"If you cannot bear these stories, then the society has become unbearable."
These words are uttered by Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto as he stands defiantly in a Lahore courtroom, passionately arguing against the obscenity charges on his short story, Thanda Gosht. While the scene is set in the years right after the India-Pakistan partition, Manto's words couldn't be more relevant in 2018.
In a post-truth era when, among other art forms, the written word's ability to unflinchingly look at reality has become endangered, the urgency of Nandita Das's biopic on the Urdu writer, who defied conventions and challenged staid notions of normalcy, cannot be overstated.
Das's film, which chronicles Manto's life from 1946, the year he decided to leave Bombay, his first love, to 1950, exudes an aesthetic lyricism, an understated beauty, which captures the inner anguish and the emotional turmoil of the celebrated writer with remarkable poignancy. It's Das's genius that she manages to weave in five of Manto's short stories into the broader narrative of the film, which focuses on Manto's relentless fight with a society living in denial of its own moral decline.
In a way, Manto's initial years in Pakistan, from after Partition until he died, mirrored the volatility that had taken over two counties yet to come terms with the horrors of Partition. The film manages to evoke this duality by using Manto's words as a larger social commentary on how destructive the divide was, both for the countries and for the writer who couldn't ever recreate his literary genius.
It's also the film's realistic, bare-bones world that sucks us into the turbulent years of India's past. Rita Ghosh's rustic and understated production design complements cinematographer Kartik Vijay's dimly-lit frames that metaphorically convey the power of light at a time of haunting darkness.
But the real beauty of Manto lies in its words and the manner in which they are spoken. The seamless manner in which his words become dialogues that exist not just for impact but as a narrative device that take the story forward is a testimony to Das's control over her storytelling.
If Manto's words were a piercing portrayal of reality, Nawazuddin Siddiqui's performance is a masterclass in the power of subtlety.
Siddiqui's Manto is all about the silences. Whether it's when his close friend, actor Shyam Chadda (Tahir Raj Bhasin), flippantly talks about his urge to murder Muslims, or when his wife Safiyah, the terrific Rasika Dugal, taunts him on his writing, or when they talk about the possibility of a separation, Siddiqui reacts as if every word has reached and changed and troubled him. It's the hallmark of an actor at the peak of his abilities and Siddiqui exploits those silences, all the while maintaining a defeated smile.
Bombay was Manto's muse, but his writings never romanticised the city. They evoked his concerns with the city's moral decay and its inhabitants' indifference towards those who existed on the margins. When Manto leaves Bombay, he also leaves behind a part of him which he could never find or replace. He's never the same in Lahore and this is most noticeable when his friend Chadda, with whom he shares a delicate friendship, comes to visit him. Manto is no longer his exuberant self but a man weighed down by disappointment, with himself for having neglected his family, and with those who thought were his allies.
He hallucinates about living in Bombay and even imagines that he is seeing his close friend, Ismat Chughtai, played with restrained brilliance by Rajshri Deshpande (Sacred Games, Sexy Durga).
As we continue to wake up to news reports about yet another Muslim being lynched, or about a writer being arrested, or about a movie being banned or students protesting against attempts to police their thoughts, Manto shakes us with the startling realisation of how little has changed since India gained independence.
Among the many functions of cinema is its ability to capture a moment in time.
Manto isn't a story of our times but it's a story for our time. It's a powerful reaction to everything that we are witnessing in the country. It may be different in degrees as compared with 1947, but we, as a country, are still plagued by sectarian violence, the ever-increasing threat to freedom of thought and expression, and a sense of moral superiority that looks at the marginalised with prejudice.
To critique this, Das has made a film that pierces our conscience and makes us question our own culpability. Under the guise of Mantoiyat, Das is telling us that we are currently at a time when staying silent is no longer an option.
Staying silent is being complicit.
It's only fitting, then, that the film ends with this line from Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Bol ki sach zinda hai ab tak,
Bol jo kuchh kahnā hai kah le
(Speak, for truth is still alive,
Speak, whatever you must say.)