25 August 2015

The Long and Winding Road

My Mirror column last Sunday: 

Ketan Mehta's fictionalisation of a truly unusual hero has moments of power and beauty, but it does not stand half as tall as the man's real life. Still, Manjhi The Mountain Man is a compelling parable for our times.

In the year 1960, in a village near Gaya in Bihar, a poor Dalit man from one of the country's most deprived communities - a Musahar - took his hammer and chisel and began to break a path through a mountain. The road he had chosen was not just long and hard; it was so difficult as to seem impossible. People mocked him as a fool and a madman, his family grew first tired and then embittered by his singleminded pursuit. But Dashrath Manjhi, for that was the man's name, stayed the course. After 22 arduous years, he achieved what he had set out to do. He broke through the mountain.

So incredible is Manjhi's story that it would seem ridiculous if it weren't actually true: a man labouring alone, for over two decades, succeeding in reducing the travel time between his village of Gehlore and the closest town of Wazirganj from 75km to 2km. It was this believe-it-or-not quality that drew the attention of Ketan Mehta.

Mehta has made four biopics: Sardar (1993), about Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mangal Pandey: The Rising(2005), about the Purabiya soldier who is credited with having fired the first shot in what grew into the revolt of 1857, Rang Rasiya (2014), about the enormously popular painter Raja Ravi Varma, and now Manjhi The Mountain Man. Of these, Sardar, based on a script by playwright Vijay Tendulkar and starring such accomplished actors as Paresh Rawal, Benjamin Gilani and Annu Kapoor, was made in the intimate, realist style associated with what is probably Mehta's most acclaimed film, Mirch Masala (1987). With both Mangal Pandey and Rang Rasiya, however, Mehta's preference has been for something on a much grander scale: taking the bare historical outline of a man's life and filling it with as much colour and drama and romance as it can hold.

It is in this larger-than-life mode that he has chosen, now, to tell the tale of Dashrath Manjhi. And as one watches the astounding Nawazuddin Siddiqui pull out every trick in the book to turn what is really a desperately sad tale into a kind of inspiring marathon, one wonders whether a more small-scale approach may not have worked better.

Admittedly, it is not an easy task to have taken on. What seems so remarkable as a two-line tale is also evidence of what must have been an exceptionally lonely life—unglamorous, repetitive, and full of back-breaking solitary labour. How is something like this to be made into a film with adequate drama?

What Mehta and his scriptwriters decide to do is to set Manjhi's narrative against the sweep of post-independence Indian history. There are moments at which this decision seems like a stroke of genius, such as early in the film, when the runaway Manjhi returns to the village after seven years working in the coal mines, to hear that untouchability has been legally abolished. Siddiqui makes completely believable the scene where Manjhi, already maverick enough to actually believe the newspapers, gives the zamindar (Tigmanshu Dhulia) and his henchmen happy hugs, which they accept in baffled silence - until they recognise him as the Musahar boy who had escaped their clutches so long ago.

The brutal reality of caste in the Indian village is something Mehta has approached in at least two different registers in his earlier work: the cheeky fable of Bhavni Bhavai and the soaring battlecry of Mirch Masala. The violence visited upon Dalit women and men in Mountain Man is not so different from that of NFDC films of an earlier era -- but somehow Mehta's attempt to leaven these horrific episodes with song and laughter doesn't quite work. This is a filmmaker straining to make a contemporary real-life hero into the subject of an old-style melodrama, but failing.

By the time the film decides to have Manjhi be caught in a Naxalite shootout, be photographed with a distracted, self-obsessed Indira Gandhi (Deepa Sahi in a cameo as ridiculously fake as her wig), and later, set out to walk all the way to Delhi to meet her (ostensibly because he doesn't have the train fare), the sweep of history begins to seem more comic than tragic.

The part of the drama that did work for me almost entirely is the relationship between Manjhi and his wife Phagunia, notwithstanding Mehta's cringe worthy literal interpretation of a Dalit couple's "earthy" eroticism. Played with a faltering accent but unwavering warmth by Radhika Apte, Phagunia leaves an impression both as the vivacious young woman Dashrath falls for (only to realise that she was betrothed to him as a child) and as the spirited, practical wife of a man who is clearly not very worldly.

But even here, the film lets itself down, bathing Dashrath's memories of his wife in unnecessary bathos and truly unnecessary dream-waterfalls. It is only because Siddiqui can make you believe anything that you do not laugh at his semi-hallucinatory exchanges, with his beloved wife or with a mountain.

The surreal core of Dashrath Manjhi's life was the relationship of a man with a mountain. Focusing on that personification of the elements - a man turning a silent stony outcrop into the outlet for his most intimate emotions - could have made for a singular film. There are snatches of that film in Mountain Man, but I so wish Mehta had looked inwards rather than outwards.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Aug 2015.

No comments: