Nawazuddin Siddiqui wrapped up his shooting of the legendary Mountain Man Dashrath Manjhi who dug up a mountain in the Gaya district of Bihar to create a roadway for his village.
The most moving moment merging the motion-picture with real life was on evidence on Friday morning in the district of Gaya in Bihar when villagers in large numbers gathered to bid farewell to 'Dashrath Baba' the name by which the legendary mountain-digger Dashrath Manjhi is known in his district.
So immersed was Nawazuddin in the character of Manjhi, that the villagers were unable to tell him apart from the real one.
Nawazuddin, who is still limping around on a stick after all the rugged mountain climbing and cutting that he did for Ketan Mehta's film says, "Though there was video footage of the older 70-year old Manjhi, I had to play him according to the descriptions provided by local villagers who had known Manjhi personally to recreate the younger part of his life."
The character-recreation was so uncanny that locals began addressing Nawazuddin as Darshrath Manjhi.
Says the method actor emotionally. "For one whole month, I shut myself out completely to the extent that I didn't even speak to my wife. My phone was off. I had no link with the outside world from where I was shooting with Ketan Mehta in Gaya. The concentration was necessary to relive the character faithfully. I didn't want my character to look like a caricature of the original."
The concentration that Nawazuddin has poured into playing Manjhi has paid rich dividends. The original Dashrath Manjhi's family and co-villagers have adopted Nawazuddin as a newly-born avatar of the deceased hero who spent 22 years of his life digging a roadway through the mountain that separated his village from the nearest town.
Nawazuddin actually dug through a mountain to show Manjhi at his life's mission. No trick photography would be used to show Nawazuddin digging his way through the mountain. However, director Ketan Mehta would be employing sophisticated special effects to show the mountain turn gradually into a roadway.
Nawazuddin will return to Manjhi's village in Bihar to hold a special open-air premiere of the film for the villagers.
"There are no theatres anywhere near the village. But, Ketan and I will screen the film for the villagers. We owe them that much."
Manjhi's close relatives and friends have 'adopted' Nawazuddin as a born-again avatar of the 'Mountain Man'. As Nawazuddin bid a tearful farewell to the villagers who flocked to see their 'Dashrath Baba' leave their midst, he could barely contain his emotions. "I've never experienced such an emotional connect with any of my characters or their milieu. For one month I lived, ate, walked, talked and behaved like Dashrath Manjhi. It will take me a while to get out of this character."
Adds director Ketan Mehta, "When I signed Nawazuddin, I had seen only a little of his work. It was Sudhir Mishra who recommended Nawaz to me. Today after working with him I can tell you with full confidence this is the best performance I've seen in any of my films."
High praise indeed coming from a director who has worked with the likes of Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan and (late) Smita Patil.
Says Ketan, "Nawaz has the same smouldering intense emotive quality as Smita. The camera loves him as much as it loved her. The screen simply lights when these two actors are around."
Ketan who has been holed up in Gaya for the last one month returns to three legal notices challenging his right to make a film on Dashrath Manjhi. "There is one regarding Manish Jha's project. There is another legal notice from a director named Neerraj Pathak. And I've a third notice from a guy in Patna claiming he has the exclusive rights to make a film on Dashrath Manjhi. I've consulted my legal team. No one can claim an exclusive right to film Manjhi's life. His story is part of the public domain."