Movie review 'Manjhi: The Mountain Man': A fizzled-out chisel

DECCAN CHRONICLE | SUPARNA SHARMA
Published Aug 22, 2015, 6:19 am IST
Updated Jan 10, 2016, 8:38 am IST
The film has a strong story, but it lacks soul

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Pankaj Tripathi, Ashraf Ul Haque
Director: Ketan Mehta
Rating: 2 stars



Few real life stories are so beautifully simple, straightforward and visual so as to be readymade 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. It was 70 km 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 km.

 

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 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.

We get a film that is crafted so haphazardly that the key point of the story — obsessive man versus brute nature — gets lost in its love for theatrics and Radhika Apte’s seductive beauty. Despite Nawazuddin’s appropriately petite yet compelling presence, Manjhi’s isolation and the enormity of the task he set out to accomplish become secondary to dreamy, choreographed sequences.

Manjhi: The Mountain Man, however, begins on a very promising note. As a Musahar, Dashrath Manjhi (Nawazuddin) is a defiant victim of caste politics since childhood. The oppression, the play 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 have Tigmanshu Dhulia, making all scenes fabulous and real. But every time the film moves away from him, to go into Manjhi’s village and house, from the real and grainy it becomes artificial and staged. The fakery of several scenes 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 Phaguniya (Radhika). But Mehta’s telling of these two connected stories is all too predictable. Done in the Alt-Tab style, we know exactly when we’ll go into flashback, and when we’ll return to the present. Radhika Apte is gorgeous and the film is obsessed with her. And while we are all 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.

Siddiqui is an amazing actor. And he’s in his element as the slightly crazed lover-husband. And though Siddiqui wears the burden of Manjhi Mountain Man lightly, as the stubborn, moody, dogged man who cut his way through a mountain over 22 years, he’s just competent. The film has a strong story, but it lacks soul. Like Mehta’s earlier attempts, this too is a mediocre attempt at telling an important story.

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