The drama starts with Manto in an asylum after partition
The drama starts with Manto in an asylum after partition

Manto, the drama serial currently airing on Geo, begins with the famous albeit controversial writer in a mental asylum.

A fitting way to frame the beginning of the end in this inspired biopic of a writer who chronicled the madness of Partition, proved to be prescient about the future of a newly born nation and who would succumb to his own human weakness.

Saadat Hassan Manto was already an established writer with a collection of short-stories, radio plays, essays, film scripts, a play and novel to his name when he migrated from India to Pakistan.With a penchant for questioning the hypocrisy and false piety in society, Manto’s writings often pricked people in highly influential places.

The drama examines the last seven years of his life in Lahore when he produced some of his greatest short stories. This fiercely creative body of work set up against the grim reality of financial hardship, political machinations seeking to vilify him and his addiction to alcohol form the crux of the story Manto, directed by and starring Sarmad Khoosat in the titular role.

Contrasting Manto’s evocative ideas with the gnawing reality of finding work and the ravaging effects of his addiction, scriptwriter, playwright and director Shahid Mehmood Nadeem reveals an intimate knowledge of Manto’s life

For many readers, the sting of truth in Manto’s terse short stories showcased the darkness of the human psyche. His Partition stories to date capture the insanity and hollowness of humanity of that time. Eleven episodes down, the most riveting parts have been the incorporating of these stories in the narrative. Despite being familiar with the gibberish of Toba Tek Singh, the horror of reaching for the shalwar’s drawstring in Khol Do, and the vacant eyes of Ishwar Singh in Thanda Gosht all manage to send a chill down one’s spine. The impactful visuals and stellar acting contribute in no small measure to this effect.

Recreating details such as seeing Manto complete a story in one sitting in a newspaper office, beginning each story with 786 at the top of the page, writing with his legs up on the chair, his neat and fussy sense of dress all ring true to life. The sparse mise-en-scene with horse tongas, round cigarette boxes, cardboard film sets, basic wardrobe, and the simple interiors evoke a sense of the 1950s.

Sarmad Khoosat slips into the role with practiced ease. He renders Manto’s sharp wit and self-respect with his struggle to keep his demons at bay.

Sania Saeed essays the role of Manto’s wife Safia, a loving but helpless companion. Her low-key performance contrasts with Saba Qamar’s Noor Jehan who wears her heart on her sleeve and exchanges barbs in her passive-aggressive interactions with husband, Shaukat Rizvi played by a dapper Tipu Sharif. Cameos by Irfan Khoosat, Adnan Jaffar, Shamoon Abbasi, Faisal Qureshi and Yasra Rizvi bring the characters of Manto’s fearless pen to life.

Contrasting Manto’s evocative ideas with the gnawing reality of finding work and the ravaging effects of his addiction, scriptwriter, playwright and director Shahid Mehmood Nadeem reveals an intimate knowledge of Manto’s life. His throwaway lines about Manto walking on coals, sneaking out through the back lane to get his daily fix, reminiscing about Bombay and Amritsar, reliving the horror of the Partition all hint at the textures present in his work and life.

The heaviness of these themes is lightened by tender moments with his three daughters and his extended family. Walking his daughters to school, whitewashing the walls of his home and celebrating his nephew’s birthday with Noor Jehan as the guest of honour brought some levity and insight into Manto as a devoted and loving family man.

Manto’s thorny relationship with people in power is also examined in the cases of obscenity brought against him. The latest episode features the controversy that his story Uppar Neechay aur Darmiyaan garnered and the reach of Mian sahib, a well-known politician who engineered the court case against him. In a deliciously discreet take on the story, Rehan Sheikh and Hina Bayat have a field day with their roles, oxygen masks, smelling salts and all! Unfortunately, Manto’s wry wit and oblique references was lost on the censors.

The drama also explores Manto as a dispassionate but sharply observant writer of socio-political issues seen in the visualization of his sarcasm laced essays Letters to Uncle Sam.

Using the backdrop of the fledging Pakistani film industry, the building up of a less than secular nation state and the politics of the Progressive Writers Movement, the drama explores their influence in Manto’s eventually desperate situation. The inventive use of his stories as muse, personified by Nimra Bucha’s haunting whisperings of his unconscious mind, both of terrify and attract him.

By showing how he was continually hounded by conservative censorship through court cases brought on by Chaudhri Muhammad Hussain, the slights to his self-respect by the government assigning him an ice factory and the paucity of work; the drama is building up episode by episode as a portrait of a tortured artist.

The drama also explores Manto as a dispassionate but sharply observant writer of socio-political issues seen in the visualization of his sarcasm laced essays Letters to Uncle Sam. Never one to shy away from writing about social taboos, his interactions with the tawaif Nazneen, played by Arjumand Rahim underscores his sensitive portrayals of the stark realities of helpless women.

Manto’s biggest disappointment also lay in the lack of support from the Progressive Writers Movement. Their stuffy meetings, undisguised envy, and oscillating from labeling Manto a ‘reactionary’ to later retracting it, effectively capture the changing political winds within the movement.

Manto is a thoughtful and sensitive look at the life of an artist and the toil it took on him and his family.

Future episodes portend the lethal and tragic combination of his increased financial strain together with the magnetism of alcohol that ravages not just his health but his personality as well.

Celebrated but unacknowledged, Manto felt neglected and misunderstood in his time. As he laments to his wife, ‘Manto sirf ek zikr reh jayega (Manto will just be a name in passing)’. But Manto’s stories have stood the test of time. Reading them through the lens of today with extremism on the rise, restrictions on freedom of speech, and bans silencing creativity cements his position as a gifted writer with a keen understanding of human behavior and the madness within the hearts of men.

Manto is a thoughtful and sensitive look at the life of an artist and the toil it took on him and his family. In questioning society’s role in supporting writers and artists alike, it also asks us to consider the current role of literature and art in showing a mirror to our society.

Else, we will always have Manto.

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