Manto is the second film directed by Nandita Das, where she brought the social and political issues surrounding the Hindu-Muslim divide in the Indian Subcontinent to the fore with the movie
Based on the life of Pakistani writer and playwright Saadat Hasan Manto, Manto (2018) follows the author’s journey for four years (1946-1950), immediately before and after India’s independence. Famous for writing about the bitter truths of society, Manto’s best works are his stories about Partition. He died at the age of 42 from liver complications.
There have been other biographical films made on Manto, but Nandita Das’s work stands out with its specific timeline and unique visual storytelling. The film follows one of the six trials the writer faced for obscenity. It also depicts how the violence that erupted during the 1947 Partition compelled Manto to embrace his Muslim identity, even though he was not religious in the least. He was forced to relocate to Lahore, where he struggled with unemployment and missed his cherished Mumbai.
Manto stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the titular character—a joy to watch throughout the film. Even though Manto’s wife Safiya (Rasika Dugal) doesn’t have a lot of screen time, she leaves a strong impression of how Manto might have been as a husband.
Manto is the second film directed by Nandita Das, where she brought the social and political issues surrounding the Hindu-Muslim divide in the Indian Subcontinent to the fore with the movie. Her directorial debut Firaaq (2008) also explored a similar issue in a different context—it was set in 2002, a few months after the Gujrat riot. Manto is also similar to Firaaq in terms of its wide ensemble of characters who appear during the course of the movie and disappear as abruptly as they emerged. Except for Manto and his family, the supporting characters (like that of upcoming actor Shyam) didn’t stick around long enough to be well-developed.
The overarching sepia tone of the film looked almost monochromic, like the yellowing pages of a very old, worn out book. The characters from Manto’s writings popping up every now and then was a nice touch in breaking the visual monotony, and it also gave the audience something to decipher.
For instance, when in the middle of a courtroom hearing, the characters from the story Thanda Gosht come to life, we don’t immediately know who these new characters are or why we are being introduced to them so late in the movie. Their identities are revealed much later through dialogue, which is rewarding to the audience members who pay close attention.