When I discovered that Manto would have its North American premiere at TIFF, I knew that it would be nothing short of a profound viewing experience.
The film features actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who always puts in unbelievably believable performances — and he does so again as the Urdu-language writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. It is the second feature film directed by Nandita Das, who has frequently played central roles in Indian stories with global resonance.
Just as Das’ first feature film, Firaaq, tells the stories of the aftermath of the sectarian violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots, Manto brings us to the violence of Indian independence and Partition through the experiences of storywriter Manto.
Manto’s literature focuses on prostitution. Throughout the film, his identity as a storywriter is defined by the challenges brought onto him by court. While his portrayal of women as strong, sexual, and resistant subjects is appreciated by some as demonstrating empathy toward women, he is accused in court of being obscene and antagonistic toward the moral standards of society, despite its tacit complicity in allowing access to prostitution.
Manto’s position is simple: “If you cannot bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times.”
Analyzing Manto’s battles in court is essential if we are to understand the importance of free speech and, crucially, its distinction from the contemporary ‘free speech’ movements that campuses across North America grapple with.
The exercise of free speech does not occur in a vacuum; it cannot be divorced from the social context and power relations in which it is produced. Manto’s humanization of women is a direct challenge to the conservative, colonial, and patriarchal society in which he exists. The state’s attempt to silence him is an abrogation of free speech, inhibiting societal progress and threatening stagnation. Meanwhile, today’s champions of free speech defend an oppressive order, and so, in claiming that they are being silenced, they fail to understand social context and power relations.
In 1946, prior to Partition, Manto was an integral part of Bombay’s secular, progressive arts and literature scene. However, as Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence intensifies, he becomes increasingly conscious of his identity as a Muslim and feels compelled to move to Lahore, Pakistan, a safe space for Muslims.
Manto leaves behind his cherished city, as well as the graves of his father, mother, and firstborn son. While one of Manto’s stories portrays the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan, it reveals that the real madness is in the Partition itself. After all, the artificial construction of borders, justified by the perceived difference between Hindus and Muslims, suddenly turns centuries-long neighbours against one another.
Manto is Pakistani by virtue of being Muslim, and yet belongs more to the land known as India by virtue of his upbringing, family, and career. For Manto, the Partition of India causes a partition of his own self.
When humanity comes second to identity, the result is inevitable: mass migration, genocide, and violence. The formation of rigid identities stands in contrast to the reality that we are so much more than any singular category; we are, in fact, multiple identities.
I am of Bangladeshi origin, which means that in a previous era, I would have been considered East Pakistani, and before that, Indian. The creation of these modern identities, for some, is a source of pride. To me, it is a constant othering that has haunted the Indian subcontinent for the last 71 years — I lost a grandfather due to the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war.
As Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu nationalism play increasingly dangerous roles in South Asia, an ahistorical worship of artificial differences promises to reproduce the trauma of Partition, over and over again.
The irony that India’s independence coincided with Partition problematizes the meaning of freedom — in Manto’s words, “Either everyone’s life matters, or no one’s does.”
Identifying and seeking to rectify unequal power dynamics in the context of identity politics is not, in itself, identity politics — it is a rejection of colonialism.
A film about truth
Das’ film is about free speech and belonging but, fundamentally, it is about truth. She captures this by blurring the lines between the story of Manto, and Manto’s stories. Manto’s fiction was, in a sense, reality. It reflected his truth; it was what he saw in his society.
Partition was based on a fiction that Hindus and Muslims are fundamentally different; the truth is that complex individuals should not be essentialized into one singular identity. Instead, we should be skeptical about simplistic narratives that define belonging. The role of intellectuals, journalists, and artists is to expose reality for what it is, especially when it challenges oppressive power structures.
The truth is that nothing should come before our humanity.