Manto is a biopic like none other. It is made carefully and with love like the makers had hand-picked the actors, the storyline, the moments; in short everything!

Manto showcases the life of real Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto born in British India. The film is set in the 1940s, the time of partition and the time when a free India was born. Amidst freedom struggle and the tearing apart of India into two, Manto is a well-known short story writer working in the glittering Bombay film Industry. He has a progressive group of friends and a wife who is his unwavering source of support. While his writing has come under the radar along with his friend Ismat Chughtai‘s a number of times, both of them never get acquitted.

But in a newly free India, the story is different, things start taking a turn for the worse, the communal riots in the name of Hindus and Muslims are at an all-time high. Despite his love for Bombay and Hindustan, he impulsively leaves the country for Pakistan fearing that his life, his thinking, and his family may be in danger. But Lahore, he soon finds out, is a city of debris, refugees and the remnants of a bloody and cruel partition.

Nandita Das has done a brilliant job in bringing Manto alive not only through Nawazuddin Siddiqui but also in the way his life story has been told. It is not a series of incidents that you see, you get a glimpse of his psyche. The film moves in and out of Manto’s short stories and takes us on a journey through his mental state.

The first half of the film is taut and tied together so well that I will go so far to say that it was even heartwarming. Manto’s stories in the first half will take you by surprise and make you uncomfortable but in the end, you will feel relieved, just like his life then. Even as a popular short story writer, his stories irked many thanks to his inclination towards writing about women, especially women from the other side of the line. The line that the so-called decent part of society never crosses in daylight. But in Bombay despite people’s problems with his literature, he feels at home.

But the second half is quite long and a little too dragging, much like what Manto‘s life had turned into after moving to Lahore. His inability to adjust to the lifestyle and to take in the atrocities that are going on around him is clearly reflected in his writing. Through the course of the movie, you get to know Manto because of the beautiful use of the art that is ‘Show, not tell’. You learn a lot about Manto in the things that are left unsaid, his stubbornness, his impulsivity, his increasing cynicism. Full credits to Nandita Das for writing and directing it in a way that will compel the viewer to want to know more.

It would almost be criminal to not talk about the actors in the film. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as with every other movie he has been in, steals the show. He is not acting as Manto, he is the writer. He portrays the character as easily as taking a walk in the park. Rasika Dugal who plays his wife Safia brings the sophistication and elegance needed to her character and breathes life into Safia making her the perfect choice for the role. The other amazing part about the movie is the multiple cameos by some amazing actors, trust me, they may just take a few minutes of screen time, but it is worth it. PS: Look out for some stars from Sacred Games as well! Among the other actors, Tahir Bhasin as Shyam makes an impressive best friend to Manto.

Nandita Das manages to recreate the entire era sets, costume, and the tension perfectly on screen. I personally loved the inclusion of the Progressive Writers Association that Manto was a part of. It was a world of its own and a contradiction in itself, Manto’s comfort space in the middle of the chaos. It shows the mindset of different writers of the same era. All that said, I do wish the second half was as taut as the first as I felt that there were scenes that were stretched beyond necessary. Even then at the end, I was left wanting to know a little more about what finally happened to the writer.

All in all, Manto is a story worth your time. While the subject may seem a little dull to the common folk, the story of the maverick writer and the stories that he wrote are interesting and will stay with you after you leave the theatre.

As a cinema lover, give it a watch. It is certainly a film with a soul.

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal and Tahir Bhasin

Director: Nandita Das

Rating: 3.5/5