Nawazuddin- The only saving grace of this melodramatic film!
Well meaning cinema’ is a genre in itself – films that have some sort of a social message, talk about the upliftment of spirit, about the ignominy of the human condition, that tell the story of a man going against all odds with nothing but his integrity to sustain him. The latter is the case with Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi — The Mountain Man. Unfortunately, it just so happens that most well meaning films are not very good. And that is exactly Manjhi’s drawback.
On paper Manjhi sounds like a wonderful little story. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Dashrath Manjhi, a villager in rural Bihar who falls in love with Phaguniya (Radhika Apte). After she falls to her death on a hill, he decides to sculpt that entire hill out. There’s enough kitsch in the plotline to drive home an interesting film, but Mehta injects far more melodrama than is necessary.
manjhiA still from the film Manjhi. Image from Facebook.
There’s a big difference between crafting a scene to get real, raw emotion from the actors, and beating the audience over their heads with manipulative background score and overwrought performances. From beginning to end, Manjhi never really goes beyond catering to the lowest common denominator.
As the opening card of the film informs you, it is based on a true story, but a lot of fiction was put in to make things more emotionally manipulative. Creative liberty has always been a part of cinema, but it shouldn’t be so obvious; especially in a film that’s beating its chest about being a true story. In that regard, Manjhi reminds one of Hawaizaada, another film that failed the ‘well meaning’ film test by becoming simply tacky.
Manjhi looks strangely plastic. Nothing seems authentic in it. When Manjhi and Phaguniya are huddled on a khatiya, it feels like they’re actors playing villagers. Considering how talented both Apte and Siddiqui are, if they’re unconvincing, it can only mean Mehta’s direction needed more finesse. The side characters are absolute cardboard cutouts. Tigmanshu Dhulia plays a generic landlord, and Pankaj Tripathi is an even more generic, villainous junior landlord, complete with police connections. He is, of course, out to foil Manjhi’s plan of destroying the mountain.
In one scene, Manjhi runs a peacock feather on Phaguniya’s bare back – it looks like it’s straight out of a Nicholas Sparks novel rather than an authentic Indian film. There’s also something wrong with the lighting in the film, especially in the night shots, and it makes everything seem like a set instead of a real location.
After a point, it becomes difficult to suspend one’s disbelief. When even Nawaz’s beard looks obviously fake you know it’s time for the film to deliver at least one element that grabs your attention in a good way.
To make matters worse, there are a few shots of the mountain that seem like they’re CGI, and that makes Manjhi all the more unconvincing. It’s difficult to believe Mehta, who made the village aesthetic so convincing in his 1987 film Mirch Masala, could be so off-base in Manjhi. Ultimately this is simplistic filmmaking, and if you don’t really need something more textured, nuanced and subdued to watch, Manjhi – the Mountain Man is for you. As for the rest, it is perfectly ok to expect a better film, considering the talent involved.