A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: An unsettling portrait of Manohar Aich, India’s most famous bodybuilder

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings opens to the back of Manohar Aich as he walks down a narrow lane, holding on to the arm of a younger man for support. The cult of Aich was built around his body building skills. He was once counted among India’s strongest men, and in 1952 became the second Indian to win the Mr Universe title.

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Manohar Aich with his Mr Universe trophy that he won in 1953

The heavy irony of watching the frail figure of a man famous for being strong, is not lost on the viewer. There are several close-ups of his wrinkled hands and face, as he goes about his life. He is an old man weakened and bent by time, with no memory or nostalgia for his glory days. Early in the film when Aich is asked if he remembers PC Sarkar, or his time in Dhaka, he simply responds by saying, “I have forgotten everything.” When asked about what he does remember, Aich says “Just mixed — that’s all”.

The old man hangs in the liminal space between life and death, fact and fiction, forgetting and remembering, his face inscrutable through most of the film.

The film’s director Prateek Vats, a student of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), had gone in with the idea to just film Aich’s 101st birthday. He was intrigued that they would see him, a man whose whole life had been about his body, at a certain age. Later when he, along with cinematographer Mehul Bhanti decided to make this film, they chose against an “evidence-burdened” biopic on Aich. “How do you make a film about someone who doesn’t remember his life?” asks Vats. “We weren’t transfixed on a destination… we engaged with it on a day-to-day basis,” and settled on making a film “not about Aich, but with him”.

The 72-minute film was shot over 45 days spread over two years, and sustained with a grant from Films Division. In the film, we meet Aich between the age of 101 and 103. The three-member crew rented a home close to where the former body builder lived with his youngest child — Khokan Aich — ensuring that they could be available at 10-minutes notice. The film also uses footage from a Doordarshan Bangla documentary on Aich, made sometime in the 1990s, along with home videos shot on handycams.

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Aich with his daughter Bani Bannerjee

Vats and his crew managed to get surprisingly intimate access to the Aich family, made up of Manohar Aich and his three children — Bani Banerjee, Bishnu Aich, and Khokan Aich. Vats says of the filming process, “For any documentary, access is the most important… and consent is not something you give, and that’s that. It required a lot of talking on our part. The first week went in telling them that we’ll keep coming back… We were very involved in their day-to-day activity, slowly they accepted that the film wasn’t being made to judge.”

When we first meet his children, the youngest of whom is in his 50s, they are collecting signatures for a petition that asks for a road to be named after him. In another scene, his daughter Bani unsuccessfully tries to get a toll booth fee waived because of her father.

For all of Aich’s fame and success, the State didn’t recognise his achievements in any way, his daughter complains. While she is devoted to his well being, there is a tension between the father and sons evident in the film. Aich’s elder son Bishnu accepts that his father is a great man as far as bodybuilding is concerned, but asks about his contribution to family and society, and answers it himself to say he could have done much more. In the most disturbing scene in the film, Aich’s younger son screams at him and accuses him of wanting to eat human flesh.

Manohar Aich is cared for by his children, but they are also aware of how their childhoods were marked by his absence and lack of attention — a cautionary tale of what can happen to families of celebrities, or of those focused on their individual pursuits.

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Aich sits in front of the wall covered with his trophies

In a poignant moment in the film, when Bishnu Aich sings a Bengali tune his mother used to sing, Manohar’s face lights up, possibly for the first time in the film, before tearing up. A little later, a clip from the DD Bangla documentary has a younger Manohar and his wife Jyuthika talking to the host. Manohar, while referring to his wife, says, "Look around, every brick in this house is soaked in her blood," and adds he wouldn’t want to outlive his wife. It is a peek into their married life, but watching it against the future unfolding in the film, it is especially moving.

Aich, called ‘Pocket Hercules’, is very well loved by local sports clubs, and there are moments in the film where the goings-on seem almost absurd, as this old man is assisted through felicitations and photographs, all celebrating him for being a bodybuilder. At these events he is referred to as the “messenger of eternal youth”, even as he is carried along by younger men; made to pose for pictures flexing his arms, as confetti-filled balloons explode, startling him.

Aich during

Manohar Aich in his prime

The title of the film is taken from a the title of a short story by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Vats believes his film is a non-fiction adaptation of that story. The diminutive four-foot-eleven-inch man is surely larger than life. His legacy stretches far beyond the walls of a room covered with the trophies, awards and shields he ever won.

Vats says they had to work out how they would make a film about someone who doesn’t remember his life. They settled on making a “floaty, meandering film, which wasn’t linear or chronological. The pace of the film had to be Aich’s pace, to experience the claustrophobia within that house... inside his head.”

Aich died in June 2016 at 104, though his age at the time of death is contested.

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Updated Date: May 18, 2018 15:54:07 IST

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