Manjhi the Mountain Man is a pile-high of a disappointing movie. Though perhaps not so if you know the director, Ketan Mehta’s track record. He’s done many biopics/character-pics (more so in recent times: Rang Rasiya, on painter Raja Ravi Verma; Mangal Pandey, on one of India’s first freedom fighters; Maya Memsaab, based on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; and earlier, Sardar, on India’s Iron Man, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel) and several movies on social issues (Mirch Masala, on women’s subjugation in his home state, Gujarat; Bhavni Bhavai, on the caste system, and Holi, on college ragging, as Aamir Khan’s factually first movie as an adult actor).
So, let’s see: he takes interesting (actually, very interesting) subjects, and then gives us… rubble. His movies start with very promising premises and then slowly have you breaking for a ciggie (upto the ’90s) or for Temple Run (now). In between, he didn’t direct for a long time.
Here, he takes the real-life account of Dashrath Manjhi from Gehlore village in Bihar from the early ’60s, who took upon the task of pounding a road through a mountain all by himself, after his wife (Phaguniya) lost her life trying to cross the mountain. How long was he at it? 22 years. Absolutely incredible.
But Ketan Mehta gives us such a dull screenplay that after some time the only thing you’re noticing on screen are the subtitles. And the problem isn’t that of only one person occupying the screen for 85% of the time. There have been other movies in this mould – Cast Away, 127 Hours, and more recently, Life of Pi – but the screenplay there has been solid enough for the duration or there have been other credible interludes. Here, the non-Manjhi screentime goes for forced fictionalised accounts (the Manjhi-Phaguniya meet-cute is way over-the-top, over-the-mountain-top). Plus, it tries to do too much: include accounts of the changes Indian went through over Manjhi’s mountain-breaking years (abolishment of casteism/untouchability, Naxalism, Indira Gandhi, Emergency). Or maybe that’s the problem: Mehta tries to do much with the non-Manjhi time and too little in the Mountain-Man time. The Manjhi space has the titular character either having monologues with the mountain or having visions (like in most of these movies) of dear-departed Phaguniya, for whom he’s building this rock-fested Taj Mahal.
The let-down though doesn’t stop at the screenplay. The supporting actors, big on paper (pack-a-punch director and part-time actor, Tigmanshu Dhulia; eternally solid character actor, Pankaj Tripathi; rapidly rising Radhika Apte), look disinterested on celluloid. (Perhaps because they knew even the mountain had more screen time than them?) So, Dhulia doesn’t look the necessary frightful when he’s about to be… hanged. (Guess he was relieved at the end of his misery.) Tripathi plays the rustic lout yet again. (Tripathiji, we would like more of what we saw in Masaan and less of this, if possible.) And Radhika Apte tries very hard for sometime (when she playfully reveals she’s pregnant and not-so-playfully beats up Manjhi with the broom), but loses interest soon and sticks to making her big eyes appear even bigger and revealing skin (from all possible angles).
That leaves Nawazuddin Siddiqui to rescue a movie that he’s anyway supposed to bear the weight of. But Siddiqui seems to have chosen this movie of all to not act, overact, or worse, act himself… yet again. It’s like he was huffed by two movies on the trot with Salman Khan (Kick and Bajrangi Bhaijaan) becoming monster hits without he getting due credit. So, he went: ‘Since this movie is all about me, let me show everyone what I am about.’
Siddiquisaab, we already know what you are capable of (Gangs of Wasseypur). We wanted to see how you would play someone who is anguished, desolate, and determined. Instead, we get someone who comes across as cocky, overzealous, or shoot, full of himself.
Really, if Manjhi took 22 years to tame that mountain, couldn’t Mehta have taken at least one-tenth that time to give us a better flick?
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