"Jaane woh kaise log the jinke pyar ko pyar mila..." Echoing the disenchantment of a post-Nehruvian generation trapped between Partition and modernisation, Guru Dutt in Pyaasa epitomised the poet's disenchanment with a world he never asked for. "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai?"
Saadat Hasan Manto was a poet posing as a prose writer. He thought and responded to social stimuli like a true poet. When his best friend Shyam, the matinee idol of the 1940s who died young after falling off a horse, blurts out that during the post-Partition communal riots he would have killed any Muslim, including Manto, Manto knew it was time to quit India.
When Nandita Das's Saadat Haasan Manto leaves Mumbai for Lahore, the film and the protagonist falls into a melancholic meditative mood mourning the passing of an era when the country and its people were split into two messy halves.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Manto taps into every feeling and mood of his complex erudite character. The actor doesn't miss a single heartbeat of his character. Nawazuddin takes proprietorial control of Manto, not letting go of his grip over the obstinate genius' glorious grammar of inspired rebellion. It is as though Nawazuddin was destined to play Manto from the day they both were born. The literary genius and the actor.
Nandita Das shoots Manto's life and writings as vignettes of invaluable splendour. We are provided insightful glimpses into the man's private life with a supportive but disenchanted wife, played with sensitivity and affection by Rasika Duggal, trying hard to cope with the financial constraints, trying to wrap her spousal instincts around the mind of a man who was not only ahead of his times, but also not afraid of defying norms even if it meant taking on the law and the government.
Her colour palate for the 1940s is a striking deep, rich selection of carefully chosen shades that range from the sepia of nostalgia to the crimson of the blood that flows when two communities decide they abhor one another enough to embrace barbarism.
Rita Ghosh's production design and Kartik Vijay's cinematography are impeccably understated. Nandita has a propensity for played-down periodicity. She barely resorts to using the songs of the era (the oldest and simplest cinematic trick to recreate an era).And the one time that Jaddab Bai (played unremarkably by Ila Arun) bursts into a song at a party, we feel the flavour and flair of the times more in the reaction of the guests than the song or singer.
The vibrancy and vitality of Mumbai in the 1940s comes alive more through the characters' zest for seizing the day than through strained attempts at getting the period details right. Not a single shot of an old gramophone playing 78 rpm records! Miracle!!
Nandita Das invests in her characters. They bring alive the theme and the protagonist's deepest thoughts and flaws with a fluency that is impressively underplayed and quietly consistent.
The film has some of the most inspired casting I've seen in recent times. Rasika Duggal, of course as Manto's wife. She is always a delight to watch. But also Tahir Raj Bhasin as the matinee idol Shyam. Bhasin plays the superstar with such arresting elan, why don't we see more of this actor? And how on earth did the director think of Bhanu Uday Singh as the actor par excellence Ashok Kumar? Dadamoni has one disarming moment when potential Muslim rioters recognise him and give him right of way.
Remarkably a slew of brilliant actors make a lasting impression in fleeting appearance: Rishi Kapoor as an abominably lecherous producer, Paresh Rawal as a slimy pimp, Tillotama Shome as a tired prostitute (who just wants to sleep alone for a change), Divya Dutta as a fiercely jealous Punjabi wife whose husband has come home after raping a corpse (the inspiration for Manto's story Thanda Gosht) and most surprising of all, writer Javed Akhtar (making his acting debut) as poet and educationist Ali Abid Ali who exonerates Manto of obscenity charges in the courtroom.
These actors collectively sparkling in this archingly defiant film reminded of a line in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" where a character says he once saw a woman on the ocean when their boats crossed. "Not a day has passed when I haven't thought of her."
These actors in Manto create equally strong impressions even in a fleeting moment, like when Purab Kohli smiles at a girl-child whom three men intend to rape later on. But God, has other plans. And who knows this better than Manto?
As played by Nawazuddin, Manto is a magnificent mix of suppressed rage and expressed bitterness. The authority with which he articulates lines from Manto's stories made me wonder if Manto wrote his stories so that one day an actor of Nawazuddin's skills would own them. Indeed the director with her astute yet subtle eye for historical and period detail couldn't have hoped for a better actor to play Manto.
Nandita makes sure Nawazuddin gets into the skin of the character. This is an invasion of Manto's private world but an exceedingly affectionate and reverent invasion.
Manto is a work of many virtues and minor vices. On the negative side, the Lahore portions in the second-half lack the pulsating seductiveness of the Mumbai episode where the beau monde comes alive in scattered montages of teasing hedonism.
Maybe by the time he was forced to migrate to Lahore, Manto's heart was just not in it.