Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Belated thoughts on Manjhi, mountains, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Ketan Mehta

How absurd the Dashrath Manjhi tale is, and how overwrought it would seem if it had been thought up by a writer of fiction. Think about it. A novelist goes to a publisher (or a scriptwriter to a film producer) with this original idea he has about a poor, oppressed man who, singlehanded and in the face of derision, chips away at a mountain for decades, eventually creating a path that will connect his neglected village with the outside world and bring in a few stray glimmers of progress along with the extra sunlight.

The publisher/producer chuckles, then calls in his 200-kg bouncers to give this writer the treatment Dorothy Parker once prescribed for an unworthy book (don’t toss him aside lightly, throw him with great force). Or, if he is kind-hearted and not too pressed for time, he sighs, offers conditional encouragement. “Yes yes, I get it,” he tells the writer, “It’s symbolic and has a good message – man can move mountains if he has the will. The little person can triumph over unreal odds.”

“But you do realize this story is not just completely unbelievable on its own terms, it doesn’t even meet the terms of a good allegory? Even allegories and metaphors should require the reader to use his brain to figure out what stands for what. Why does Grigor Samsa become an enormous insect? What does it mean? But in your yarn, there is no scope for interpretation. We have one man and one mountain, and that’s it. Too obvious.”

“Well, the mountain does stand for the implacable cruelty of tradition,” mumbles the writer, no longer feeling very confident, “the old, constraining ways of life looming over this prejudice-ridden village, keeping the winds of change out when everyone else in the country is talking about equality. Seen that way, Dashrath is the Gandhi-like liberator who…”

“No, still too heavy-handed,” says the publisher/producer, casting a quick look at Yokozuna awaiting orders by the door, “It's a big block of bombast. Make a few changes – chip away at it with hammer and axe, let’s see if we end up with a less ponderous hillock of a tale.”


All this is if the Manjhi story had been fiction. But we know it really happened, so a filmmaker taking it on has this advantage: the material is dramatic, but he won’t have to face the criticism that it is too implausible or over-the-top (a “Based on a True Story” before the credits impresses everyone). And so, assuming he isn’t setting out to make a documentary or a hyper-realistic film, he has a lot of freedom. He can embellish the details, bring in some of the more dramatic tropes from a Hindi cinema of a pre-multiplex time, or even stage scenes where the artifice is obvious, where we are in a partly Brechtian space. In the opening shot of Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi: The Mountain Man, where Dashrath sets fire to his rocky nemesis, the blaze on the mountain is presented not realistically but like a computer-generated depiction of lava in an adventure epic. And the film’s last scene, complete with a soaring Hollywood epic-style score and Vaseline on the lens, is a bit like the end of James Cameron’s Titanic – Dashrath and his long-dead wife Phalguni reunited in fantasy, like Jack and Rose (the mountain/iceberg couldn’t defeat them, the ship of their love has been made whole again, social boundaries have ceased to matter).

Mehta knows all about Brechtian distance, of course. His 1980 film Bhavni Bhavai (one of the best debut features made by an Indian director in my view, a member of an elite club that includes Ray’s Pather Panchali) was in that mould, a folk tale with characters seemingly aware of their symbolic function, actors in double roles, a court jester speaking truth to power while at the audience. Its story was set in a kingdom where the palace “smells like hell” – ostensibly because the toilet-cleaners have gone missing, but also a metaphor for the creeping stink of casteism. The Manjhi sub-plot of a village beset by drought and dramatically saved through one man’s labours (Dashrath finds water under the mountain, and then the skies burst open as if to complement his efforts) reminded me of Mehta’s much more pessimistic debut film: the bhavai, or well, in the unjust kingdom is always dry, and when water does explode forth in the end, it washes the kingdom and everything in it – bad and good – away. (As in the Manjhi scene where a labourer falls to his death in a kiln, there is a clear link between what is nourishing and what is destructive.)

Manjhi has stimulating things in it, but it is no Bhavni Bhavai: it has too many balls in the air at the same time; it doesn’t commit itself to a particular storytelling mode the way the earlier film did; it shifts a little uncomfortably between realism and hyper-drama, or poetic exaggeration. In that sense I felt it was more like Mehta’s 1985 Mirch Masala, which played at times like a minimalist narrative
typical of the art cinema of the time (with a cast that was the art-film equivalent of the multi-starrer), but also contained many archetypes and symbols and apparently simple-minded dialogue. (Every time I saw the shots of the mountain in Manjhi, I thought of the seemingly endless mounds of chillies – bright red, much too bright – in Mirch Masala.)

