If I was a person with little to no knowledge about Manto, except that he was a famous story teller, Nandita Das’ film Manto would ensure that I came out of the movie hall clear that I didn’t really want to know anything more about him. And if I was an admirer of the literary genius the movie would drive me to tears, as it brings no perspective and little insight to Sadat Hasan Manto, a writer who broke all norms, confronted taboos, and allowed his beautiful Urdu to chronicle tales that few dared to during his times.

Don’t get me wrong. Manto is a valiant effort, and fails precisely for that reason. It is over ambitious, under researched, and somehow neither the actor who is usually head and shoulders above the limited lot he has to compete with in Bollywood-- nawazuddin Siddiqui--nor the writer and director Nandita Das, are able to come to grips with the complex character they have tried to build a movie on. To put it simply they have not gone beneath his skin. Instead have portrayed Manto as the bystander, the critic who watched him from the outside and never really understood him. Like his critics.

The frames are beautiful, the period of partition well captured by the cinematography, and while confusing for some I personally liked the blurring of lines between Manto’s life at particular moments in the movie and his stories. Of course, for those who saw the film to learn of Manto from an experienced and committed director like Nandita Das, and were not as familiar with his stories, the shift was confusing without being engaging.

Who was Manto? What made him so compassionate, so sensitive, so passionate? A detailed observer, he felt his subjects, he bled, he wept, he laughed, he agonised with them-the ultimate story writer. In fact Siddiqui’s portrayal is quite the opposite, of a quiet, reserved man of few words, with the flashes of anger shown in the movie appearing to be irrational, and often inexplicable, almost as these do not mesh with the projected personality. His understanding of sex workers of the time, while revolutionary, is not dealt with the same compassion that Manto demonstrated in his writings, and somewhere this aspect of his literary work gets eclipsed in the movie by the criticism.

For instance his famous story on partition Thanda Gosht that had him being tried for obscenity (never convicted) is in a sense the centerpiece of his works for the movie, but the viewer gets no idea of the sense and the context and the perspective of this story. And instead the one scene from the story that the director weaves into Manto, seems to confirm the charge of obscenity by depicting it entirely out of the context that her own script has the protagonist protesting about in the courts. Manto in the movie says the story is not obscene, it needs to be read in context, but the movie does not even attempt to provide the beginnings of the working of Manto’s mind, for those who might not have read the story.

And this is where the problem lies. The movie gives no insights into Manto. And repeats the criticism that he faced, with little repeal. “If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don't even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that's the job of dressmakers.” Manto wrote for his critics, but the movie steered clear of exploring the depths that one had expected from Das and Siddiqui.

A course in film criticism at the Pune Film Institute a long time ago cautioned us writers that we should analyse a film in the context of what the director wants to say, and not what we would like the director to say. In that case we should go and make our own film and not critique the one made. But in the case of Manto it is just not clear what the director wants to say really. It is a bio-pic of course, but brings little to the table except for establishing that he was a chain smoker, a drunk -- pathetic towards the end of his 42 years, an indifferent family man, an unsuccessful writer, a man with little direction given how he just packed and left for Pakistan (in the movie) after declaring that he would never leave Mumbai, generally a bit of a loser.

He might have been a bit of all that for the director but then we went to see the movie because of his writings, his beautiful works that establish him as a complex man, of contradictions perhaps, but sensitive, passionate, concerned and compassionate. None of this comes through, and one is left wondering how could a drunk actually write all the stories we read now, and have read over and over again. And make observations that establish him as not just a great writer, but an observer, a courageous man who broke barriers, and faced the consequences.

But in the movie, he appears almost without courage. A man who cowers at the sight of blood. A person who keeps out of the politics of the time when actually through his writings Manto was steeped deep in the agonies and trauma of partition to name just one area he wrote so intensely about. He did not cop out, he participated but with a sensitivity that tore through his being and emerged through his stories. The movie does not establish that, and to my mind does a great disservice to the literary giant.

As for Siddiqui, he was so restricted and so out of his depth in this movie. Clearly he was not living the role, did not even seem to try to. He seemed to have little idea about the man he was portraying, other than smoking incessantly, and drinking. A scene that has a drunk Manto struggling to walk is demeaning and humiliating in a narrative that offers little of the other side.

His friendship with Ismat Chughtai is almost reduced to letters she wrote him when he left for Pakistan that he did not answer. And has little of what went into what he wrote about her, such as : "Ismat’s pen and tongue both run fast. When she starts writing, her ideas race ahead and the words cannot catch up with them. When she speaks, her words seem to tumble over one another. If she enters the kitchen to show her culinary skill, everything will be in a mess. Being hasty by nature, she would conjure up the cooked roti in her mind even before she had finished kneading the dough. The potatoes would not yet be peeled although she would have already finished making the curry in her imagination. I feel sometimes she may just go into the kitchen and come out again after being satiated by her imagination.”

Words that bring home a deep admiration and understanding that Manto, the movie barely recognises. Instead he appears churlish, short, and reticent not just with her, but all his relationships.

Other actors in the movie were indifferent, there without being there in one sense. The music in the second half became a little melodramatic, and could have remained subtle.

All in all Nandita Das has not done justice to Manto. Difficult subject of course, but not difficult to a point where a movie allows Thanda Gosht to be subsumed by the controversy, and the complex writer overtaken by ignorant critics.

Manto had written an epitaph for his grave that remains and perhaps should be read by the cast and crew of Manto and all of us again:

"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing....
Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is greater short-story writer: God or He.”