Manto film review: A new benchmark for Pakistani Cinema

Manto Film Review

Manto Film review
Manto releases on 11th September across Pakistan


Whenever someone talks about a recently released Pakistani film being good, there is almost always an obligatory “but” at the end of the sentence.

“It was good BUT the story fell flat.”

“It was good BUT the dialogue wasn’t well-written.”

Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto is a film that has finally been able to break away from the tyranny of this “but” and has managed to avoid any glaring shortcomings, setting a new benchmark for the Pakistani film industry. A semi-autobiographical dramatisation of the life of renowned short-story writer Manto, the film is gripping. Starring Khoosat himself as Manto, the film manages to humanise the legendary writer whose life and struggles have captured the imaginations of the Subcontinent for decades.

Sadat Hasan Manto, Manto The film begins in 1951, after Manto’s release from the Punjab Mental Hospital. Disillusioned by the recent partition and it’s resulting bloodshed, and tormented by the painful memories of his childhood and time in Mumbai, Manto sets to exploring the darkest crevices of human psychology through his short stories. With stories such as Thanda Goshth and Khol Do, Manto soon becomes a controversial figure in literary circles and is summoned to court several times on charges of obscenity.

The film paints a picture of a man plagued by suffering and haunted by stories that are demanding to be told. It moves fluidly between the world of Manto’s imagination, with sequences depicting his stories interspersed within the real-world narrative. We see Manto being tormented by the characters his mind has thought up, and the uneasiness of his own soul as he is crippled by his addiction to alcohol and the memories of his past. The film also explores Manto’s relationship with his wife and kids and how his alcoholism and eccentricities affected his family.

Manto, Sarmad Khoosat, Pakistani films
The film explores Manto’s relationship with his wife and kids.

Manto is very well written and manages to engage the audience from the first half down to the very last second. The dramatic tension builds up as the narrative progresses and reaches a crescendo in a climatic ending. The dialogue is fluid and entertaining and audiences won’t find their attention wavering at any point in the film. Even though the film explores very serious themes of addiction and emotional distress, there are several light-hearted moments which provide a breather from the intensity of the drama.

Sarmad Khoosat, Manto, Pakistani films
Sarmad Khoosat plays the tormented writer.

Sarmad Khoosat shows some serious acting skills in playing Manto. He manages to do justice to a complex character that would be daunting for any actor. He makes Manto’s anguish believable without putting on an overtly emotional performance, gaining the audience’s sympathies without resorting to unnecessary theatrics. His performance is brutally honest and direct, devoid of unnecessary embellishments. In the film’s climax, Khoosat does a brilliant job, blowing the audience away with his depiction of Manto’s mental and emotional decline.

Manto, Sarmad Khoosat, Sania Saeed
Sania Saeed plays the role of Safiyah, Manto’s wife.

Sania Saeed also does a commendable job in playing Manto’s wife, Safiyah. She is able to handle Khoosat very well and the two share a chemistry that is perfectly suited to depict the relationship between Manto and his wife. However, the character of Safiyah comes across as one dimensional merely serving the role of Manto’s wife and the mother of his children. This could be because the character is written as such and, while it serves the purpose of the narrative, I would’ve liked to know more about her own story.

The film is filled with cameos and appearances by veteran actors, some of whom have done amazing jobs. Faisal Qureshi, in particular, puts on an amazing guest appearance. He is on the screen for less than a minute but, within that minute, manages to leave a lasting impression on the audience. Khoosat manages to bring out the best in his actors, using their strengths to extract brilliant performances.

Nimra Bucha also does an amazing job in playing Manto’s alter ego, the humanised form of his anguish and pain and the embodiment of his writing process. Bucha and Khoosat share a brilliant, very intense chemistry and their interaction on screen creates some of the most fierce moments in the movie. Saba Qamar plays the legendary Noor Jahan and while she manages to capture the glamorous charm of the singer, at times her performance comes across as a little forced.

Visually, the film is stunning, with spot-on art direction and production design. The costumes, designed by Shahbano perfectly evoke the styles of that era. Manto is dressed in crisp white kurtas and pyjamas through out the film and female characters’ elegant sarees are beautifully apt. The sets and props come together seamlessly to transport the audiences to Lahore in the 1950s.

Manto, Pakistani films
The film’s art direction amazingly captures the 1950s.

The film does falter technically, with cinematography and lighting often falling behind the skillful writing and acting. There is a lack of dramatic lighting, which is rather flat in certain sequences. Instead of adding to scenes with heightened dramatic tension, the lighting takes away from them. Admittedly, the colour grading masterfully compliments the narrative by creating an emotional impression . While there are some very well-composed shots, especially close ups, there was definitely room for improvement as far as the cinematography is concerned. Certain sequences are awkwardly shot and the camera could have been employed better to enhance the narrative.

Manto, Sarmad Khoosat, Pakistani films
Close ups brought a sense of intimacy with the character.

Manto is definitely a film worth seeing. Saadat Hasan Manto’s story is an important one and the film does justice to it. When you walk out of the film, you won’t be thinking about Khoosat’s acting or direction. You’ll be thinking about Manto and will walk away even more enamoured with the legendary writer, inspired to read or revisit his short stories.

The film will  capture your sympathies for the author, as well as igniting a renewed respect for him. It will remind you that human anguish is an age-old ailment that has stricken some of the most brilliant minds in history. And, in doing so, it will maybe make you feel less alone in your own struggles.

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  1. Pakistan should come out from its dreamy slumber of distant past that only existed in the middle ages. Then, it shouldn’t stupidly try to immitate Indian movies resulting in the products which are impossibly ridiculous. Rahat fateh ali sings a number of magical songs under Indian composers but when sung under paki music directors how substandard his works appear! Learn to face the real world and educate subhuman people of Pakistan first. Then only you can understand the way of the world and demonstrate your art properly.


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