In order to appreciate ‘Manjhi – the Mountain Man’, you have to appreciate how difficult it is to make a movie on this subject. And I am not just talking about the difficulty of making a low budget movie, set in the hinterland of rural Bihar, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte as the leads, in a Bollywood obsessed with star quality and box office records. The difficulty also lies in handling the subject matter. After all, how do you portray on screen the inspiring but at the same time unsexy story of a man who is chipping away at a mountain, day after day, year after year, in an epic effort to reduce the distance between his village and the nearest town. It is a story of patience, hard work and perseverance, with a predictable ending. The message of the story is thus as immensely powerful as the telling of the story a great challenge.
Ketan Mehta, the director of the movie, tries to circumvent this problem by deep diving into the motives of Dasarath Manjhi, the mountain man. He tries to invent an interesting back story involving an almost mainstream Bollywood style romance set against the backdrop of a simmering cauldron of caste politics in Bihar. He tries to introduce some humour, political satire and interesting characters in the background story, interspersed with episodes of shocking violence in between. He also narrates the story through a non-linear narrative in an effort to keep the audience interested.
Much of these efforts, however, come up short, mostly because the characters in the story, apart from that of Dasarath Manjhi are simply not interesting enough. Phaguniya, played by Radhika Apte, is the only other significant character in the story, but a half baked one. The romantic track which was meant to serve as justification behind Manjhi’s almost inhuman endeavour is not remotely inspiring enough. The caste violence is also not handled very well either, as events which should have shocked the audience unravel in a rather comical fashion on screen.
A biopic depends disproportionately on the performance of its lead actor who has to carry the movie along on his broad shoulders with his presence in almost all the frames of the movie. This movie definitely gets this part right – casting Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Dasarath Manjhi. Siddiqui once again gives a masterful account of his abilities, towering over his fellow actors and even the high mountains. The best parts of the movie are undeniably when Siddiqui is left alone on screen, without distraction of a side story, going at his job in a maniacal fashion, whether it be desperately searching for a drop of water in a drought affected mountain or walking 1300 kilometres along railway tracks to meet the Prime Minister in Delhi.
It is the story of Dasarath Manjhi, however, which is the ultimate winner in this movie. When stripped to its core, it is a eulogy to the basic goodness of man and how he survives against nature, in a fight of the sort that our forefathers had to fight thousands of years ago. It is a reminder of what a man is capable of, when he is persistent with a laser-like focus on his goal, with a passionate fire burning inside him. But it is also a denouement of the worst qualities of mankind, a cry against the artificial boundaries imposed by society, against our natural tendencies to cheat, deceit and oppress the downtrodden and the worst of our opportunism. It is telling that Manjhi starts his work out of hatred for the mountain, but gradually falls in love with it. His interaction with fellow human is more complicated, though, and till the end of his life, he keeps getting hoodwinked by them.
In the end, ‘Manjhi – the Mountain Man’ strikes all the right chords in intent but falls desperately short when it comes to execution. It seems patently unfair to criticize such a brave effort, given the bland, assembly line production of formulaic, brainless movies that come out of Bollywood. But one cannot but leave the theatre with the lingering feeling that in the hands of a more sure-footed director, this could have turned into a much better movie, if not a masterpiece.