May 5, 2017
Virendra Saxena, Raghubir Yadav, Sonal Sehgal, Shoib Nikash Shah, Tariq Khan, Rahat Kazmi
If a film is based on Saadat Hassan Manto’s short stories on the Partition, it goes without saying it has been made with good intentions. Manto’s narrations of the horrors of that time have the ability to move and shock all these decades later. But as any cineaste knows, great causes do not translate into great films merely by being great causes – they need a skilled team just as any other film does.
The kindest thing that can be said about writer-director Rahat Kazmi’s Mantostaan – based on Manto’s Khol Do, Thanda Ghosht, Assignment and Aakhri Salute – is that it means well.
For those who have not so far read Manto (please do!), here’s a quick introduction to this literary quartet. Khol Do is the tale of a father desperately searching for his daughter who he lost while they were fleeing their ravaged hometown. Thanda Ghosht is about a mercenary rioter. Assignment is about a relationship of warmth and respect between a Muslim judge and a Sikh gentleman, which goes awry during the carnage. And Aakhri Salute is about friends in the army finding themselves on different sides of the border between two newly formed countries.
In terms of adaptation Mantostaan does not stray from the legendary author’s path, but for the fact that instead of narrating these four stories separately and in succession, it recounts them simultaneously, with a portion from one followed by a slice from the next and then the next and so on. That choice would have made sense if it led to a new interpretation by way of even the slightest nuance not so far spotted by Manto-watchers. As it happens, it does not because Kazmi is not up to the task.
Even that might have been bearable, if the production had not been of such inferior quality. The joy of revisiting Manto is lost here to the all-round shoddiness of this film. The direction is stilted, the special effects are substandard as are all the technical departments, the extras in the cast are expressionless and so are most of the actors in leading roles.
In media interviews the director has revealed that Mantostaan was shot on location in Punjab and Jammu. The questionable framing, lighting, etc ensure though that everything in the film looks like a set – a very bad set.
In the midst of all this mediocrity, Virendra Saxena as the judge and Raghubir Yadav as a hapless parent manage to retain some of their dignity and hold on, to a limited extent, to their craft. This is not to say that they are wonderful here – of course they are not, no actor can be wonderful in the face of such low quality, but in comparison with the rest they are like balm on a disappointed viewer’s soul.
Apart from these veterans, the only artist in Mantostaan who deserves a mention is young Sonal Sehgal playing the lover of a man who commits unspeakable crimes during the post-Partition mayhem. Again, this is not to say that Sehgal is wonderful here, but that her performance reminds us that she possesses both talent and an X factor that have been wasted in the film industry so far. She is obviously worthy of so much more than this amateurish venture or even the supporting roles she has played in Himmesh Reshammiya-led vanity projects that may have more money and therefore more technical finesse than Mantostaan but are cinematically sub-par all the same.
Manto’s writings are as relevant to our troubled times as they were when he lived. Their enduring meaning and beauty are completely lost though in this poor production.
Rating (out of five stars): 1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Footnote: The first film I reviewed on this blog was Rahat Kazmi’s Impatient Vivek released in 2011. The film was also a prominently featured in my 2012 book The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic for reasons you will understand only if you read the book. For the moment, here is a link to the review of Impatient Vivek:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/MantostaanMovie/