Manjhi review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui is genius, but watching this film is an uphill task
If you go to watch Manjhi — The Mountain Man, you get two films for the price of one.
Post-intermission, when the film trains its gaze upon Dasharath and his mountain, the film turns into 127 Hours, Bihar-style. Before that, it's an earnest film with a social message. Through all this, Manjhi — The Mountain Man is a salute to the acting skills of Nawazuddin Siddiqui. As you leave the theatre, you'll find yourself giving thanks that Siddiqui caught Salman Khan's eye. At least now he doesn't have to carry the weight of films as unwieldy as Manjhi — The Mountain Man on his shoulders.
Yet again, Siddiqui proves just how outstanding and charismatic an actor he is with his performance as Dasharath Manjhi. His Dasharath gets lamentable make-up, like a beard that is so obviously stuck on that you can almost smell the spirit glue in close-ups. With a straight face, he perfoms scenes and dialogues that are melodramatic and laughable, like the opening one in which a howling Dasharath throws a rock at a mountain. It strikes the surface like flint, and lo and behold, we have CGI fire (and bokkeh, for reasons unknown).
Over the course of the film, Dasharath ages dramatically. We've seen how Vinay Pathak struggled with that process in Gour Hari Dastaan, but Siddiqui doesn't falter. His gait changes as does his demeanour and you'll find yourself ignoring how unlined his skin is, even as his hair changes from naturally black waves to fuzzy wigs with varying degrees of grey. Yet despite all this, Siddiqui somehow manages to make Dasharath believable and his tale, convincing. Almost.
In the tributes to 127 Hours in Manjhi — The Mountain Man, Siddiqui as Dasharath shows that cleaving a mountain in two is gruelling and gruesome business. Much like James Franco's Aron Ralston, Dasharath has an uphill task that includes surviving with little food, doing impromptu surgery and falling through a crevice. Some time later, Dasharath discovers his inner Forrest Gump and decides to walk from Bihar to New Delhi. It's a feat of endurance, for both Dasharath and the audience.
Initially, however, it seems as though director Ketan Mehta is desperately trying to tap into the sensibility that inspired memorable, socially-relevant films like Mirch Masala and Bhavni Bhavai. His theme is one that he's treated masterfully in the past: caste and caste-based prejudice.
Manjhi — The Mountain Man begins in 1960, but the way dalits are treated is as disgusting 20 years later, in the 1980s, when the film draws to a close. You have to remind yourself that the acts and 'punishments' that seem impossibly cruel were, in fact, considered justified at one time (and still are in some parts of the country). It's a sickening thought.
Dasharath is a musahar, the lowest of the low in the caste pyramid. Nothing but insult and torment is heaped upon his people. Horseshoes are nailed to their soles if they dare to rise above their station and wear shoes. Women are carried off and raped, just for the heck of it. The men are treated like cheap property. Laws that ensure rights and equality have no relevance where Dasharath and his people live.
There's a scene that is a neat example of how much potential Manjhi — The Mountain Man had and how it's wasted. When Dasharath returns to his village after spending a few years working elsewhere, he gets beaten to pulp. Why? Because he touched the upper caste village chief and his son. Afterwards, the battered Dasharath meets a friend who asks Dasharath why he's looking so bedraggled. "I got one helluva welcome," Dasharath replies wryly and the friends guffaw.
This moment could have felt like a punch in the gut. The audience should have been struck by how accustomed the musahars are to being treated unfairly. It's so common and expected that they can crack jokes and laugh about it, even while nursing fresh wounds. They feel none of the horror the audience feels — or should feel — at this easy acceptance of untouchability.
Sadly, there's a theatricality to the abuse suffered by the musahars which makes Manjhi — The Mountain Man feel flat and unreal. Shamefully, some in the film's press screening actually laughed when Siddiqui delivered the line about Dasharath's welcome; as though there is actually something funny about a man being thrashed because he's under the illusion that in post-Independent, modern India, he has the right to touch a savarna.
Mehta valiantly tries to pack a lot of social commentary into Dasharath's tale. Aside from caste prejudice, there's a dig at political hypocrisy and the Congress party as well as an unsympathetic take on Naxals. However, all Mehta manages to evoke is a nostalgia for his early works. Unfortunately for us all, bygones really are bygones in this case because Manjhi — The Mountain Man doesn't have even a fraction of the finesse or insight that Bhavni Bhavai did for instance.
Manjhi — The Mountain Man's saving grace is that it has some wonderful actors in its cast. Apte is delightful as Dasharath's wife, who inspires him to take his hammer to the mountain. The script doesn't demand she do much more than flash skin and giggle, but Apte makes Phaguniya a charming, feisty young woman. She and Siddiqui manage to make something as idiotic as two people rising out of the ground like mud wrestlers seem watchable, which is feat.
Pankaj Tripathi plays a spoilt brat and corrupt landlord who is essentially fifty shades of horrible. He's thoroughly convincing as a sleazy, upper-caste scum of the earth. His father is played by Tigmanshu Dhulia with a stick-on moustache, who is equally villainous. All these actors do what they can, but they're stymied in their efforts by a script that feels almost amateurish in its simplistic storytelling.
Worse, the film fails to develop key elements of the story, like Dasharath's curious relationship with the mountain. It's his soulmate, adversary and saviour, all rolled into one. We don't get a sense of how, why and when Dasharath's village starts to see him as more than a crazy old man. Casteism suddenly exits the film, without explanation. Most of the characters are flat and uni-dimensional. Every episode feels staged and in no time, the film feels tedious. At best, Manjhi — The Mountain Man has the theatricality of street theatre. At its worst, the film is a B-grade movie, with its obviously fake waterfalls, ghosts in fluttering white saris and stock characters.
Somewhere along the way, when no one was looking, Mehta appears to have decided that he's going to make films that ignore subtlety, dismiss nuance and are all about broad strokes. Net result: a film that is so comprehensively artificial that you'll forget Dashrath Manjhi was a real man and that his is a true story.