Watching Manto was like sitting with a very dear friend for two hours. A friend whose heart beats for all the right reasons — for the young girls and women who are trafficked and sexually violated by men in penile pursuit; at the sudden prospect of losing a friend to irreligious communal frenzy; in the agony of looking at a friend’s revengeful intensity; in his assertion through mirroring the truth in its darkest shades; at witnessing hypocrisy masquerading as justice; in recognizing his own fear as weakness; for his sense of shame in surrendering to self-destruction; for the depth of respect and love he felt for basic humanity — in his wife, his children, his friends; and finally perhaps, for his inability to summon the strength enough to live through the pain…
In all this – between Saadat Hasan Manto and life – there is no room for pretence or jumla, no mask or purdah, no self-censorship or political correctness. The writer’s pain shines through, just as much as his joy does, whenever it is there.
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Whether biographical or otherwise, when “herstory” is recreated through the lens of emotion – as in the heart beating for the right reasons – it goes deep. And stays with you…Stirring you enough to stare at all the tight knots and convolutions in the socio-political space of the human mind, and urging you – with adequate care – to step out of the many self-created inner prisons all of us live in. As Saadat Hasan Manto did through his life and work, Nandita Das does in her own, in Manto, and today’s context. That she chose a writer as fine and true as Manto, and sought and received the emotional participation of an entire team in the making of the film, is a reflection of both the current need and relevance of what Manto and Manto say.
Besides the director herself, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the writer and Rasika Duggal as his wife, have woven themselves into the film much like the finest patterns in strong handloom fabric from Orissa or Andhra Pradesh.
Surely, it would be of immense benefit for all Indians above 15 to learn about the country’s history through such and other creative voices.
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By design, as well as just organically, Manto reminds Indians particularly, of many shades of emotion and perception we seem to have forgotten, or laid waste. That silence between people – when comprehended – can speak louder than words. That “in your face” interaction (and talking over the other) may be contemporary and much in vogue, but it is not at all necessary. That genuine respect for religious diversity (and all diversity) comes primarily from the heart, unfolds in daily life, and is lived with fullness – moment to moment.
The scenes that recreate Toba Tek Singh and Thanda Gosht (among Manto’s powerful stories) are perhaps the most telling of all: the sheer absurdity of perceptions and brutality we can arrive at, in the guise of forming separate nations or identities. But wait a minute. There’s much more here for us today: a reminder of a malignancy perhaps, which has been building up for three decades and may be more.
Even a sweeping glance over the entire spectrum of life in rural, small town and urban India today (and indeed, the world) – all manner of institutions, all shades of political parties, the very pillars and foundation of democracy, the apparent or orchestrated discourse in TV studios, the streets, or between small groups of people – reveals a grave disorder within the fabric of our being. The ways in which terror thrives in our times, is just a reflection of the infestation of prejudice within. It only takes the most harmless of words, gestures or action for something to snap, and for violence to unleash in the most grotesque forms.
Just as the disorder is grave, it would also be a grave mistake to conclude that the “problem” or the “enemy” is outside of us: in various forms such as a single individual, a small coterie, a political party, this or that ideology…
Can life or just one of its representatives — people – ever be so simplistic?
What makes Manto the man a brilliant and true writer, is that he doesn’t shy away from the pain that compels him to look within himself and thereby, within others. What makes Manto the film outstanding is that its director takes the trouble and the care, of bringing home that essential aspect anew!
And despite the fact that both man and film show us the darker and darkest sides of what human beings do to each other, neither do so without nurturing the possibility of change. This then, is an essential tribute to every heart that beats with the rhythm of life’s creativity.
By looking fearlessly into the mirror that is held up before us, it is always possible to change what we see. That is, if we are ready to change ourselves – and by consequence, all that we are surrounded by.