The Dashrath Manjhi story is bonafide movie material. It has everything to match what one would today refer to as “epic proportions”. It’s a David vs Goliath battle but with a twist. It has all the one man against all odds narrative but with a twist. In the simplest of terms there is really just one odd. A mountain. This is 127 Hours on crack. And one diminutive man to chisel away at it for not hours, not days or weeks but years. Decades to be exact. How was this not a movie already. At once you think of the small frame of Dashrath Manjhi against the gargantuan mountain.
And Ketan Mehta sees it too. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a small man. He’s framed like an insect in the corner of the picture while this mountain looms above him filling up rest of the space. That compelling image comes up right at the beginning. Mehta crafts a few more inspired sequences. It’s in the initial portions that Mehta manages to register the scope of his story. We see that Manjhi was not one to buckle down under authority. He runs away when his father appeals to transfer all his debts on him to the local zamindar. For seven years he works in the coal mines and returns to his village to see nothing has changed and it is as inaccessible as ever. Only he, in all of Gehlaur, could have realized the importance of the path he’s trying to carve. The incessant loutishness of teen aged India is laid bare by Mehta here. Zamindars run riot and are aided by the remoteness of the place in question. Neither new laws reach nor new ideas. The mountain becomes the young India riddled with bureaucratic issues in the midst of social nightmare and his love the independence that was achieved with flamboyance but had yet to be earned.
That love story works in parts and that’s what drives the narrative and Manjhi’s resolve. These moments too set the precedent to Dashrath’s character who is way ahead of his time. Mehta reserves the few well crafted sequences for the love story. The first time the adult Phaguniya (Radhika Apte) spots Dashrath, it is when he gets a load of dung on his face. When they finally decide to unite and run away from Phaguniya’s family members they take shelter in wet mud, head to toe, almost skinny dipping. The image brings a certain symmetry to their story. But beyond this the story runs cold. Once Manjhi’s efforts take the political turn the film lacks the heart. Mehta’s repeated invoking of Phaguniya’s memories and images don’t help. They are also very ordinarily filmed and all you can think of saying is, yeah we get it! A particular shot of a fake looking waterfalls and the couple in embrace is laughable. As is the whole emergency and Indira Gandhi sequence. The acting is nothing great if you look beyond Siddiqui (and it is not Radhika Apte’s fault) .The young Dashrath steals the show, be it when he walks into his village after seven years in his yellow shirt and all the youthful insouciance he could muster or when he expresses his love to Phaguniya both during and after their courtship. The older Dashrath is showy – in character and his actions. It’s all about walking 1300 Km to Delhi or walking out of lock up to much fanfare. The effortless connect that the young Dashrath managed goes missing. It’s hard to imagine who else from Bollywood could have done the role of Phaguniya. We have overly put together and larger than life looking actresses that you wonder who would make a village girl – not any village but Gehlaur in the late 1950s. Radhika Apte looks the part but she’s given nothing to work with. The scene where a man tells Manjhi that he’s in love with Manjhi’s daughter works better than everything else. It doesn’t add anything to the film that Mehta has made but we wish the story was more about these things. His son. His daughter. What were their thoughts on Manjhi? What did all this mean to them? His children were in news as recently as 2013-14 in relation to Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate. But Mehta wants macro level stories that rob this biopic off all its potential. It is these micro ones that really stay with you long after the film is over.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)