Why I feel Nandita Das’s long short doesn’t do justice to Manto

Where is the hopelessness and the marginalisation of an artist? Where is the angst?

 |  3-minute read |   24-03-2017
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A monologue from actor-director Nandita Das’s upcoming film on Saadat Hasan Manto was shown as part of the series #BigShorts for India Tomorrow.

Manto has always attracted artists. Arguably one of the best writers of the short story in the world, his enigmatic life draws admirers to this day, long after he is gone.

Numerous TV and radio shows, plays and play readings, radio plays and films continue to feature him and his stories.

So, whatever Nandita makes will be compared for the aesthetics of cinema as well as its truthfulness to the writer’s art and his life with past works as well as scrutinised for its art.

After all, why make a movie? Why not just deliver a speech? Its art has to stand out to be able to qualify as that.

I watched the clip with great expectations as two of the biggest names in Indian cinema were coming together.

I was perhaps expecting the moon of Bollywood.

Cinematically, when an actor-director of the calibre of Nandita Das and an actor like Nawazuddin Siddiqui come together, the bars get raised — you naturally expect an extremely high quality of cinematic expression.

Content-wise it is a compelling documentary of these times, there is no denying that and people have written about it with their appropriate emphasis on the freedom of speech, among other things.

However, that is missing the point. Manto’s life and art was not about freedom of speech, it was about freedom of thought. And he went on fighting for it till his last.

However, the clip, if it is representative of the movie, let’s that expectation down. It quickly degenerates into didactic sermonising.

Playing Manto is not and will never be easy. Despite the content hitting the right spots, its treatment and writing leaves a lot to be desired.

It is an oversimplification of Manto’s works and his thoughts. Manto never sermonised, let alone lecture students on the ills plaguing the society.

He was a soul ridden with angst. He was an artist not a politician or a demagogue. He was full of frailties of human nature.

Where are his insecurities and his artistic inclinations? Where are the frailties of a writer?

Where are the inherent conflicts of Manto, who was trying to come to terms with his own mortality and his own premonitions about his eventual end?

Manto always knew what awaited his fate, yet he went on his way, undeterred by the several court cases, the trials and tribulations he had to face.

Where is the pain and the anger and the frustration?

Where is the hopelessness and the marginalisation of an artist? Where is the angst?

The writer, director and the actor have failed to pick up the nuances of Manto’s character.

In spite of being well aware of the depth and impact of his art, he was also acutely aware of his predicament as a writer and of artists in general.

Those elements need to stand out.

Nawazuddin’s character is one-dimensional. It could be a failure on the part of the actor or the director to envisage and flesh out the character of one of the master storytellers of Urdu and world literature, whose own life was no less than a thriller.

His troubled, painful and poignant personal life has to come out in the way he spoke and thought.

There is still time. The material is already out there. Manto’s life and works are enough. The point is to carve out a cinematic product of exquisite beauty.

Also read: For Nandita Das, Saadat Hasan Manto embodies freedom of speech

Writer

Muqbil Ahmar Muqbil Ahmar @muqbil_ahmar

The writer is a theatre activist, film critic and blogger who wants to bring harmony in society. Music, poetry and food are his passions.

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