By Shreehari H
Saadat Hasan Manto always begins his writings with the holy number 786. The famous twentieth-century Urdu playwright is a regular in court, charged as he is for writing stories that are “sick and perverse and filled with sexual overtones”, stories that are, as he himself puts it, “aam kahaani se alag”. “People refer to progressive literature as Saadat Hasan Manto,” Manto says about himself at one point. This is a man marked by a complete disregard for self-effacement, one who is so much in love with the city of Mumbai that he even goes on to describe himself as a “chalta phirta Bambai”. The year is 1946, the Radcliffe Line is all set to be drawn in a year’s time, leaving hearts and homes asunder, and when the calamity finally rears its ugly head, the writer turns to alcoholism and literary recognition as the only balms for a mind riven by the aftereffects of colonial nonchalance.
Director Nandita Das’ biopic interweaves between Manto’s life and five of his most famous short stories – Dus Rupay, Sau Candle Power Ka Bulb, Khol Do, Thanda Gosht and Toba Tek Singh – stories which function both as allegory and as a powder keg. The film’s cast is eclectic, boasting of accomplished faces such as Rasika Dugal, Javed Akhtar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Rishi Kapoor, Ranvir Shorey and Tillotama Shome. Nawazuddin Siddiqui delivers arguably the best performance in a multi-storied career with his heartfelt, unflinching portrayal of the film’s titular character.
The writing is superlative, and Siddiqui’s is a character that benefits from some of the best dialogue witnessed in a Hindi film this year. “If you cannot bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times,” he thunders at one point in a gathering. When questioned as to why his stories always tend to display some sort of special empathy towards the fairer sex, the writer replies, “Not for all women. Some for the one who isn’t selling herself, but is still being bought, and some for the one who works all night and sleeps in the day, dreaming of old age knocking at her door.” When he strives to reassure his penury-stricken family by saying that he will write as much as is needed to ensure they never have to starve, the reply is stunning in its sardonicism, “That’s my worry. It’s because of your writing that we will starve.”
Manto invokes voices as varied as those of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert and his Irish counterpart James Joyce in defence of his writing, and when the celebrated Pakistani writer Faiz Ahmad Faiz describes his work as “not measuring up to the high standards of literature,” the stunned expression that unfolds on Siddiqui’s face is one that tells a hauntingly authentic story of its own. The period detailing, as one would expect in a Nandita Das film, is nothing short of magnificent, and legendary yesteryear artists like Shyam Chadda, Jaddanbai, Ashok Kumar, K Asif and even the grand old man of Hindi film music – Naushad – all make appearances in this razor-sharp film that deserves to be lauded for its insightful brazenness.
Das’ film is as much a tribute to Hindi cinema of the 1940s and the 1950s as it is a cautionary tale about misguided machismo and the horrors that we are capable of perpetrating on each other. The film explores such ideas as the function of literature as a mirror of the times we live in, the nature of censorship, what qualifies as being obscene, and who gets to draw moral lines in a society characterized by such narrow-minded bigotry, even as it delves deep into the inner workings of a writer’s mind. This is a writer who believes that in order to properly appreciate literature there needs to be an understanding of the context that gave birth to it and as time changes, literature and its recognition changes as well. Manto, after all, is a man whose writings only got better with age – and, ironically enough, with his increasing alcoholism – and there is some poetic justice to be found in the fact that his remarkable life has been portrayed by Bollywood’s very own finest cabernet: Siddiqui. Go ahead, take a swing, you will not be disappointed.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Shreehari H is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.
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