It’s amazing what stories lie in any country’s boondocks – unbelievably strange, haunting, and something most of us cannot even fathom or imagine. India is no exception, though these stories remain buried and away from our everyday hustle of life’s bustles. Full credit, then, to director Ketan Mehta for bringing the story of Dasharath Manjhi to life in the cinema hall. Manjhi’s is a story of indomitable courage, steely resolve, and limitless perseverance. His is a story like none other, so incredible that if weren’t true, it’d have been dismissed as too factitious too be true. But this is a true story, and a story that had to be told.
How Ketan Mehta, who also co-wrote the film with Anjum Rajabali and Mahendra Jhakar, chooses to tell this story, though, is specious. But back to Manjhi’s story, which is seeded in Gehlour, Bihar, a village untouched by time and progress, boxed in by the Gehlour hill and the zamindari system, and starts in the 1960s. Manjhi belongs to the lowest caste of rat catchers and eaters, and has seen life only plumbed to depth in poverty, subservient to the village zamindar and his rules. When his drunkard father sells him off to the mukhia to repay his debts, Manjhi takes off from the village, running away to work in the coal mines of Dhanbad. He returns seven years later, falling in love with Phaguniya enroute and getting a rude awakening of how the Indian government’s law that banned the zamindari system, runs parallel to his village. He and Phaguniya elope, have a child, and Manjhi’s love and happiness know no bounds. Tragedy strikes when an expecting Phaguniya, crossing the hill, falls down and dies because she can’t be taken in time for treatment to the nearest hospital, no thanks to the hill that makes travel to the nearby Wazirganj a daunting trek.
What Manjhi did next is now part of folklore – he single-handedly chiseled, broke, and made a path right through the middle of the villainous hill. It took him twenty two years to achieve this, taunted by his own village people in the beginning, cheated and misled by the zamindar’s son, bureaucracy, and let down by the government along the way. So when Ketan Mehta decides to ensconce almost the entire movie in Manjhi’s love story, things get a little tedious. Of course Manjhi did what he did for the love of his wife, so their love angle needed to be established. But the first half of the movie is almost nothing but. In places, it’s good fluffy fun too, as love blossoms between Phaguniya and Maanjhi. There’s songs (strictly serviceable, by the usually superb Sandesh Shandilya), comedy, passion, family drama, and everything else you’d expect to see in a love story. But I’m not sure I went to see this angle.
What Mehta misses showing, is Manjhi’s battle against the mountain. It must have been horrendously lonely amidst the rocks and the sheer task that he undertook. He must have had hours of thoughts and soliloquies, as the days turned to months, months to years. That is glossed over in favour of the love story and other not entirely unnecessary, though surely trim-worthy, plotlines. This might sound sacrilegious, but Ketan Mehta might have turned to “127 Hours” or the more recent and absolutely brilliant “Wild” to see how lonely battles are fought. Especially the latter, where Reese Witherspoon has only her memories and introspection for company, and her story and road to self-destruction and fight for self-redemption are seamlessly weaved in a gripping non-linear structure, that leaves you breathless.
“Manjhi” has its own moments, too. There’s some scenes where you see Manjhi’s never-say-die attitude shine through even the darkest clouds, as long as he has a goal – to win his Phaguniya’s hand or later, to cleave the mountain. Ketan Mehta also shows his craft in a superb scene when Manjhi returns to the village, assuming all problems are solved, with the government abolishing the zamindari and caste system. As he goes and hugs the zamindar and his son Ruab (played with absolute brilliance by Tigmanshu Dhulia and Pankaj Tripathi respectively), the former’s reaction before and after recognizing Manjhi is a class act. The director also touches upon the exploitation of villagers and the Maoists’ rise, but those turn out to be mere references.
As Phaguniya, Radhika Apte is very good, showing both disarming innocence and a killer fiery spirit, when she staves off Ruab’s advances (yes, there’s that too.) The late Ashraful Haq is heartbreakingly good as Magru, Manjhi’s father. He also has one of the best lines in a redundant scene where Manjhi buys a pillow for Phaguniya.
But this enterprise, as did the story on which it is based, belongs to one person, and one only. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is at the top of the acting mountain, chipping away, chiseling away at each scene with an act that’s absolutely memorable. He is the reason you remain interested, remain in the throes of a treatment that’s uneven. Every scene he’s in, he effortlessly steals the show. His spirit breaks you, gives you hope, and breaks you again. When he explodes at Alok Jha, a journalist (Gaurav Dwivedi) who asks him about his humongous task, his eyes betray bitterness and anger. And the next moment how beautifully he melts on learning that the journalist has heeded his advice from an earlier conversation. Or the scene where he goes to a rally to meet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (played by Deepa Sahi) and the stage collapses, and he’s one of the men who’s pushed forward to support the stage. As she continues to make her speech and promises to do her bit for the poor while taking potshots at her opponents, justifying the Emergency, Nawazuddin’s expressions are a lesson to watch – eyes furtively looking to see when she’ll stop talking and walk down, so he can meet her, even as the weight bears down hard on him. And the scene where Manjhi is broken by the political and bureaucratic system – his weary body defeated, shoulders drooped in hopelessness and helplessness, you feel crushed yourself, feeling absolute anger. That scene is marred by the apparition of Phaguniya appearing in front of Nawazuddin and exhorting him not to give up. If you don’t guffaw at this terrible cinematic contraption, it’s only because the latter’s superbly breaking your heart.
If, as a love story, “Manjhi” doesn’t work, it doesn’t as an inspiring movie either. For, whether it was his intention or not, Ketan Mehta’s movie, when it picks up (and it does, in the deadly scene where Manjhi faces off with a cobra) till it ends, “Manjhi” shows one thing with crystal clarity – in this country, the mountain of challenges nature throws at the lesser privileged people is nothing. Not when you compare it with the mountain of political dirt and bureaucratic tangle that they face, as do all of us some time or the other. If this mountain could break someone as steely-willed as Dasharath Manjhi, what hope do we have? That is the mountain of despair that weighs on you as you walk out the cinema hall, wondering where on earth we’re going with all of this.
Watch the trailer of Manjhi – The Mountain Man here: