Until now Mirch Masala (1985) was what Ketan Mehta was known for. His foray into biographies didn't go well in the last decade of the previous century, but his latest attempt is really a shot in right direction.
The non-linear screenplay introduces its audience to a rural village in the interiors of the Indian state of Bihar, which is partially run by a fascist authority in the 1950s-60s. A young boy named Dashrath Manjhi, born to poor farmer parents, is married off to a girl when boys his age would instead fancy playing tag, and is soon after sent away closer to the cities so that he is not exposed to the government's cruel ways. Fast forward a decade and a half - an adult Manjhi (Siddiqui) returns to his village, meets his wife Phaguniya (Apte), and starts a cheerful married life. He realizes that their happy days are over when his wife slips and falls off a huge hillock which eventually results in her death. Manjhi, a high-willed, idiosyncratic lover boy that he is, vows to avenge her death by locking horns with the hill; and his idea of revenge: tearing the mountain apart.
The non-linearity plays out like a documentary without a good prologue, which compels a viewer to ask too many questions, at least in the first act. However, considering that one is unknown to the story which is true to some extent, once you get a fair idea as to what is happening, the middle act and conclusion is very fine. Chronicling the two strenuous decades that the mountain man spent breaking the peak with just the help of a chisel and a hammer is not what the film is all about. There is politics and history, and the way the former is showcased can polarize the opinions. I say documentary-like because a journalist character in the film kind of poorly narrates Manjhi's struggle in terms of years, making it look like a chronology test of a 10-year old.
The humor is very light, and is strictly delivered by Siddiqui. His performance is top-notch and I can even risk saying that he is second to none when it comes to portraying a character like Manjhi, who was known for his madness and extraordinary determination. Although he is the star of the film in its most basic sense, I personally think that his characterization was type-cast as if making him do certain things is a norm now. Talking about Miss Elegance, I have grown fond of Apte over the years. Be it her bombed Malayalam language film Haram (2015) or her viral short film Ahalya (2015), her performance is something that you cannot term as acting; she lives her character.
The biggest problem I had with the script was that I didn't know what went on Manjhi's mind before, during, and after he took on the impossible job. There is no insight into his strategy, if there was any, or at least the basic intention or the layout. This made it feel like we are watching a soap opera that is high on background noise, but low on substance. Still, there is a point towards the end where Manjhi realizes how his material nemesis was both cruel and kind enough to first kill his wife, and then let him break it apart, respectively; and that is the gist of the story. Nevertheless, the make-up, costumes, dialogs, and production design are brilliant.
Lots of sub-stories were unnecessarily inserted into the period drama, which could have been a lot more solid had the makers focused solely on the feat. With Siddiqui at the helm, Mr. Mehta relies on cast performance and a legend story to steer a vehicle that has boxes in place of tires.
BOTTOM LINE: Manjhi - The Mountain Man is no doubt a hard-worked depiction of an incredible story of a man who broke a mountain to prove his love, only that when you compare it with a similar but famous story of the Taj Mahal, you will still go with the latter. That is the powerlessness of the film.