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Art of the Matter
Film: Manto (With English subtitles)
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Tahir Raj Bhasin
Directed by: Nandita Das
Duration: 1 hr 50 mins
Rating: * * * 1 / 2

“Whom the Gods love, die young” said Lord Byron – Saddat Hassan Manto didn’t believe in God and most certainly not in religion – he died at an age of 42, but during that time, he lived a life less ordinary. He wrote short stories (22 of them), essays, columns and nine screenplays that were made into films, during his lifetime and many more, posthumously.
The writer whose stories shocked people and he was tried by the courts not less than six times on charges of obscenity, both pre and post partition, he is the focus Nandita Das’ second feature after Firaaq (2008).
In 2015, there was a Pakistani production on Manto but that focused more on his life on the other side of the border in 1948. This film opens in 1946 in Mumbai or Bombay as it was known then. It was the city that he belonged to and considered his own. Life was a breeze for him then, even though he had a brush with the law. He had a lot of friends including Ismat Chugtai (Rajshri Deshpande), Shyam (Tahir Raj Bhasin) a budding actor who became a star and even Ashok Kumar was a pal. There are several characters based on real life people, right from Naushad, Jaddan bai (who was not only a singer, actress and composer, she was also Nargis’ mother), Himansh Rai and K Asif – it was good to see them being referred to by their actual names.
But just after partition, with religious madness and riots in equal fervour, fearing the worst, he moved from Bombay to Pakistan, with a heavy heart. While leaving Bombay Manto and Shyam recollect that they owe a Paan guy one rupee. Shyam offers to settle it but Manto tells him not to – “Main chahata hoon ki zindagi bhar is sheher ka karzdaar rahoon” (I want to remain indebted to this city forever). Bombay was the love of his life – “Yeh sheher sawaal nahi karta” (This city never asks you questions) he says.
But the same madness is on the other side of the border and Manto never quite settles down into a comfortable life there. His frustration and anger only elevates when he is taken to court by the authorities for writing an ‘obscene’ story. Rasika Dugal plays Safiya, his wife who stands by him as a rock. She is also the one that tries to steer him toward the more practical path of life – ideology aside, he also has a wife and kids to look after. With a dwindling income, alcohol problem he even landed up in a mental asylum.
Manto was at odds with just about everyone, including himself at times. Society and levels at which humanity had stooped down to bothered him, all the time. His human side always came out as angst. The release mostly came in the form of the stories he wrote and parts of it are depicted in the film, from Thanda Ghosht, the one that got him in trouble in Pakistan to Toba Tek Singh (which is being made into a full length feature by Ketan Mehta).
With a life like Manto’s there will always be episodes and incidents which will be overlooked or not included. But that is not a complaint – what is shown is good enough to give an idea of the man, what he was and what he stood for. Moreover, the screenplay doesn’t eulogize Manto and hence it is more convincing.
Apart from cameos by Rishi Kapoor (as a sleazy film producer), Javed Akhtar (as a college principal who testifies in favour of Manto), Paresh Rawal, Divya Dutta and more, the main cast is spot on. Rasika Dugal as the sympathetic and strong wife plays her part while Tahir Raj Bhasin as his best friend is likable. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is too good an actor not to make a strong impact with such a powerful role – expectedly, he doesn’t disappoint and leaves his mark.

First Among Equals
Film: The Equalizer 2
Cast: Denzil Washington, Melissa Leo
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Duration: 2 hrs 8mins
Rating: ***
The first installment was an easy going action thriller which had its moments, largely thanks to the presence of Denzil Washington. Director Antoine Fuqua who has worked with the actor before including the Oscar winner Training Day (there is an inverted camera shot in this film reminiscent of the 2001 flick).
The Equalizer 2 has more depth and spends more time with the main character than just going bang bang. It opens with an action scene though, in a train on the way to Istanbul where McCall (Washington), rescues a little girl and unites her with her mother. But after that, his life is rather calm and quiet – he drives a taxi for Lyft, picks up passengers and occasionally has conversations with them.
But otherwise there isn’t a great deal happening and he is a loner of sorts even those scenes say a lot about the man. But at every given opportunity, he helps those in need, like the mother-daughter.
Meanwhile, violence is unleashed in Bulgaria as an agent is exposed and gunned down.
Mac’s friend Susan, who is still active with the agency, gets involved eventually dragging Mac in the matter. While the plot is something we have seen before, it unfolds in a fairly engaging manner. The coldness and monk like calmness that McCall exhibits add to the charm of the character – and also the fact that Denzil Washington plays it.
The climax in the middle of wind and storm sounds far-fetched but it is very well executed. I wouldn’t mind another helping of the Equalizer, in due course.

