In 1960, a Dalit from a village in Bihar sold his last goat and, with the money, purchased a hammer and a chisel. He then headed to the nearby mountain and began chipping away at it. He kept at it for twenty-two years and ended up clearing a path through it, and now, the people from his village could walk through (instead of around) to the village on the other side. Read that again: one man versus a mountain. It’s the stuff myths are made of. You could even read it as a metaphor. It’s a little over a decade after Independence, but nothing has changed in this remote corner of the country. There’s no school, no hospital – the mountain could well be the wall of bureaucratic indifference. Why would anyone do anything for this armpit of a place that offers little chance of a photo op? But above all, this is a true story. The man’s name was Dashrath Manjhi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
As amazing as the story is – something repeatedly emphasised by panoramic perspectives of Manjhi standing speck-like on the mountainside – it’s not an easy one to tell. As a one-line synopsis, it sounds fascinating, but how do you make a two-hour movie? One way to go about it is to burrow into the man the way he burrowed into the mountain. There’s a bit of that in the scene where Manjhi jumps into a pit and begins licking at plants growing on the walls. He’s thirsty, he’s hungry – he’s also a little mad. In another scene, he gazes lovingly at the anklet he bought his wife Phaguniya (Radhika Apte) a long time ago. Yes, anklet. He didn’t have money to buy the pair. Like the protagonists of other solo-hero sagas (127 Hours, All Is Lost, Cast Away), Manjhi is tormented by nature (drought, snakebite), by his hallucinating mind – for a while, he even ends up in jail.
But this approach would make for a small, intimate movie, and Ketan Mehta, the director, wants to make something as monumental as the title: Manjhi – The Mountain Man. Mehta looks at Manjhi not as a Bihari but a microcosmic Indian, an unvarying constant in the face of decades of change – a desi Forrest Gump leading us through the headlines of the times. Mother India songs. The outlawing of untouchability. The rise of Naxalism. Indira Gandhi and Garibi Hatao. The Emergency. As if all this weren’t epic enough, Mehta piles on another layer through the scene in which Manjhi gifts Phaguniya a replica of the Taj Mahal, the outcome of a man’s crazed grief over his wife’s death. When Phaguniya dies, the mountain road becomes Manjhi’s mausoleum.
Manjhi is the kind of film that tries to do too much and ends up doing too little. Mehta keeps piling on the drama – evil thakurs (Tigmanshu Dhulia, Pankaj Tripathi), hapless villagers, crescendoing drums – but everything seems distant, disconnected. The romantic portions are worse. Ever since the “breakthrough” scene in Maya Memsaab where Deepa Sahi bared her breasts, Ketan Mehta has seen himself as some kind of DH Lawrence – but it’s embarrassing to see what (the always game) Apte is put through here. At one point, there’s a peacock feather caressing her bare back. A strong central performance might have glued the film’s various bits together, but Nawazuddin Siddiqui gives a very busy account of Manjhi. He plays this protagonist the way he played the colourful villain in Kick – every scene says look at me, look at me. As a contrast, think of Manoj Bajpai in Gangs of Wasseypur – that was a showy part as well, but the actor also made us sense the dignity in the individual. Siddiqui is content being the clown in a carnival. It’s entertaining, sure – but it’s another thing that makes a molehill of a film that wants to be a mountain.
- desi = local
- Garibi Hatao = see here
- thakur = see here
- Maya Memsaab = see here
- Kick = see here
- Gangs of Wasseypur = see here and here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.