Writer and Director Nandita Das takes five stories from the work of Saadat Hasan Manto and intersperses it judicially, and beautifully, with the life of the great writer in the years just before, during and after partition. Manto migrated to Pakistan in 1948, on an impulse he later regretted. He was fearful and disillusioned at the time, but heart broken afterwards, on leaving the city of Bombay.
Das opens her film with the first story - "Dus Rupaye" - about Sarita, a girl of just fifteen, whose mother has pushed her into prostitution. One day a car with rich men turn up, and she is sent with them. They men laugh, and cruise the streets of Bombay and tease the girl. At the end of the day, most of the men have fallen asleep, but one of them, who she likes, gives the girl a ten rupee note. She takes it nonchalantly, but as the story ends, returns it, placing it on the car seat next to him. In the dark world of his prostitute stories of Bombay, very noir in content and style, it is a rare ending of innocence. The girl has not been corrupted. As yet.
The next scenes cut to Saadat (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) in the city he loves. He writes at home, generally with a pencil, and visits his friends in the Hindi film industry, who love his company and his wry comments, and give him writing work that pays considerably more than publishing does. He needs the money for his lifestyle, and to support his wife and child, and it keeps him in the limelight. His best friend is the actor, Sunder Shyam Chaddha (Tahir Raj Bhasin), but he is also close to the star Ashok Kumar, in whose car he travels home during one post partition tension filled day. Through this incident, and through the story Shyam tells him about similar violence in the newly created state of Pakistan, Saadat is brought face to face, for the first time in cosmopolitan Bombay, with his muslim identity.
In between is his fascination with women, and with the condition of women when faced with the reality of survival in a world of men. As Saadat traverses the city, he walks through a ‘gali’ and lights a cigarette (he was a chain smoker). A man in a doorway appears to ask him: ‘Kuch chahiye aapko? Kya, koi ladki, wadki’ (Do you need anything? A girl maybe?). As the man (Paresh Rawal) turns around after he asks this question of Manto, we enter the fictional world of the writer's story, “Sau Candle Power Ka bulb”, about a prostitute so demeaned and exhausted with being a sex worker that she bashes the head in of her pimp, with a brick.
We know that the magic of Manto’s short stories lies in his ability to turn reality into fiction by using such an acute and bizarre angle that we can see the real and the fictional simultaneously, both playing in a loop. So - not that it matters - how familiar was he with the world of prostitution, as it existed then in the Bombay of the 1940s? The casting of Paresh Rawal as the pimp is pitch perfect. It is a brief role, but he gives us a sly, greedy and cruel character, straight out of the underworld of Charles Dicken’s novels, to which poverty and trauma ridden urban universe there is some resemblance with Manto's Bombay.
Sensitive writer that he is, aghast with the violence of partition, and unable, as he says, to take Bombay with him to Pakistan, he comes to the unpremeditated and hasty decision one night that the new India is not for muslims, and that he must leave forthwith. He boards a ship for Pakistan and eventually arrives in Lahore, finding to his horror that the violence and destruction of lives is no less in that nation. As he surveys a landscape of forced migration and a city of refugees, we enter the world of the third Manto story in the film - 'Khol Do'. An elderly father stumbles around looking for his beautiful daughter, Sakina. He gives her description to young men repeatedly, telling the leering fellows that she is seventeen, with big eyes, black hair, and a mole on her left cheek. Have they seen her? He lives in dread as he knows that no young missing woman could be safe from men in this environment. Eventually, he identifies what he thinks is her dead body in a hospital. The doctor says ‘Khol Do’ (open it), referring to the window, in order to see her better. Sakina, who is actually alive, but half conscious, hears the doctor's instruction dimly, and reflexively, as it were, opens the ‘nada’ of her salwar. The father shouts in joy: “Zinda hai, meri beti zinda hai” (my daughter is alive).
The next cut in the film is Manto opening the window, to let in light into his new home in Lahore. The real skill of a short story writer is in the creation of a symbiotic relationship between the ending and the context of the story. Das describes this cinematically in her film, placing each one of the five stories she has selected for her exposition of the world of Manto, to illuminate a different stage in his short but prolific life as a writer.
The fourth story, ’Thanda Gosht', or cold meat, is the work that got him into trouble with the Pakistan State and for which he was hauled into court on charges of ‘obscenity’. Once again, he makes strong references to the relationship between sex and death, but it was not the social and political context of the story that got him into trouble, but the explicitness of the descriptions of the sexual act, and of the physiology of a man’s and a woman’s body. The story ends, rather more obviously, with an edit to Manto standing up in court, charged with his ‘crime’.
The last story is, of course, Manto’s most famous: ’Toba Tek Singh’, about the fictional exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan, after partition. It is a story symbolic of the madness of the decision to divide the sub-continent. When the Sikh lunatic discovers that his town of birth, Toba Tek Singh, is now in Pakistan, and not India, he lies down and refuses to move, in the no-man’s land dividing the two nations.
So ‘Manto’, as filmed by Das, is the story of a writer who was so prescient, he could tell us, through the medium of short stories, the chronicle of a separation foretold - his own, isolated from all his friends in Bombay, and the story of a million others, culturally and politically dislocated across the two nations. It is a film of measured pace, and poignant moments, but it does need a bit of reading up on, before viewing, if only to make the experience more fulfilling.
Nawazuddin is terrific as Saadat, and so is Rasika Dugal, who plays his wife, Safia; loyal companion to a difficult and complex man. In terms of the drawing of the dramatic personae in the movie, ‘Manto' is low key, but consistently accurate. In terms of the literary expositions of the stories, the film excels. In short, this is a movie well worth watching.