Home Alone
Film: Varathan (Malayalam with English subtitles)
Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Aishwarya Lakshmi
Directed by: Amal Neerad
Duration: 2 hrs 10 mins
Rating: * * 1 / 2
Cinematographer turned director Amal Neerad’s Varathan (The Outsider) is a thriller about a couple that is terrorised by a bunch of locals. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) had a similar storyline but this one is minus the gratuitous violence that had shocked many back then.
Neerad has worked with directors like Ram Gopal Varma and that influence shows. That cuts both ways, to some extent it works and part of it doesn’t. Besides, cinematically it is all on familiar ground, there isn’t a lot to write home about on that count. In fact, the background score acts as a spoiler, big time. There is hardly a minute particularly, in the second half and in the key moments of the film that you don’t hear violins and pianos and other assorted instruments at a decibel that might hurt your ear drums– it reduces the visuals to pedestrian levels.
The biggest charm of the film is the actors. Fahadh Faasil, who won the National award this year for Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum has established himself as one of the best on the scene and Aishwarya Lekshmi who impressed in Mayaanadhi recently. They play Abin and Priya, a couple that has moved from Dubai back to Kerala. He lost his job, she had a miscarriage and they are both looking for a change of scene.
Back in the native village, the surroundings are pleasant, but the people are not. The caretakers of their property turn hostile – they are voyeurs keeping an eye on Priya – she can’t even step in the shower without double checking the windows. Abin meanwhile tries to sort things out in a proper manner but that doesn’t work out very well, eventually leading to showdown, a lot of which is in slow motion – carrying ear plugs is strongly advised. The buildup is steady even though there are lots of red herrings – instead of letting the tension grow organically there are unnecessary POV shots and sinister sounding music to give cues. Littil Swayamp’s camera work captures the atmospherics but also tries to do too many things constantly. Ultimately, this film has more style and relatively less substance.
In Darkness
Film: Batti Gul Meter Chalu
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Divyendu Sharma
Directed by: Shree Narayan Singh
Duration: 2 hrs 57 mins
Rating: * *
Batti Gul Meter Chalu clocks almost 3 hrs like those old fashioned movies of yore. But unlike those films which had some, and occasionally many redeeming factors, in this one precious little happens for hours. Please switch off the lights and save electricity so that the lesser fortunate ones can also get power. That one line message is stretched to the hilt and the story beats around a million bushes before it can get to the point.
Directed by Shree Narayan Singh who also made Toilet – Ek Prem Katha, his target audience is the lower half of the lowest common denominator. So what exactly happens for three hours then? Well, not a lot – there is way too much darkness in this screenplay by Siddarth-Garima.
First, we have triangular love story set in Uttarakhand – Susheel Kumar Pant aka SK (Shahid Kapoor), Lalita (Shraddha Kapoor) and Tripathi (Divyendu Sharma) are friends with the only with each other’s company for benefit. SK is an unscrupulous lawyer, she is a ‘designer’ and Tripathi wants to set up a factory. They both love her; she loves only one of them but doesn’t quite dissuade the other. You couldn’t care less either way. Time is killed and your patience is tested by songs with lyrics that go “When you getting gold why go for tamba / when you getting Gabbar why go for Samba.” You need a Prozac to lift your spirits.
Meanwhile Tripathi gets his factory going and also wins some entrepreneurship award – but as they say, with great power comes great electricity bill. The apathy of the department doesn’t help and the bills keep escalating driving him nuts. That sets up a courtroom drama against the power company and even though Sushmita Mukherjee does her bit as the judge, Saurabh Shukla is sorely missed and so is the humor and it all gets preachier than a God man’s talk.
In trying to be authentic with the lingo, words like ‘bal’ (the used in Garhwal doesn’t specifically mean anything, it is more of a pause or a way to begin or end a sentence) and ‘thehra’ (used in Kumaon) are punctuated in every other sentence.
On the whole, the message maybe good but the film is not, bal.

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