Simply put, Manto is flippin’ fantastic!!
Offering a dazzlingly disturbing kaleidoscopic look at the last few years of the unsung genius Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s life, Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto is an experience ‘n a half. A film with an idiom and a sensibility all its own, this one cannot and should not be missed. Undecipherable rawness, indescribable sadness, and an incredible sense of loss – all weighed heavily on me, yet, I walked away determined, with a renewed sense of purpose and pride.
For all those squabbling over trivial matters, this disconcerting insight into our forgotten past serves as a somber reminder of all that we’ve lost and will continue to lose if we do not put differences aside to work together and make ourselves heard. A fabulously relevant story told at the right time by the right people for the right reasons, Manto is going to stay with me for a long long time to come.
A couple months earlier Sarmad and I had talked at length about Manto, later I read the various reviews and comments that poured in from people from all walks of life. Now, when it was my turn, more than excited, I was actually curious to see what the whole tizzy was about: Teasers itney acchey they tau film acchi hogi hi, magar ab aisa bhi kiya hai ke loag tareefon ke itney lambey pul bandhey ja rahey hain…
I walked in all prepped to stay emotionally detached and watch the movie with a very critical eye. A few minutes in and I was a goner. Nothing anybody’d said or written came close to describing the heavy duty emotional punch Manto delivered. And it was not just me – people around all wore identical dazed expressions. What was this? What just happened?
Shahid Nadeem sahab’s beautifully written script focuses on the last five years of Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s life. Empathetic and non-judgemental, the film presents a moving portrait of this gifted writer’s ultimately futile struggle to locate himself within the prescriptive roles assigned to him by a society yet to define itself.
The early ’50s were a heady time for Pakistan as hope mingled with uncertainty, chaos rubbed shoulders with barely restored order, and freshly minted citizens grappled with the idea of being and belonging. Jockeying to find a place for themselves in this newly evolving social order were many, some who commanded respect and others who demanded respect, and then there was Safia’s Sa’ad sahab.
Irreverent, irrepressible, incorrigible, iconoclastic, intrepid- you name it and Manto was it. While these qualities sound great when ascribed to a fictional character, they are less than complimentary when describing a person in the real world. Our social setups are not designed to handle unvarnished truth, and there are dire consequences for those who dare question the status quo. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was not just Manto, but also his family who paid a heavy price for his holding up the mirror to a people who would rather see themselves reflected in each other and nod in self-satisfied approval.
It is in the superb weaving of the various facets of Manto’s life that this movie hits a homerun. Manto is not just the story of an in-your-face writer, but also a compelling look at a man who was a father and a husband. And herein lies the brilliantly narrated dichotomy: He who does not blink an eyelid in a room filled with virulent critics is moved to tears when his young daughter walks over and wordlessly places a liquor bottle on his desk.
If negotiating Manto’s public and private worlds was not enough we are also made privy to his inner demons. Maintaining narrative coherence must’ve been hard enough on paper, but to bring it all alive so fluidly, in a manner so accessible is a huge accomplishment on Sarmad’s part. Concentric worlds of consciousness are carefully created and meticulously demarcated, not just spatially – from open urban landscapes to the more confined inner sanctum of his home to the most intimate world of dialogue between the man and his alter ego – but stylistically as well. Documentary type realism of the outside world is contrasted against the social drama take on his family life, both of which are radically different from theatricality of the world inhabited by Manto and his humzaad.
Manto lived through a time of great turmoil and change. Random violence, quotidian corruption, hypocrisy, all that he saw on the outside left a deep impression on his inside. His earlier socialist and leftist leanings gave way to stark portrayals of the collective madness that seemed to have found a home in the darkness of human psyche, resulting in the breaking down of humanist values on a broad scale societal level.
Adding another layer of complexity to the visual narrative are the fused short stories, all carefully selected to complement and augment the larger frame story. Each one is treated differently, each imparting a different shade of subtext to the text on hand, offering yet another insight into the working of this tortured genius’ mind.
