Few real life stories are so beautifully simple, straightforward and visual so as to be ready to be turned into a film. Dashrath Manhji’s life and story is one such rarity.
In 1960, with a chisel, a hammer and an obstinacy that could challenge the gods, he set out to move a mountain, quite literally, in Bihar’s Gaya district. When he was done, in 1982, he had cut a 370 feet long and 30 feet wide road through a mountain singlehandedly. He was 27 when he set out to reduce the distance from his village, Gehlour, to the nearest town, Wazirabad, which had a hospital. The distance was 70 kms when his wife died on her way to the hospital in 1959, after slipping on the mountain. By the time he was done, the distance was reduced to about 10 kms.
It’s an incredibly powerful, poignant and rousing story. And at its core pulses a heartbreaking love story, and its backdrop is India’s ugliness — caste, corruption and sarkari apathy. It’s a tour de force that Dashrath Manjhi scripted. It’s a story no one can ever forget. So half the director’s job is already done.
Yet, Ketan Mehta, who has been honing his skills at filming biopics for years —Maya Memsaab, Hero Hiralal, Sardar, Mangal Pandey, Rang Rasiya — doesn’t give us a film that the Mountain Man deserved. A film that is, in his Manhji’s words, “Shandaar, zabardast, zindabad.”
We get a film that is crafted so haphazardly that the key point of the story — obsessive, audacious man versus brute, imperious nature — gets lost in its love for theatrics and Radhika Apte’s seductive beauty. Despite Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s appropriately petite yet compelling presence, Manjhi’s isolation and the enormity of the task he set out to accomplish become secondary to Mehta’s dreamy and choreographed sequences.
The film’s fatal flaw, however, is that it is unable to connect us to Manjhi’s journey of carving out a road — one stone at a time — visually. And Mehta gets this wrong right at the beginning. Tacky CGI strikes a terribly fake notes and the point where Manjhi begins hammering seems wrong. We are not able to “see” where he began and where he ended. That road isn’t made on the screen or in our heads. We just have to take the director’s word for it.
Manjhi: The Mountain Man, however, begins on a promising note.
Dashrath Manjhi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Musahar, is a defiant victim of caste politics since childhood.
The oppression, the powerplay of caste, of lower castes always teetering at the edge of life, with death and devastation just a nudge or a perceived slight away, has been done very well, mostly because these bits involve Tigmanshu Dhulia who makes the scenes fabulous and real.
But every time the film moves away from him, to go into Manjhi’s village and life, from real and gritty, the film switches to being artificial and staged. The fakery of several scenes, conceived and acted out like little impromptu skits, is all too jarring.
The film’s story flits between the past and the present, the present being the chiselling of the mountain, and the past being the love story of Manjhi and his wife, Phaguniya (Radhika Apte). But Mehta’s telling of these two connected stories is distressingly predictable. Done in the Alt-Tab style, we know exactly when we’ll go into flashback, and when we’ll return with an aerial shot to the present.
There’s lot of drama in the love story. One minute it’s grounded and charming and the next so operatic and contrived that Sanjay Leela Bhansali came to mind all too often.
This play between the real and imagined is part of the world where Mehta’s Manjhi dwells as he strikes at the mountain repeatedly. The mountain symbolises everything that stood in Manjhi’s way. But, despite the film’s evangelical background score and shots that frame Manjhi against the pious, heavenly backdrop of soaring blue skies, and some dramatic scenes that convey his loneliness, they never come together to form a seamless story of a man fighting a mountain.
Radhika Apte is gorgeous and the film is obsessed with her. And while we are thrilled to be seduced by many shots of her — her bare back, her smile, her midriff, her eyes, her smile, her bare back… — we’ve really bought the ticket to witness a man chisel his way across a mountain.
This distraction is at the expense of Manjhi’s character and the task at hand. The film doesn’t explore and discover that little grit which holds this man’s monumental fortitude, nor does it invest in giving us a visual journey through the mountain. It’s just happy to keep showing us the charming Miss Apte.
Siddiqui is an amazing actor. And he’s in his element as the slightly crazed lover-husband. He can charm the pants off a scarecrow. And though Siddiqui wears the burden of Manjhi the Mountain Man lightly, as the stubborn, moody, dogged man who spent 22 years hammering his way through a mountain, he’s just competent. Siddiqui’s strength is the interiority he gives all his characters, seemingly on his own. Here he’s not able to do that. We get a lot of exterior — brittle, dry hair, crinkled eyes, chapped skin, even screaming. But not a single moment when we get behind those eyes, into that head.
The film has a strong story, but it lacks soul. That’s because it chases after physical beauty, when it should have focused on the human spirit, on one man’s outrageous determination. Like Mehta’s earlier biopics, this one too is a mediocre telling of an extraordinary story.