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MOVIES: (LFF 2018) Manto - Review

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Directed by Nandita Das, Manto is a powerful biopic about the flawed and controversial writer, Saadat Hasan Manto - who grew up in 20th century Bombay and the showbiz world that it was apart of. The film is a fascinating mixture of fiction and biography, combining the two genres as it not only tells Manto's life but also weaves in its own takes on many of Manto's stories, contained as mini short-films over the course of the larger film. It's a cool addition that plays towards those who haven't read any of his work before like this reviewer, so whilst those more knowledgeable than myself may have other things to say about this portrayal of the literary figure, taken at face value, Manto is a film that very much does what it sets out to do.

Das' direction is beautiful and she brings every location to life. Filled with detail and bursting with well-crafted set-construction, the film brings with it that authenticism and accuracy of the era. It's worth noting just how good the technical aspects of this film are as well, with the lighting being excellent throughout. It's used well to help craft the mood of the film and establish its tone, and coupled with its stunning cinematography from Kartik Vijay, Manto really stands out as being one of the best-looking films from the London Film Festival so far.

The cast is great too. Most of the film's length is spent focusing on Manto and Nawazuddin Siddiqui does a terrific job in front of the camera, commanding the audience's attention. But it's also worth mentioning Rasika Dugal, who shines in some of the more comedic scenes that she's in as Manto's wife, Safia. If anything the film could have benefited from giving her a larger role, but it's understandable why much of the focus is on the titular character.

Much of Manto works thanks to the context of the era it's set in, taking place before, during and after India declared independence from the British Empire. The rift that opened in the wake between Hindus and Muslims is explored here in detail, and we get to see how it affected Manto's life, forcing him to flee as from the world that he knows of Bombay to Pakistan, even if he is initially reluctant to do so because of the deep attachment that he has to the area.

When Das is getting inside Manto's head is where the film is at its best, as films about writers often are. Given that he's on screen so much it only makes sense that its in these moments where he's at the very centre of attention does the film really shine, featuring a memorable courtroom sequence that stands as one of its highlights, where Manto is called into questioning for one of his works that is deemed as obscene.

The stories that are adapted into the film are both a strength and a curse. On one hand, it allows the audience to visualise the stories especially if they haven't read them, but on the other, they often come at moments where breaking up the pace in the film feels like a bad idea and as a result some of the momentum can't help but be lost in the process. It drags the film down, but thankfully, not by a significant amount. The stakes are never really felt in Manto either. Whilst there's understandably only so much that can be done given that this is a biopic rather than a work of fiction, the scenes where Manto was in danger, of which he is frequently over the course of the film, could have used a little more tension to give it a bit more of an edge.

It's safe to say that Manto is an interesting biopic that benefits from its talented cast and its excellent technical work behind-the-scenes. Whilst it's not a perfect film it is more than watchable, and deserves to be among your consideration of films that are airing publicly at the London Film Festival this year. Although tickets on Thursday 11 October are sold out, as of now, tickets for Friday 13 are still available as of the time of typing this review and can be purchased here.

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