October Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 4 years ago

This is a heady time for Pakistani cinema. The last couple of years have seen an explosion of films, though ranging wildly in tone, ambition and quality, that have tried to carve a niche for independent cinema. Time was when filmmakers would get a condescending pat on the head just for making an effort to put out a movie in an environment not conducive to the artistic mind. Now we are debating the merits of Zinda Bhaag, Moor and even lighter, deliberately populist fare like Main Hoon Shahid Afridi and Wrong No.

Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto belongs firmly in the category of a film that is teeming with ambition and somehow manages to live up to it. As anyone familiar with the life of the writer will know, Manto is not going to be a pleasant biopic, and Khoosat, playing the writer himself, pulls no punches.

Manto, in the establishment narrative of our history, was a traitor and, even worse, a libertine. Khoosat has wisely resisted the temptation to counter that perception by portraying the writer as a saint without flaw. The last thing we need is for a fascinatingly flawed human being to be turned into Mother Teresa.

Appropriate for a film so dark and unsettling, Manto begins with the writer released from a mental hospital in 1951 with the demons that reside within him propelling his work. Khoosat does the role a great service by showing the flip side of Manto’s crippling depression and alcoholism. Even if his disabilities fuelled his writing, Manto’s addictions took a toll on his family life. Sania Saeed, as his long-suffering wife, does a particularly good job of showing the human sacrifices that are made at the altar of genius.

Khoosat having to tackle such a giant of a literary figure aside, the toughest role may have fallen on Nimra Bucha’s shoulders, who plays Manto’s muse and she excels throughout. The presence of so many famous actors — Saba Qamar, Faisal Qureshi, Humayun Akhtar and Mahira Khan — and that too portraying historical figures for the most part, may have been a distraction but Khoosat’s thoughtful direction prevents that from happening.

If there is one criticism to be leveled at Manto, and it is a minor one, it is that the relentless onslaught of emotional distress could make this film too painful to be seen twice. At times, Khoosat and screenwriter Shahid Nadeem seem to take an almost sadistic pleasure in our suffering. Even that pervasive mood, particularly present in the second half of the film, is justified by the stunning denouement of Manto’s madness. The soundtrack reflects the sombre mood, though standout tracks by Meesha Shafi and Ali Sethi are among the best work either singer has ever done.

There is an annoying tendency for fans of Pakistan movies to quickly coalesce into partisan groups. Some will argue that Manto is a superior film to Moor while others will scoff at the notion. Rather than form camps we should just be grateful for works of such soaring ambition and hope it leads to a new golden era for Pakistani cinema.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.