his actions.
Thankfully for Das, she has a stellar cast, especially Dugal and Siddiqui, who immerse themselves in their characters.
As the bespectacled, soft-spoken Safia, Dugal matches Siddiqui step for step, and one of the biggest achievements of the film is that it brings Safia to life.
As Manto, Siddiqui is at the top of his game, embodying his mannerisms and body language, but even he cannot make up for the flaws in the script.
This is a sketchy biopic, which might resonate with those who are already familiar with Manto’s life and want to see it enacted on celluloid.
But for those who are unaware of him and his work, “Manto” isn’t an ideal introduction to the celebrated writer.