Beginning in 2012, the Indian film audience has been treated on and off to a number of excellent biopics – the topics being covered in these films varying greatly, both in terms of subject matter as well as treatment. Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi: The Mountain Man is one such recent attempt, but it falls way short of being remembered in the annals of Indian Cinema as either promising or a commendable effort.
Dashrath Manjhi the protagonist of Ketan Mehta’s film is born into an extremely poor family of a rat eating community in Bihar. The first half of the film traces his courtship of Phaguniya, a spritely doll-maker, whom he sets eyes on after he comes back home for the first time as a grown man, having run away from his home when still a child to avoid being bonded to the upper caste landlords in his village, from whom his father had borrowed money. As the narrative continues, we find out that Phaguniya happens to be his childhood bride who is in danger of being married to a boy from the town in exchange for more money; bride price being a norm in that community, in those times. This sets into motion a dramatic love story as Dashrath Manjhi promises to claim for himself what is his own. This comes as a relief after the first couple of shots in which the village upper caste landlord played by Tigmanshu Dhulia and his greedy son played by Pankaj Tripathi watch a lower caste man being punished, for daring to wear shoes, by having nails driven into his feet.
Manjhi’s dreams of living a simple life, but one full of love, is shaken up when his pregnant wife slips off the mountain leading down to the fields where he is employed as a labourer. His wife dies as a result of the injuries (having reached the hospital too late) but the child, a girl, miraculously survives. Manjhi gives her to his father to bring up, as he does his son too. He challenges the mountain and with rather simple tools sets about breaking it. Nawazuddin Siddique as Manjhi is convincing and powerfully alive but Mehta’s treatment lets him down at times.
There are some serious social issues which Mehta touches on in this film too, much like in his earlier film Mirch Masala (1989). Issues of caste, gender, Naxalism, criticism of the state at the very beginning of the film – in the form of the local leader who watches calmly the man being punished as nails are driven into his feet, only gently rebuking the mukhiya, “Don’t do it in front of me, he is still a vote for me,” or the visit of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister to support her candidacy in the upcoming elections and who fails to commit to a road being built to connect the village to the outside world, bureaucratic corruption, Manjhi’s march to Delhi on foot after he is thrown off the train to have the Prime Minister redress the wrongs – all find a place in this film, but are dealt with rather hurriedly and haphazardly. Much like the mountain man, Mehta too seems too intent on cracking open for all to see the all of the outer life, the context, of Dashrath Manjhi’s labour of love. For instance, the story of Manjhi’s youngest uncle, whose wife is picked up and then raped by the landlord’s son and henchmen as an act of revenge for being beaten up in the local marketplace for molesting Phaguniya, who then sets fire to his house and the dead body of his wife and walks away from the village, only to return as a Naxal leader later, to punish the oppressors by hanging the older landlord (Dhulia), who seems only too eager to be hanged, as he neither protests nor puts up any struggle, and which could have made for another narrative instead of being dealt with so casually in this film. In the face of such violence only Manjhi seems to show some sense as he says, “Do you think it’s being manly if you hold a gun?”
Mehta’s film tries to straddle too many horses at the same time – casteism, Naxalism, women’s issues et cetera, and therefore he is unable to do justice to any one theme. An exploration of the story of Dashrath Manjhi’s anguish and later the inspiration (it couldn’t have been just love) which sustained him for 22 years and which forced him to cut down the mountain to size would have made a better film. Instead, the director wastes many a cinematic frame on the love story of Manjhi and his beloved wife Phaguniya, possibly as a marketing strategy for his film to sell. But Mr. Mehta must remember that excellent films minus the Bollywood notions of romance or eroticism have been made and found their audience and done exceedingly well for themselves in terms of money too.
What stays with us right to the end is one man’s lone journey, his labour of love, which literally began with his wife’s death but becomes a kind of social work that stood to benefit not only his village Gehlore but other neighbouring villages as well. His struggle becomes all the more important in the face of caste oppression, feudalism, which is a part of everyday life in Manjhi’s village. The film does touch us in bits and parts, for one, Nawazuddin Siddiqui is extremely convincing as the late Dashrath Manjhi, his own struggles as an actor on the periphery of Bollywood for many many years may have helped him identify with the mountain man to give such a convincing and powerful performance. The film could have been made more engaging, it is a noble effort, since in these times, Ketan Mehta thought it fit to make a film on a man who is hardly a national figure or even an achiever in any particular sense of the term. The film however falls short of touching the heart truly. One only remembers it because of Nawaz, the actor, the ordinary man who performs an extraordinary feat.
Devapriya Sanyal is a Ph.D student at the Centre for English Studies, JNU, New Delhi, where she pursues her doctoral work on Satyajit Ray’s films. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List (2011). Her interests include world cinema, as well as Bollywood and Bengali cinema.