In today’s Bollywood there is only one star of rap “Raftaar”. A man whose lyrics are clear, but not clean. Whose powerful versus strike at the heart of all listeners while his beats entertain on the screens of streaming media platformers. When music director Sneha Khanwalkar wanted a title song for her latest album Manto, she turned to him to bring his talents. What Raftaar delivered was Mantoiyat: an idealisation of the man behind the story.
Manto the album backs Manto the film, a biopic of the famous Urdu playwright Saadat Hasan Manto, a pre-independence script writer whose films annoyed everyone because he wrote stories that portrayed people, especially girls and young women, as they were treated in that time from his perspective. As he says in the movie “Agar aap meri kahani ko bardaasht nahin kar sakte, to iska yeh matlab hai, ke yeh zamana na kaabile bardaasht hai” (If you can’t bear my story, then it can only mean that the society we live in is unbearable). In doing so this biopic also touches upon the events of his life… we get to see the great stars of Bollywood of the time e.g. the premier actor Ashok Kumar and the music director Naushad, as well as the racism that was reaped upon a newly divided India as the English Raj left having created the new state of Pakistan.
Directed and produced by Nandita Das, this film digs deep into Manto’s struggles to portray the raw and naked truth about human emotions under stressful and painful situations. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s acting as Manto, was without compare in every scene and he was able to bring out the great frustration that the writer must have been feeling at the time. There are great scenes of worry when he crosses boundaries between Hindu and Muslim settlements. Even more so for his friends, some of whom are magnanimous, using their fame to show that even the new India is one land. Others show the beginnings of division that survives even today and gets stirred up when convenient. Supporting him is Manto’s wife played by Rasika Dugal who plays the ever supportive and loving partner, trying her hardest to forgive him for his trespasses and encouraging him on with his work. She stands by him even when he must face courts and all the way till his demise at the young age of 42. Even though she always takes the role behind-the-scenes, her character is determined and powerful in her own right and the actress delivers when it counts.
The music used within the film feels like an LP record had dropped out of the 1940s. All the big names of the microphone are involved with references to Shamshad Begum, Noor Jehan, K L Saigal and Shyam Sunder. While there are only 3 songs each is used to perfection to counterpoint difficult parts of a complicated story, one to give a light opening to the film, one to celebrate independence but remember the cost of it and the final one in the days of Manto’s demise brings his life to a sad but soft end. For those who have been privileged to listen to these greats, whether by having been around at the time or having heard it on their parent’s laps, these songs do the period credit but also find a way to be sufficiently modern as not to bore the modern audience.
To give this film a rating or to understand its true quality, the cinemagoer only needs to look at the words chosen by Raftaar to speak about the man: “Maine ghanto para hai tumko Manto. Tera jaisa hi banu kare yeh mera maan to”… this film is good enough that even Raftaar wants to be just like the man it is based on and after all isn’t that what a biopic is for? Of course the fact that Netflix has chosen to add it to its viewing list is simply a testament of its beauty.