A man trying to cut through a mountain with a hammer and chisel is akin to a man trying to walk on water. Dashrath Manjhi, native of a tiny village near Gaya, manages this unbelievably stupendous task he sets out for himself, and in so doing proves that old adage: where there is a will, there is always a way.
Like many Bollywood biopics, Ketan Mehta’s film says it was ‘inspired’ by the real-life story of the ‘mountain man’ who toiled for more than 20 years trying to hack a path through hard rock with his humble tools, and indomitable spirit. It does not say ‘based on’, which would then strictly confine the film to the events that actually took place. The uneasy mix of the real and the imaginary, the trying to inject drama, and the swelling background music, renders the film less effective than it could have been, despite its inspiring subject, and its fine actors.
Any film that is helmed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui – and this is a film he does helm, instead of being the supporting act – is worthy of being watched. As Dashrath Manjhi, who sets out at first to do nothing more ambitious than staking claim on his child-bride-now-grown-into-a-beautiful-woman Phaguniya (Radhika Apte), and then sets himself up to confront the mountain which swallows up the woman he loves, Nawaz strains every sinew, and remains consistently watchable despite the shifts in tone. But even he cannot make the film soar.
There are things that Ketan Mehta has always been able to do well. Creating a village (this is in the late 50s and 60s) in the clutches of upper-caste ‘zamindaars’ is something we’ve seen in his best work, ‘Bhavani Bhavai’ and ‘Mirch Masala’. Here the vicious Thakur is played to the hilt by Tigmanshu Dhulia (making you remember his character in ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’). The excellent Pankaj Tripathi plays his greedy son. The father and son rule with an iron hand: they are ‘raja’, and the poor, ignorant villagers, enslaved for life, are ‘praja’: Delhi is very far away from the darkness of Bihar.
Dashrath’s early ebullience which springs from his defiant nature leads him into Phaguniya’s arms: their romance is earthy and playful and the two make us smile, but you keep getting the feeling that they were made to be more ‘filmi’ than was necessary. His later steely resolve, as he ages and withers, is better channeled because he has to play off only against himself, though again you wish he had been given more : what is the enduring relationship of man and the mountain? He starts with hate, and yet, he has to learn to know its contours to be able to break it. What keeps him going? Nawaz doesn’t get that depth and an inner life to play with.
If he had, this would have been a great film.
‘Manjhi’ Star Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Pankaj Tripathi, Ashraf Ul Haque, Tigmanshu Dhulia
Director: Ketan Mehta