By Sonya Rehman
A gripping story of a man and a mountain, of resilience and passion, Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi – The Mountain Man is one of the most riveting, moving, must-see films of 2015.
An Ordinary Hero
In the small village of Gehlaur (Bihar, India), there lived a man, a poor peasant who spent over two decades of his life on a mission. Dashrath Manjhi was just an ordinary man who wound up doing the unthinkable: he sliced a mountain in half, carving a path within its rocky terrain to aid his people, poor labourers in the area who were victim to extreme poverty and abuse at the hands of the village’s corrupt and cruel zamindaars (landowners). Manjhi, without a doubt, was a hero in every sense of the word. “My first reaction was total disbelief, I thought it was a joke,” stated Ketan, at the Manjhi press conference in Dubai, this August. “But when I realized it was a true story, I was amazed.”
Having visited Gehlaur both prior to, and during the film’s shooting, Ketan stated he was left inspired when he saw the mountain before him, and the path that Manjhi had carved from his bare hands, using only a chisel and a hammer. “It was such an incredibly inspiring story that had to be shared with as many people as possible.”
Playing the role of Manjhi in the biopic, Nawazuddin Siddiqui knew he had big shoes to fill. “The trigger point was the passion for me,” Nawaz said earnestly, “It was not just love that drove Manjhi – it was passion. We went to the village and interacted with the villagers who had firsthand experience with Manjhi. The villagers shared a lot with us about him: his attitude, the way he spoke, his thought process. The only challenging part for me was to try and channel Manjhi’s junoon (passion) – the madness of a man so in love, who breaks a mountain for twenty-two years of his life…as an actor, you always try to connect with the character in some way, you try to find some way of relating with the role, you have to relate to that passion from experiences in your own life, and that’s what I strived to do.”
From a Mad Man to a Sage
Some of the world’s most inspiring movements of change were led by the pure of heart who were, at first, scoffed at, ridiculed and mistreated. Manjhi was no different. “Thirty years after Manjhi’s feat, only then did the government make a road, that’s the pace at which governments work – that’s why this is such a moving story,” stated Ketan, “Do it yourself, be the change! These are words we throw around so lightly, but here’s a man, the poorest of the poor, from the lowest caste, from one of the most backward regions in India, who turns around and decides to be the change. And look, he transformed the lives of the people, the shortest distance to the town was across the mountain, only seven kilometers, but since the village was in the shadow of the mountain range, people had to travel around the mountain, it took seventy kilometers. Manjhi did all of this for love, seeking nothing in return for himself.”
By the time Manjhi passed away in 2007, he was recognized as a national hero. “From a mad man to a sage, that was how Manjhi’s reputation transitioned after his accomplishment. For me, he’s India’s answer to superman, not a fantasy, but a real life character,” Ketan said.
Even though the director mentions that nothing really has changed over the years in Gehlaur (there’s still no electricity, nor infrastructure), change has begun to trickle in – a school was recently initiated in the village, and a clinic is currently being set up, still, Manjhi’s love overpowers and overshadows everything else.
Manjhi’s story is a story of the spirit. His passion carried with it hues of love and rage; love for his wife, his people, and tar-like fury – that he channeled through hands after enduring years of exploitation. From passion to purpose, in the end, it was not the mountain, but Manjhi – his heart, his courage, that was bigger than the mountain that stood before him. The mountain was his enemy, his friend, his companion; how quickly spite can turn to camaraderie, and hatred, grown from an innocence, that can change its hardened skin to acceptance, compassion, faith. Faith – stronger than any mountain known to man.
Manjhi – The Mountain Man celebrates faith while honouring the human spirit. It is a story of one man’s immense love for life that even the harshest experiences weren’t allowed to coarsen a heart rich with the dream of change.