Director: Ketan Mehta
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte
It took him 22 long years to carve a path through the treacherous hillrock of Gelhaur. For all his superhuman efforts, the establishment only fulfilled Dashrath Manjhi’s dream 52 years after he first started breaking the mountain. Sadly, the great man didn’t live to see the government construct a metalled road in 2011. He felled the mountain, but not quite reached the peak. Sadly, Ketan Mehta’s biopic on the ‘Mountain Man’ threatens to reach the peak, but falls short few inches below it.
Set in 1960s, Dashrath Manjhi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a poor labourer in Gelhaur, Bihar, who vows to break down a hillrock after his wife Phagunia (Radhika Apte) is fatally injured after falling from it. Enraged by his beloved being taken away from her, Manjhi decides to break down the mountain using merely a hammer and chisel. This gigantic effort takes 22 long years before Manjhi is able to carve a path through a 360 ft long, 30 ft wide and 25 ft high hillock. Through his toil, Dashrath shortened travel between the Atri and Wazirganj blocks of Gaya town from 55km to 15km
Long before its release, the world was made aware of this herculean effort of the Mountain Man, and with the curiosity built around it by the producers, one would have expected Ketan Mehta to do justice to Manjhi. Unfortunately, as a filmmaker, Mehta hasn’t quite been at his peak for a long time and the same is evident from his treatment of ‘Manjhi’.
For nearly three quarters of the opening hour, Mehta loses the plot, hushing up the love saga of Dashrath and Phagunia, and oscillating between the past and the present. Yes, one would expect a certain amount of innocence from village simpleton, but the one displayed by Dashrath and Phagunia is a tad too childish. The late Ashraf Ul Haque, who otherwise was a fine actor, is a complete misfit as Dashrath’s father Magru. In fact, the two actors who impressed the most in the initial minutes are the two antagonists, the evil Mukhiya (Tigmanshu Dhulia) and his son Ruab (Pankaj Tripathi).
The two actors have simply carried their viciousness from Gangs of Wasseypur’ and taken it to a hideous level in ‘Manjhi’. For instance, take the scene where Dashrath visits his village after seven years and upon arrival he’s pleased as punch to know that the government has banned untouchability. A joyous and innocent Dashrath hugs Mukhiya believing that upper castes men must have been reformed after the banning of untouchability. Muhkiya, oblivious to Dashrath’s identity, embraces him but spits on his face the moment Dashrath reveals his identity. While Tripathi, sticking true to his name, plays the oppressor and scheming Brahmin Ruab to the core. Despite not a significant role, one is still pleased to see the talented Prashant Narayanan in a mainstream Hindi cinema.
Well, Manjhi though proves to be a toil in every sense for Nawazuddin Siddiqui. After a rather shaky first half performance, Siddiqui really comes into his own in the latter half of the film, His obsession with his logic-defying task sees him beat the heat, dust and whatever nature throws at him. One gets shivers down the spine when Dashrath, whilst smelling a rat in the ruins ends up being bitten a snake and the only way to survive is by hammering out his poised toe. You’ll be left with a lump in your mouth seeing Siddiqui lick soil, chew leaves or drink muddy water like four-legged mammals. While he may have been let down down by elementary dialogues, Siddiqui’s love labour melts your hearts.
And when he’s not toiling in Gelhaur, Manjhi takes the Forrest Gump route walking all the way from Bihar to Delhi to claim his right from then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The director might have also ruffled a few feathers at 10 Janpath by showing a ‘picture’ of vote bank politics.
Meanwhile, Radhika Apte, who’s impressed all in films likes Hunterrr and Badlapur, doesn’t really shine as Phagunia. Obviously, this was never going to be a meaty role, but you wish that Ketan Mehta would have made few improvisation to the character which would have only enabled Apte to show her true mettle as an actress.
In the final analysis, ‘Manjhi’ isn’t disappointing, it sure ranks among the better biopics than the ones we’ve seen (Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) lately. Manjhi has a heart wrenching story, superlative actors, but just like in real life, the poor man has been rendered helpless by poor tools. I’m afraid but Ketan Mehta hasn’t quite wielded the hammer right, thereby not really moving this writer the tale of the man who moved the mountain.