Rating: 3 stars
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Pankaj Tripathi, Tigmanshu Dhulia
Director: Ketan Mehta
At one point, more than half way into the tale of the Mountain Man, Dashrath Manjhi, a scribe rues to him that he has become nothing more than a mouthpiece for political parties. Manjhi asks him why he doesn't start his own newspaper. The scribe says you think it's easy to start a newspaper? And Manjhi says, 'Is it tougher than breaking a mountain?' Who can argue with a man who is literally breaking a mountain, striking hard and bruising its pride with a hammer and a chisel for over a decade. Ketan Mehta's biopic on this unsung hero is a passionate retelling of the events that led to a starving farmer imposing upon himself the ridiculous task of breaking a mountain to carve a road through it. His way of avenging his wife's death, when she fell off from that very same mountain.
Most of us were not even familiar with the name Dashrath Manjhi until talks of this biopic to be helmed by Ketan Mehta started doing the rounds. Which is why even though it's based on events that have already happened, the audience is curious to know what's next. And this curiosity helps the film, because much like the mountain that is being broken down, the film too has many rough edges. It is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the actor, who stays true to character and insculpts a smooth road through it.
Beneath the rocky surface of the film lies the tender love story of Dashrath and his child-bride and later wife Phaguniya played by Radhika Apte. It’s an unusual chemistry we see between the two, very chalk-and-cheese kind of actors. It’s impressive how Radhika holds her own against a powerful performer like Nawaz. Their relationship is delicately peppered with bickering and romance in equal measure. However, there are many dream sequences featuring the two, which are supposed to express Dashrath’s subconscious but in doing so, they take away from the hard hitting realities the film tries to portray.
With a subject like the Mountain Man and an actor like Nawaz, one would think that is more than half the battle won. But handling two gigantic geniuses can be an uphill task. From a choppy screenplay to sometimes over dramatised sequences to poor computer graphics and an uncertain pace, there is a lot that weighs the film down. Ketan Mehta packs in a lot of socio-political commentary in his protagonist’s tale. The mountain is almost a metaphor for all the social evils Dashrath is trying to smash. There are telling glimpses of just how violent post-independent India was, still reeling under untouchability, corruption and an extreme misogyny. There is also a not-so-subtle dig at the political hypocrisy of the Congress-led government that finally sank into Emergency. The film goes from being 127 Hours to Forrest Gump in parts but even then, it fails to invoke empathy. There are some well-written lines that come at the right time even, but the overall story telling lacks finesse.
The supporting cast does its job. Pankaj Tripathi (as the zamindar’s son) is fast becoming the go-to guy for slimy villainous roles in the hinterlands of North India. Tigmanshu Dhulia (zamindar) seems to be a throwback to his Gangs of Wasseypur Days, short role but impactful nonetheless.
It is Nawaz’s performance alone that keeps the film afloat. From the naughty twinkle in young Dashrath’s eyes and an impulsive demeanour associated with youth, the actor seamlessly transforms into a more world-wise version of himself, slightly drooping shoulders but his insanity and resolve still intact. He manages to keep the skeletal superhero real and believable.
The film is definitely a worth a watch as this is a story that deserves to be heard. But allow us to tell you that while some of you might be carrying a leaked version of the film in your phones, the tale of the mountain man is not meant for touchscreen entertainment.