A man remains a man no matter how poor his conduct. A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance, from the role given to her by men, is branded a whore. She is viewed with lust and contempt. Society closes on her doors it leaves ajar for a man stained by the same ink.
- Saadat Hasan Manto, Sharif Aurtein Aur Filmy Duniya
A thoroughly haunting and deeply emotional portrait of one of South Asia’s most fearless writers, Manto (2018) is a film that has teased out the complexities of Saadat Hasan’s life and work – in a way that situates him not just as a brilliant mind but also a feminist ahead of his time with an unflinching grasp on humanity. While many have celebrated his legacy in the decades since his death, Nandita Das has rightfully placed him not just as a writer who wrote openly about women’s sexuality, but one whose “obscenity” came from regarding them as equals in society.
Manto’s powerful, chilling stories reflect the ravages of post-Partition violence that erupted across the subcontinent, but the real “shock value” of his works – for which he was charged six times with obscenity in India and Pakistan – was for writing “vulgar and dirty” stories about rape and sexual trauma. In other words, for him to write explicitly about sex and sexual violence towards women was dismissed as obscene. Das carefully chooses which of Manto’s stories are featured in the film; along with its opener, Dus Rupaye, she shows his most controversial works – Thanda Gosht and Khol Do –with thematic imagery that leaves the viewer shaken and speechless, ending with an allegorical autobiography with Toba Tek Singh.
What is most prominent in his entire oeuvre – and equally strikingly in the film – is Manto’s complex treatment and construction of his female characters. The women in his stories are defiant, strong-willed, and self-aware. Most importantly, they are humanised and are metaphors for humanity itself. The political, social and cultural perspectives of his work centre women. He writes with a fluid understanding of the uniquely distressing impact society has on women, without ever being preachy. He regards sex workers as members of a functioning economic system and rejects that they are responsible for the immorality of men, emphasising that “true morality is not silent, nor hidden under tradition, rules, or a white veil of religiosity.”
Das has sharply and evocatively captured Manto’s morality and fierce belief in equality, not just in the visualizations of his stories but also in her portrayal of the man himself. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s stunning performance breathes life into Das’s vision of Manto, as do Rasika Dugal and Rajshri Deshpande with Safia and Ismat, respectively. Das does Manto justice by developing her female characters with the same tenacity and complexity as he does (even if they don’t get the same amount of screen time), unlike previous films made about him. Safia is his wife as much as she is his comrade, his critic and his friend. It may well be the case that the powerful women in his works are also inspired by his wife’s bold and caring personality. In real life, Manto used to “iron her saris, cook at a time when men didn’t enter the kitchen, braid her hair when she was unwell and feed their daughters.” The scene where Safia and Manto are sitting in the park and laughing innocently at the expense of a nearby woman is a simple and warm reflection of their love and their openness with each other. He reads her his stories and asks for feedback, and insists on being called by his first name (even though Safia ultimately decides not to).
Das portrays Manto’s widely-known friendship with Ismat Chughtai with effortless authenticity, where the solidarity and love between Safia and Ismat shine through just as brightly as it does between Manto and Chughtai. Unlike common stereotypes prevalent in pop culture even today, there is neither a hint of jealousy nor any moral policing about their closeness from Safia. Her marriage to the deeply caring, modern Manto begins to disintegrate, however, as his nostalgia for Bombay heightens, his work becomes increasingly unsuccessful, money runs low and he goes down an alcohol-drenched downward spiral. But even when Safia confronts Manto about his excessive drinking during the trial, he abrasively tells her to leave him if she has a problem with it. She says she will, without a second’s hesitation – a conversation very antithetical to most marriages in India in the 1940s. She doesn’t leave him, though, and even at their worst, she is always able to express herself freely to Manto and call him out for his failures. Safia’s pain, her silent suffering, her individuality and her resilience are woven into the fabric of this film, much like Manto’s characters in his stories.
Through small encounters and subtle character traits, Das paints us a full picture of Safia as much as she does of Manto, a feat that has rarely been accomplished by historians. She has presented a compassionate story of a man with a fractured identity who sought to mend a broken world.
Manto is playing in theatres across the country, watch the trailer here.
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