There’s a tender moment in A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, Prateek Vats’s documentary on Manohar Aich, where the late bodybuilder is sitting on his bed, while his family members are discussing his increasingly frail health. He’s just sustained a fall and a rather deep cut on his head and, as his daughter and relatives debate about the way forward, Aich is quietly playing with his grandson, cupping a plastic ball between his gnarled feet before passing it to the young boy, who gently sends it back to him. The winner of the 1952 Mr Universe contest, 101-year-old Aich’s body is finally catching up with his age but his mind is still sharp, even if he wants you to believe otherwise.
In 2013, Vats and his friend, graduates of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, headed to Kolkata to film Aich’s 101st birthday celebrations. “I was aware of Aich because, every year, after he turned 90, there would be a news item about his birthday. So, there was renewed interest during and after his 100th birthday as well. I just wanted to meet this man whose entire life had been about the body,” says Vats. Thanks to a Kolkata sports journalist who put him in touch with Aich’s daughter, Bani Banerjee, Vats, 33, spent 45 days shooting at their Baguiati residence in north-east Kolkata. “We shot in three phases over two years,” he says.
But when they reached there, Vats and his team were in for a shock — Aich said that he’d forgotten the story of his life. “In the beginning, we thought of making a biopic. But when he claimed to have forgotten everything, we had to make a choice. We decided to stay because memory is a very funny thing, it can be triggered in so many ways,” says Vats. The team, including fellow FTII graduates Mehul Bhanti, Paramita Ghosh and Tanushree Das Sahi, had to come up with alternate ways of telling Aich’s story.
One of them was to find archival footage at Doordarshan Kolkata’s offices. Aich’s age-defying physique had always been a source of fascination for the press, and Vats judiciously uses just enough archival interviews to give us a taste of what a slightly younger Aich, at 85, was like. At 4 feet 11 inches, Aich, who earned the moniker of “Pocket Hercules” in the international arena, competed till he was 89 years old.
“We didn’t want the film to be about him, necessarily, but with him, in the present. What his life was like now, even though he didn’t speak much,” says Vats. And it was a well-lived one, with the centenarian attending yoga meets and being feted at local sporting events, though the state had long neglected to support him, financially and otherwise. The camera occasionally and unobtrusively traces Aich’s body: his skin wrinkled and translucent from age, his slightly bent hands and feet, and his now-sagging but still impressive biceps, that once measured 46 cm.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is not only the story of India’s most celebrated bodybuilder, but also a compassionate glimpse into a family whose lives have been eclipsed by his celebrity and longevity, in equal measure. Aich’s accident sparks off a little tension between his sons and him, especially after his primary caretaker, daughter Bani, is diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. “Nothing grows under the shade of a big tree, but it would be unfair to think just that,” says Vats, adding, “There was no lack of love or care. It’s just that his children are also old and have their own health issues. As a filmmaker, I won’t judge my subjects, but we can still show these conflicts with dignity.” After a brief illness, Aich passed away on June 5, 2016, at the age of 104.
Making the documentary allowed Vats to look at the culture of Bengali masculinity, where, for years now, brain has been favoured over brawn. Aich, he says, is as important to the Bengali masculine identity as Rabindranath Tagore is. “Barring Aich, there was Monotosh Roy, the first Indian and Asian to win the Mr Universe contest in 1951. His son, Moloy Roy was a famous bodybuilder, too. There were an array of bodybuilders from Bengal, and it could be because of the British interest in them, though they did not consider Bengalis to be one of the ‘martial’ races of India,” says Vats.
Funded by the Films Division, the feature was finished in February and the filmmaker is now applying to festivals. The title, he says, has been taken from a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “Wings in bodybuilding refers to the lats, the fan-shaped muscle in the back, so it made sense. Marquez’s story is about an old angel who falls from the sky and regrows his wings and, in a way, it really resonated with Aich’s life,” he says.