Manto is a 2015 Pakistani biographical drama film based on the life of short story writer Saadat Hassan Manto (1912–1955). It has been written by Shahid Nadeem and directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, starring Sania Saeed, Nimra Bucha, Saba Qamar, Arjumand Rahim, Ali Sheikh and Khoosat himself in the titular role, with cameos by a number of Pakistan’s most prominent film, theatre and TV personalities. The film depicts the last few years in the life and career of the South Asian author who is renowned for his scathing insight into human behavior and the at-times macabre and animalistic nature of people. It released nationwide in Pakistan on 11 September, 2015.
Profoundly affected by the 1947 Partition of British India into present-day India and Pakistan and its far-reaching effects on society, Manto led a turbulent existence as he spiraled into a black pit of alcoholism and dementia amid his rising stature as a literary genius. The film follows this remarkably dichotomous journey where, on one hand, he is loved yet often misunderstood by his long-suffering wife Safia and three young daughters, and on the other, he forms fascinating relationships with a rising silver screen star Noorjehan, an emotionally troubled nautch girl Naazo, a scoundrel of a police constable Khudabakhsh, an ailing journalist and his nemesis Chaudhry Mohammad Hussain, and a handful of Lahore Government Mental Hospital inmates with whom he spends a major part of the last couple of years of his life.
Throughout all this, Manto travels the length of Pakistan, has himself strapped to the electric chair, is a popular if rebellious member of Lahore’s Literary Circle and the Progressive Writers’ Movement, chronicles the chaos that prevailed through writing some of his most controversial stories and essays, is tried in the Pakistani courts of law for obscenity but never convicted, and is both celebrated and reviled by the public and by those in power. This dazzling kaleidoscope of experiences is frequently punctuated by visits from his alter ego, who comes in the shape of a mysterious woman with whom Manto converses and tries to make sense of the havoc raging in his head.
Describing Manto as a great artist and a radical, revolutionary author, writer Shahid Nadeem felt that there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, his epic work, and the clairvoyant way he had of distilling the world. Though his earlier works, influenced by the progressive writers of his time, showed marked leftist and socialist leanings, Manto’s later work was a progressively stark portrayal of the darkness of the human psyche. His stories exhibit his deep cognizance of the breakdown of humanist values around the time of the Partition.
His final tales, which grew from the prevailing social climate and his own financial struggles, reflected an innate sense of human impotency towards darkness and contained a satire that verged on dark comedy. It not only showed the influence of his own demons, but also that of the collective madness that he saw in the concluding decade of his life. To add to it, his numerous court cases and societal rebukes deepened his cynical view of society, from which he felt isolated. No part of human existence thus remained untouched or taboo for him.
Both the format of the film and the screenplay display a restless, genre-dodging variety completely different from the prevailing trends in Indian and Pakistani cinema. There is an intense emphasis on detail which nonetheless allows for many levels of interpretation. It is a thriller without guns, a social comedy with obscene manners, and a bridge between horror and art – the result of Khoosat’s distinctive direction that is no less than cinematic euphoria salvaged from filth and cruelty against the heart-thump of haunting soundtracks.
Manto is the story of a man driven to despair when he is denied his true passion and the moral choices of individuals around him that jeopardize bonds of blood and love. It is, in essence, a story about the things that make up the human existence: relationships, emotions, struggles, conflicts, joys, and sorrows. Manto features career-defining performances from its all-star cast and packs a visual punch that will resound well after the end credits roll. The character of Manto at the center of it all will pull you in as inexorably as his powerful short stories.