Nandita Das’ biopic of renowned and controversial Indian and Pakistani author Saadat Manto is a fairly straightforward, but well made look at a creative man whose career and personal life suffered greatly following the subcontinent’s independence from British rule. Those unfamiliar with Manto will get a sufficient primer on Das’ work and life, but those already versed in the author’s provocative tales of societal ills will notice a lot of high points in the man’s life and only little tidbits of previously unseen and defining character.
Manto (played here with grace, dignity, and fire in the belly by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) was an Urdu language short story writer and essayist who often caused quite a stir in polite society with tales of sex, abuse, and any number of potentially taboo (but politically and socially relevant) topics. A Muslim working in a time of great religious division, Manto was exiled (along with millions of others) from his Indian home to Lahore in Pakistan, where cultural restrictions and hardships took an even greater toll on the increasingly temperamental, paranoid, and heavy drinking writer.
Outside of mounting some clever ways to adapt and integrate Manto’s stories into the fabric of the writer’s life, Das plays everything else for straight biography. Manto never elevates its subject to the point of sainthood, but the film feels like we’re just following him around and waiting for the next life changing moment to occur. It’s a string of anecdotes and bullet points arranged along a timeline, which makes Das’ work feel somewhat inorganic and unexceptional from a storytelling standpoint. She does, however, boast a keen sense of pacing and an eye for great visuals and period details. She gives just enough back to the film to enhance Siddiqui’s confident leading performance, but there still feels like something is missing here.