Bollywood biopic debuts at Cornell

Bollywood director Nandita Das brings her breakout 2018 film “Manto,” the story of maverick writer Saadat Hasan Manto during the Partition of India, to Cornell on Thursday, March 14.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the title role in the biopic, "Manto," screening March 14 at 6 p.m. in Klarman Hall (KG70). A discussion with director Nandita Das will follow. The event is sponsored by the South Asia Program, part of the Einaudi Center and is free and open to the public.

Iftikar Dadi, director of the South Asia Program and associate professor of art history in the College of Arts and Sciences, said Manto’s life mirrored the tumultuous era he lived through.

“Manto’s short stories of everyday characters enmeshed in compromising social and sexual circumstances are visceral and laced with black humor,” he said.

Set in the era of Indian independence and Partition, “Manto” depicts the political and personal struggles of this popular writer of Urdu-language short stories, radio plays and essays as he left Bombay for Lahore in the new Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan. It’s a story of two emerging nations and one man trying to make sense of it all.

Manto frequently touched on topics considered taboo in his dark and satirical work. He was tried for obscenity six times in his career but never convicted. Defying norms just as Manto did, the critically acclaimed film underscores the grave repercussions in Manto’s later life.

“His revealing accounts of the Partition of India during 1947 delineated the intimate violence unleashed by this colossal event,” Dadi said.

The film weaves together a dark period in Manto’s life – showing his increasing isolation, alcoholism and financial struggles in Lahore – with five of his hard-hitting short stories. Said Variety’s Maggie Lee: “Nandita Das’ ‘Manto’ is elegant … epic without losing sight of the personal.”

Das is a Bollywood actor turned director whose work – spanning 40 feature films in 10 languages – has brought her international acclaim. Born and raised in Delhi, she holds a master’s degree in social work and is a progressive voice in the cultural politics of South Asia.

Das has become a powerful activist for free speech in film. Her films – including “Fire” (1996), about the budding sexual relationship between two women stuck in loveless marriages – push boundaries in Bollywood. “Manto” has been banned in Pakistan.

Das was the first Indian to be inducted into the International Women’s Forum Hall of Fame. A two-time judge at the Cannes Film Festival, Das had her own movie premiere there in 2018, when “Manto” was nominated for the Un Certain Regard Award.

The March 14 event is co-sponsored by Cornell’s Department of Performing and Media Arts.

Priya Pradhan ’22 is a writing intern at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle. 

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