Despite his best efforts to separate his various worlds there were spillovers, the fallouts of which shook Manto to the core. Prevailing social climate, legal issues, financial woes, and struggles with alcoholism all found their way in his later writings which reflect a deep cynicism, an innate sense of human impotency towards darkness, and contain satire that verges on dark comedy. His desperate attempts to hold on to a life rapidly falling apart are heart-wrenchingly depicted. To think the man suffered so much while a whole world stood by passively in judgement is a very sobering thought – Manto is indeed a much needed wakeup call for all of us.
Brilliant as Manto is, none of it could’ve been possible without the lineup of actors who give it their all and then some to making this film work as much as it does. Suhaee Abro and Vajdaan Shah’s opening dance sequence sets the tone for all the brilliance that follows. Faysal Qureshi impresses in his cameo as a voice artist, Saba Qamar is vivacious as the glamorous Noor Jehan, Mahira Khan and Azfar Rehman are endearing in Peshawar Se Lahore Tak, Nadia Afgan makes a great Saugandhi from Hatak, Savera Nadeem is very good as Neti in License, Akbar Subhani is fabulous as Chaudhry sahab, and the three little girls are beyond adorable. I particularly enjoyed the cameos by Irfan Khoosat as Sirajuddin from Khol Do, Yasra Rizvi as Kalwant Kaur from Thanda Gosht, and Rehan Sheikh and Hina Bayat as the couple from Upar Neeche Darmiyan. Hina and Yasra in particular, I think, are inspired casting and make for a very interesting study in contrasts.
Leading this uber talented cast are three of my all time favorites – Sania Saeed, Nimra Bucha and Sarmad Khoosat. Had it not been for Sania, Safia could’ve easily turned out to be a perfect case study of an emotionally battered wife. But thanks to Sania’s empathy and understanding, Safia comes off as a stoic woman, with a spine strong enough to provide the only modicum of sanity left in Manto’s life. Following the dictum of showing not telling, Sania’s Safia doesn’t have much to say but her silence anchors the narrative; her presence is such that it is impossible to not be drawn to her even when she is barely in the frame.
Where Sania lends gravitas, with Nimra the narrative soars away on fantastical flights of fancy. Her mirror scene with Sarmad is goosebump inducing fabulous types. And the there is Sarmad as Manto. While I loved his overall take I did find him a bit too melodramatic at places, but his passion and conviction are such that it becomes almost churlish to nitpick on details.
At the end of the day Manto is Sarmad’s show and he owns it completely. In addition to directing and acting, editing, production design, detailing, music, all bear his mark. Jamal Rehman’s music is appropriately poignant and evocative – loved Ali Sethi, Meesha Shafi and Javed Bashir’s vocals – and Khizer Idrees’ cinematography leaves an impression.
As Manto makes its way to a larger international audience there are bound to be comparisons to other classic movies, and Sarmad’s style of moviemaking discussed in the same breath as that of legendary directors, and this is all great news – Manto is indeed fully deserving of all these accolades. That said, I do think that comparisons are really not appropriate in this case – Sarmad’s Manto is in a class and category all its own.
I write this not out of a sense of misplaced pride or some such, but base my observation on the fact that this is not a film in the traditional sense; Manto was not conceived, visualized and mounted as a movie, and to, therefore, draw comparisons between this end product and other “proper” films does not take into account the very unique and painstaking process by which an episodic tele-serial was transformed into something that could not only talk the talk but walk the walk as well. And for this Sarmad deserves a huge round of applause, as do the producers who allowed the process to take its time. Needless to say I would proudly recommend Manto to anybody and everybody.
In an earlier piece I had discussed Manto’s relevance to Pakistan and Pakistanis, but as recent events have demonstrated, Manto’s truth resonates not just in the country he died but also in the country where he was born – India. Clearly there is a lot that Manto can teach us all, but are we willing to listen and learn?
Written by SZ~