Saturday 19 September 2015

Manto shakes up cinema

03:09 By Lollywood Online 2 comments

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s movie opens with a shot of someone getting shock therapy and screaming through it as Javed Bashir’s voice rings in the background and asks the question “Kaun hai yeh gustakh”. The gustakh in question is, of course, one of Urdu’s biggest story writers, Saadat Hasan Manto. The opening sequence sets up very high expectations of the rest of the film, and boy does it deliver.
Khoosat’s Manto is not a biopic; it is a tale of the tales of Manto, and the madness that lies within each writer that compels them to write more and more. Khoosat’s Manto is, at the same time, a portrait of the writer seen through Manto’s own eyes, as well as a study into the prototypical mad writer archetype. Manto is mad, but in his own words, the madness is something imposed on him by the society and the injustices he sees and not an insanity that can be cured through medication. Sarmad’s Manto, the character, embodies the madness wholeheartedly, and balances it with the sanity to give us a perfect blend.
The movie tells us the story of Manto’s stories, so expectedly it uses the struggles of Manto’s later life to frame abridged adaptations of his short stories. These two parts are at the same time intertwined and distinct, both visually and narratively. The story of Manto’s later life is told in a very cinematic way, often compressing incidents and sometimes creating composite characters that are nothing but plot devices. This lets us experience the story with the focus on the main cast, Khoosat as Manto and Sania Saeed as Saffiya, Manto’s devoted wife. They are joined by Saba Qamar’s rather over the top but endearing impression of Noor Jahan and Adnan Jafar as QU Shahab as satellite characters. The acting is superb. Khoosat portrays Manto’s internal anguish perfectly, and for the most part without even saying a word. Sania Saeed, a veteran actress, shines as the eternally devoted wife, who stands by her husband despite all his faults, and supports him. The relationship between the two is not explored much, but the strength and the support there is evident, even in the very briefest of scenes.
An amazing artistic touch was the corporeal manifestation of the inner madness that forced Manto to write his “Fire”. Nimra Bucha effortlessly portrays Manto’s “hamzad”, his alter ego that manifests itself in the form of stories that Manto writes. Her recitation of Manto’s self-portrait “Main Manto” chills you to the bone and grips you by the collar and shakes you awake. My favourite section from the movie is arguably Manto’s dialogue with his alter ego, in the throes of delirium as he is in the hospital, dying but not dead.
One small gripe I have is the portrayal of QU Shahab and Noor Jahan, as fairly bland characters. The actors did their job well, but for someone who has little idea of the literary and film scene of the fifties, the kind of people this film seems to be targeted at, most references will not make sense. It’d take someone who knows who Shahab was, and that he was DG Reallocations at the time, to understand the way Manto was talking to a very dapper civil servant that way. The same goes for Manto and his rapport with Noor Jahan. The whole thing becomes clear once you know their history, from Bombay to Lahore. That said, if this movie sparks an interest into these other staples of our literary and film history, I’d be satisfied that the movie did its job.
The movie adapts some of Manto’s biggest short stories into small short films-within-the-film, and does a really good job of it. The short stories include “Toba Tek Singh”, Madari”, “Khol Do”, “License”, “Peshawar Se Lahore”, “Thanda Gosht”, “Hatak” and “Ooper, Neechay or Darmian”. These short films, in their own right, are works of art and Khoosat weaves them beautifully into the original film, sometimes cutting to them as Manto is reading them in a sitting of Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq or Pak Tea House, or sometimes while he is writing. The transitions are seamless, and in a couple of cases, downright perfect.
In the adaptations such as Madari and Peshawar se Lahore, Khoosat exploits music to create a dialogue-free narrative that tells the story purely through the visuals. ThePeshawar se Lahore adaptation, set to “Kya Ho Ga” tells a rather light-hearted story that deconstructs the rampant love-at-first-sight trope and turns it on its head. Mahira Khan’s acting of the shy girl really sells the part. The same Mahira plays an entirely different role of the madaran, the juggler. She proves that she is as capable on the big screen in extremely challenging roles as she is on the TV playing stereotypical woman roles.
License and Hatak talk about the issues that women faced in that time, and sometimes still face in this day and age. In Hatak, Nadia Afgan plays the role of Suagandhi, a prostitute that gets rejected, for being too old, and “wasting the time” of the “buyer” and in License, the issue of working women in a very restricted society is raised. Hatak’s incredible attention to detail, with the appropriate “ornaments” in the small house that Saugandhi lives in, from the Ganesh idol to the pictures on the wall makes sells the authenticity of the set design. As for License, while the adaptation skips over a lot of the build-up of the story, it does do the climax justice.
Toba Tek Singh and Khol Do, deal with the post-partition struggles. Khol Do, partially acted out and partially read in Manto’s voice, makes the atrocities committed in the name of “volunteers” during one of the most turbulent times in subcontinent history very real for a viewer who probably never saw the real events. Khol Do’s climax, and the way Siraj-ud-Din reacts to his daughter still being alive, even with the implications clear to him, hit home, clearly delivering the message Manto had intended more than half a century ago. Toba Tek Singh, the mentally ill Sikh inmate in the Lahore Mental Hospital, keeps asking the same question that no one answers: Where is Toba Tek Singh, in Pakistan or in India? The portrayal of the mentally ill i
One of the biggest treats was the adaptation of Manto’s short story, Thanda Gosht. Thanda Gosht has suffered obscenity charges and has been reviled by the regressive elements since long, but has withstood the test of times and is arguably one of the best short stories by Manto. As an avid Manto fan, I had given up hope of ever seeing a visual adaptation of the short story, owing to the language, the subject material and the way the moral guardians in Pakistan react even to the tiniest sliver of impropriety. That said, I think Khoosat’s adaptation beautifully sidesteps the issues that were raised for the written story. It does away with the dialogue, opting to turn all the raunchy talk into very unsubtle but appropriate symbolism and filling the background with Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s “Mehram Dilan De Mahi”, beautifully rendered by Meesha Shafi. The symbolism works well, raising very interesting questions for the modern-day crusaders against perceived obscenity. I hope this challenges the moral crusaders of today, just as Manto challenged the ones of his time.
The soundtrack of Manto speaks for itself; it is a perfect cocktail of young singers, brilliant score and classic lyrics from the poets who knew what they were doing. As a whole, the songs were not overdone, as is usually the custom in Bollywood-inspired mush, they were added to appropriate parts and complemented the storytelling, rather than serving as distractions to wake the sleeping audience. Javed Bashir’s rendition of Majeed Amjad’sKaun Hai Yeh Gustakh with its music and his voice, is a treat for the senses.
Over all, the movie is one of the very best movies to come out of Pakistan in a long time. With the efforts to revive Pakistani cinema underway, it bodes well that a movie that distinctly targets adult audiences, literature fans and millennials who want to learn about the history and culture of Pakistan, can be made and do its job well. This movie makes no secret of its subject matter and deals with it honestly and intelligently. Nowhere does it talk down to the audience. It does not teach, it just opens a door and lets you peek into a world that we may have forgotten a long time ago. I wish Sarmad Sultan Khoosat and his team the best of luck, and hope that he keeps making more movies like this. Pakistani Cinema needs them, probably more than your average formulaic love story with item-numbers.

nmate is so true-to life that you have to have a heart of stone to keep yourself from tearing up at the climax.


  1. That's such a mature and objective has made me put this movie on my watchlist.