It is easy to envision the Manjhi story as done by a different sort of director, say someone with a greater interest in documentary-like authenticity: this would involve steering away from such “filmi” scenes as the one where leering upper-caste men abduct a woman right before her family’s eyes because her husband has talked back to them (never mind that such things probably happen often enough in the real world, but many of us "sophisticated" viewers have been conditioned to associate them with the excesses of popular Hindi cinema and hence feel embarrassed about their depiction onscreen). In that hypothetical film, the Dashrath-Phalguni relationship wouldn’t be turned into something eternal and larger than life, her death wouldn’t be so dramatic, and Manjhi’s private battle wouldn’t intersect with Indira Gandhi and the Politics of the Nation.

But we have the film we have, and so, to return to an earlier question: what does the mountain stand for? The deadwood of tradition, which can only be chipped away one tiny bit at a time? Okay. A version of the terrifying force of nature that drove ill-fated lovers apart in Titanic? Sure. The Paramount Pictures logo? Maybe. But here’s another thought, based on the fact that Mehta’s film often chooses to operate on a level outside its own narrative, with a few little references – in casting and in dialogue – to Gangs of Wasseypur (which itself was a film that constantly referenced cinema). Consider how apt it is, in today’s climate, for Nawazuddin Siddiqui to be cast as a “pahaar-katva”, as someone who opens a film by growling “Bahut bada hai?” at a mountain and finishes by cutting it down to size.

It almost felt like an inside joke, a comment on Siddiqui’s function in so many films in the past few years: a short, dark-complexioned man who is no one’s idea of a Hindi-film leading man, and yet has stood up to – and sometimes stolen scenes from – bigger, more viable stars from Aamir Khan (Talaash) to Vidya Balan (Kahaani) to Salman Khan (Kick, Bajrangi Bhaijaan). He has been paired opposite tall, glamorous heroines like Huma Qureshi and Bipasha Basu, and this casting has brought subtexts to a film that the filmmakers themselves may not have consciously intended (see this old post about Aatma). In a witty scene in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he even played husband to Salman Khan, who is disguised beneath a burkha. It now feels like Gangs of Wasseypur unwittingly anticipated Siddiqui’s arc in the film industry by positioning him as the overlooked child who becomes the centre of attention.

I’m not here to restate what you have already read (or thought) a hundred times before – that Siddiqui is one of our best actors – or to adopt the smug disdain of those who dislike mainstream cinema and star-personalities. I think discussions about actors and stars and star-actors need to be more layered than that. (One might need to recognize, for instance, that if a Nawazuddin can do things that a Shah Rukh or Salman cannot do, the opposite is also true – the same way that Naseeruddin Shah has expressed envy of the things that actors like Shammi Kapoor could convincingly pull off.) What I find more interesting is how Nawazuddin’s very presence in some mainstream or semi-mainstream films has facilitated minor tectonic shifts in our understanding of performers, showing that even “serious” or “character-driven” actors can become codes or signifiers in film culture.

So maybe (and I’m not saying this is what Manjhi intended, just that a critic is entitled to such flights of fancy at a time when our cinema is always so self-referential) the mountain in Manjhi is… Salman Khan. I’ll leave you to chew on that for the moment, though I’ll return to Bajrangi Bhaijaan and related thoughts soon.

[A post about Ketan Mehta's Bhavni Bhavai is here]


  1. Today Nawaz's films are reaching wider audiences because of the fact that he has been part of films like Kick & Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
    So Salman would in fact be a bridge rather than a hurdle ( mountain) he would want to break.
    His films which don't quite fit the definition of mainstream are getting incidental benefits beacuse of him being part of Bhaijaan's movies

  2. I find this thing of Naseer expressing envy of Shammi Kapoor intriguing. In acting profession, the expectations that a good actor should have a good range in terms of playing characters is rather over-stressed but then the very job is to "act". Its kinda like mimicking, more points to you if you can imitate more people. The same isn't true of painters, chefs, players to that an extent.

  3. Oh no, I don't think acting should be like mimicking at all. By that criterion, Peter Sellers would be the greatest actor of the last century, and people like Cary Grant and James Stewart would be completely discounted.
    To me, Meryl Streep has too often been a mimic, and got undeserved praise for it.

  4. Oh no, I don't think acting should be like mimicking at all. By that criterion, Peter Sellers would be the greatest actor of the last century, and people like Cary Grant and James Stewart would be completely discounted.
    To me, Meryl Streep has too often been a mimic, and got undeserved praise for it.

  5. Yeah, that was a bad parallel. I meant variety. Variety of roles performed is being over-hyped as a criterion for an actor. I have seen only a few movies of Streep. But that sounds like a very good observation of Streep being a mimic more and an actor less in quite a few movies