Cinema || Manjhi – The Mountain Man (True Indian Grit)
Releasing just after the Independence day celebrations, Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi – The Mountain Man boasts an Indian story that deserves a grand treatment on the silver screen. It happens to be a true story of immense humanity that necessitates a larger than life depiction which Mehta (lauded for his ‘Rang Rasiya’ or ‘Mangal Pandey – The Rising’) is no stranger to.
The film depicts the life of Dashrath Manjhi, a deceptively simple Indian man from Gehlaur in Bihar who spends an unimaginable 22 years of his life to carve a road through a mountain single-handedly so the villagers can get to the nearest town with considerable ease.
As easy as it is to describe, the road that Manjhi has to traverse is beset with nearly insurmountable difficulties. From being labeled a madman by his father and the rest of the village to self-amputating a toe on his foot to stop the spread of venom after a snake-bite; from walking all the way to Delhi during Emergency to intimate the Prime Minister about the misappropriation of road construction funds, to being labeled a smuggler who breaks the mountain on a daily basis only to make a living off the rocks.
Exposing the sham of governance on every level, the very concept of a ‘fair’ hand that wields power has been challenged and is easily dwarfed by the humane grit of a Manjhi. Take for example Mrs. Indira Gandhi, done riding the ‘Garibi Hatao’ wave, swiftly throwing the entire nation into a state of Emergency; the scene where she meets Manjhi is especially noteworthy and symbolical as the stage from where she is giving a speech from is about to crumble, only to be held in place by Manjhi and a few other ‘Gareeb’ onlookers who quickly lend the stage the support of their shoulders.
Even as the presumably illiterate Manjhi drapes an anti-Emergency banner to shield himself from the seasons during his ‘Delhi chalo’ days, the opposition marches behind him and instantly uses him as a face of their own agitation at the Janpath. The extreme third front in the form of Naxalites refuse to listen to the ramblings of the ridiculed Mountain Man as the thirst for revenge veritably trumps the voice of one of the very people they had been fighting for.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in one of his finest and most grueling performances yet, is perfect in every shade as the character transitions from being a truant village youth in love to being a man on a mission who has begun to show creeping signs of that madness that drives extraordinary human beings.
Radhika Apte as Phaguni, Manjhi’s wife and muse, whose death following a fall from the mountain originally steels Manjhi’s resolve to tame the beast and carve a path through it, is ethereal is nearly every sequence, although one is left wishing she were able to exercise her acting chops in more diverse ways than she got to.
Ashraf Ul Haque as Magru (Manjhi’s father) plays the pathetic figure with earnest dedication while Pankaj Tripathi is striking as Ruab, the zamindar’s son.
The music by Sandesh Shandilya is noteworthy, the curiously entertaining ‘Phaguniya’ number refusing to fade from memory even as the film draws to a close.
Ketan Mehta, who has shot in real locations for authenticity, has gifted us a tale worth visiting and revisiting, not only to understand the socio-political realities of any backward rural society in post-Independence India but to reflect upon a man who must not be forgotten. Siddiqui’s piteous equation of hatred and concurrent love for the mountain which is the final reminder of the love of his life, will remain one of the strongest histoire de amour ever to be portrayed on the Indian screen. Let Mehta’s take on the superhuman tenacity of the Mountain Man be hailed in the way Manjhi (who died in 2007) himself might have done: Shandar… Jabardast… Jindabaad! 
Film: Manjhi-The Mountain Man
Written and directed by Ketan Mehta
Released on August 21, 2015
First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue One: October 2015