Keep aside the recurrent, but short-lived, dream sequences where the protagonist is lost in the thoughts of his dead wife, and the accompaniment of a fading strain of music, and you have parallel cinema of the 1980s in Manjhi — The Mountain Man. The pace is slow and the portrayals — including art direction and cinematography — are realistic. It might well work at the box office, thanks to the interregnum of crossover movies the Indian audience has been subjected to for the past decade or more. Beyond the Chota Nagpur region where people can relate to the narrative instantly, if other Indians stay indifferent to the film, the producer will still have the proceeds of rights to look up to.
To ensure financial success further, Ketan Mehta casts Radhika Apte — dusky, but fairer than an average member of the marginalised classes in Bihar in complexion — who seduces throughout the film in a sari sans blouse. This is an attire the knowledgeable would attribute to a tribal woman from Bastar, a woman from mediaeval Bengal or Shakuntala and her companions in the Mahabharata, rather than a Dalit or even an Adivasi from today’s Jharkhand or Bihar, the latter being the backdrop of the film. So, yes, there are compromises motivated by commerce, but they are minimalistic.
The Bihari politicians in New Delhi that I spoke to say that former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi ensured that Viacom 18 Motion Pictures got funds from the grey market for this film that mixes a caste war with a class war in a typical leftist fashion. This was when he was under imminent threat of ouster from the office of Bihar’s chief executive as well as the JD(U). The reel would have worked in tandem with the real when the plot would be compared with a ‘better off’ Kurmi Nitish Kumar riding roughshod over a ‘downtrodden’ Musahar Manjhi. That would have added to the flavour of the vote-bank of the disgruntled.
But then the alliance with BJP under the NDA umbrella happened, and the storyline threatened to implicate the upper castes that are traditionally associated with the saffron party. Hence, the film was released about three months before the impending Bihar Assembly elections, towards the end of which the effect of cinema in the psyche of the Mahadalit among Scheduled Castes is expected to subside. It was initially slated for release in October — goes the political theory.
Saying that the scenes of hills and hamlets around them are realistic would be an understatement. They are actually shot on the real location: the Gehlore village of Gaya district.
While the story is of the hero’s indomitable spirit, the underlying factor is his love and longing for the wife. Dashrath had lost Phaguniya when she could not be rushed to the hospital in time following her slip from a hilltop, as the health centre had to be reached by traversing miles around the hills that came in the way. That created this resolve in Dashrath Manjhi that he would make a path through the hills. For that, all that he had at his disposal was an underwhelming hammer to break the rocks! The trials and tribulations that he undergoes to see his dream come almost true make the film. Almost — because the road was finally built in 2011, four years after the man born in 1934 in real life died.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is natural in the character of the protagonist, as is expected from an actor of his calibre. However, his makeup man could have worked harder to make him look older and more worn out as Dashrath Manjhi aged. Mere grey hair did not impress. Where were the wrinkles?
It is time Tigmanshu Dhulia got over his deadpan expressions. From Gangs of Wasseypur to this film, his portrayal of the bad guy demanded a more ferocious demeanour. Pankaj Tripathi is more convincing as the landlord’s menacing son. Gaurav Dwivedi as a conscientious journalist and Ashraf Ul Haque as Dashrath’s father pull off their respective roles with panache with appearances so natural that in real life nobody would spare them a second look.
Mercifully in this venture, Mehta does not attempt black comedy of Oh Darling! Yeh Hai India! — a genre the Shyam Benegals and Govind Nihalanis had stooped to in the 1990s, frustrated by the poor government and audience response to their efforts in the previous decade. In his signature style though, he casts his wife Deepa Sahi to play the cameo of Indira Gandhi.
This biographical movie is a collector’s item for those who have a taste for cinema of the French kind. If you are one, don’t miss it. If you are urbane, and believe the grievance of the so-called lower castes is a figment of some politician’s imagination, you must watch it to get real. And those who talk of vikas in Bihar must go to the theatre and then visit the State. From the Congress’s to the RJD’s, from the NDA’s to the JD(U)’s — Bihar is where caste feuds and lack of modernity in infrastructure and mindset suck big time.