A Tale of Two Mantos


by Ajmal Hussain

Poster of Manto – Indian Movie release in 2018

Now that the Indian biopic Manto (2018, directed by Nandita Das) has been released in theaters (but banned in Pakistan by Pakistan Censor Board) and is available for streaming, the inevitable comparisons to the Pakistani biopic, also called Manto (2015, directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat) have become the topic du jour.

Both films are based on the life and work of Saadat Hasan Manto, a giant of Urdu literature whose trailblazing path was strewn with controversy and personal tragedy. In United India), he lived mostly in Bombay (now Mumbai) and spent his professional career shuttling between Bombay and Lahore. After partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, he moved with his family to Lahore where he spent the last eight years of his life.

Manto – Pakistani Movie released in 2015

The ongoing animosity between India and Pakistan means that both countries begrudgingly own the writer, because it is hard to pin him down as either Indian or Pakistani. One can imagine Manto having the last laugh on this superficial conundrum because he always belonged to humanity.

The Pakistani version seems to be more mindful of this division than the Indian version, in terms of the portion of Manto’s life depicted. It only shows the writer’s life in Lahore, and does a poor job of that; there is hardly anything of Lahore to be seen in the film, specifically of the 1940s and 1950s.

This is an odd decision on the part of the filmmakers and indeed questionable, since filming in Lahore should not have been difficult. Manto’s house still stands in Laxmi Mansions, but it isn’t shown in the film. There is also a major anachronistic blunder in the scene where a modern-day Mercedes car is shown in the 1950s era. Period detail is an area where the Indian version excels.

Sarmad Khoosat, in addition to directing, plays the title role in his film, whereas Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Manto in the Indian film. Siddiqui’s portrayal is nuanced and grounded, as befits an actor of his caliber. Khoosat puts in a game attempt, and is sometimes remarkably close to his Indian counterpart. However, he gets carried away in some scenes which reek of overacting. Also, his narration and diction are problematic at times.

Khoosat’s physical appearance is more in line with Manto’s Kashmiri ethnicity than Siddiqui’s. However, the former is much too bulky and healthier for the role whereas the latter is more suitably lean. Akbar Subhani, a Pakistani actor who has previously played Manto better (on television and theatre) than either of these two, is cast in a minor role in Khoosat’s film, and one feels it would have been a better casting choice to have him reprise the role.

The Indian version acknowledges the presence of other literary personalities and showbiz celebrities in Manto’s life, much more so than the Pakistani version. We get to see Ismat Chugtai, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Munshi Premchand, Ashok Kumar, Jaddan Bai, Nargis, K. Asif, etc. Manto’s best friend was an actor-singer called Shyam, and he is given much screen time here, but the actor playing him does not rise above amateur level.

The portrayal of Ashok Kumar is also rather wooden, which is a shame and unfortunate irony, considering the real life actor was an accomplished and hugely popular presence in Indian cinema.

The Pakistani version does make Noor Jehan, the legendary singer, actress and director a part of its story, whereas the Indian version completely ignores her. Saba Qamar brings glamour and spark to her depiction of Noor Jehan, but is a little too hammy.

Manto’s wife Safiya was a very supportive and soothing presence in his turbulent life, and so both movies give her character ample screen time. The actresses in both versions do justice to their respective portrayals of Safiya. The bit parts in both movies are a mixed bag, with some strong and some weak performances.

Both movies try to integrate Manto’s own short stories into their narratives with varying degrees of success. The Pakistani version has more short stories woven into it than the Indian version, but they are not integrated well. The pacing and editing of Khoosat’s film is shambolic and jarring in the way one segment is piled on top of another, instead of allowing for some breathing space between them, to let the audience reflect on each vignette and digest the contents.

Nandita Das does a much better job of letting each story wash over the audience and generally the flow of the Indian version is smoother. However, it loses steam and simply ends on a rather flat note, abruptly and without much impact. This is where the Pakistani version triumphs and almost redeems itself, as it builds to a powerful emotional climax, ending on a dramatic high. Although some of the last third of the film tends to get loud, it succeeds in giving a sense of closure to its narrative which is missing in the Indian version.

As the end credits start to roll of the Indian version, a poem by Faiz is recited. There is nothing wrong with the poem per se, but the film has already established that Faiz did not support Manto’s artistic vision when called upon as a witness in the trial over ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat). It is also established that Manto resented Faiz’s comments, and never got over the incident. In this context, having Faiz’s poetry at the finale of Manto’s biopic is a befuddling choice.

Incidentally, both films include a dramatization of ‘Thanda Gosht’, with the Indian depiction being more faithful in letter and somewhat more explicit visually. But the Pakistani version is more creative and powerful as it circumvents the profanity and overt sexuality (which would have likely caused problems with the more restrictive Pakistani censors) of the tale and applies a richly metaphoric visual style that comes across as more erotic and dynamic. It has a lot more impact when compared to the simple representational approach of its Indian counterpart.

The Pakistani film loses points for inappropriate use of music, which often overemphasizes key moments and unnecessarily disrupts the quieter ones. The Indian version loses some points for reusing a lot of the same material as the Pakistani version which came out just 3 years earlier. While both movies were made for their own country’s audience; in this day and age, it is naïve to think that the audience across the border would not have seen it. Also, Manto has a staggering body of work to choose from and his range is impressive, so it is puzzling why Nandita Das could not have cast her net a bit wider.

Ultimately neither biopic is a clear winner, while each has its high and low points. The definitive film about Saadat Hasan Manto has yet to be made.