Mountain as metaphor, muse as mission: The Mystique of Ketan Mehta

  • Narayanan Madhavan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 09, 2015 11:43 IST
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte in Manjhi - The Mountain Man.

The Mountain is, but a symbol.

The spirit is the man.

Everything else is a matter of detail.

More than three decades ago, Ketan Mehta began his career with the much-acclaimed Bhavni Bhavai, a folktale set in unknown time, in which Om Puri, with a broomstick as a tail-like extension, played a harassed Harijan, lost in a kingdom of injustice.

He is, as it were, reborn as Manjhi, the Mountain Man, born in the community of Moosahirs, the legendary rat-catchers, who represent the lowest of the lowly in India's back-breaking social hierarchy.

The lilting folk tunes of Gujarat, Mehta's native land, gives way to the rugged mystique of Bihar's Gaya district, with its cocktail of ancient, brutal casteism, nature's vagaries and the remote machinations of a modern republic's creaking, corrupt administrative machinery trying to live the ideals of the Constitution.

Nawazudddin Siddiqui, with a magnificent acting effort matching the character he portrays, Dashrat Manjhi, chips away at the rocky, imposing mountain that would cut short the distance between his village and the nearest town. The rocks, with their granite stubbornness, face the might of the Moosahir spirit, and he chips away like a madman, with only his wife, beautiful in her ethereal persona that contrasts the unforgiving terrain, as his inspiration.

Is he a struggler? Is he a warrior? Is he a revolutionary? Or is he merely a besotted lover who confesses to the mish-mash attachment he has to his rock-breaking metier and his angelic wife of unknown mysteries?

Is it Manjhi, the Mahadalit oppressed, struggling to find his soul's higher way in Bihar's backyard? Or is it Ketan Mehta himself, chipping away at one more layer of the mountain-like hierarchy of outmoded social values, as the state goes to polls in an election year that may change political equations?

What is at stake is a social system as rigid as the granite monsters that block the way of the Mountain Main clawing his way out of the misery -- as if he was at another level the rat his community has been known to devour.

Somewhere on the way, Manjhi is Mehta himself. Radhika Apte, with an Eternal Woman's face, is a divine inspiration, an artist's muse -- even if she is just a low-caste Phaguniya in her earthy village.

In his last work, Rang Rasiya, a biopic on Raja Ravi Varma, a "fallen woman" portrayed by Nandana Sen as his muse In Manjhi, the risen woman, as it were, turns the tables.

There was Smita Patil in Mirch Masala as a spice-pounding woman dressed in Gujarat's vibrant colours. There was Deepa Sahi in Maya Memsaab, a play on Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary. The strong, unpredictable, sensuous beauty of ethereal qualities is a haunting recurrence in Mehta's movies.

It is a parodox of his film making, in which the skillsets have traversed black-and-white starkness to computer animated colours, that excruciating beauty co-exists with harsh social realities, with the former often inspiring and challenging a struggle against the latter.

And so, Mehta chips away at another layer of India's beautifully cruel past as he uses the man who single-handedly led a Mission Impossible to build a mountain road to tell his own story of bringing to a tentative republic ideas of modernity thatr attempt to surmount and destroy age-old barriers.

Mirch Masala was set in the 1940s. Rang Rasiya is set in the 1890s. Mangal Pandey was about the 1850s. In each, we got a slice of social history.

Mountain Man Manjhi takes us to the 1960s and traverses the next two decades, showing us slices of Indira Gandhi, and her tragicomic politics that straddled social reform and corruption, Naxalism and the Emergency.

In this time travel, the narrative takes many licences, to please producers and multiplex audiences alike, as it sprinkles romantic escapades over a landscape that in real life is tough but through the lens of a movie camera turns a delightful pastiche of visual delights.

Somewhere, emotional truths become more important than historical facts.

The Mountain is the Sea and the Old Man could well be a fisherman like in Hemingway's classic novel.

What remains in the mind's eye is the spirit that towers over the tall, imposing mountain monster and a beauty that inspires struggles.

Watch the Manjhi review here

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Dashrath Manjhi: The Mountain Man of Bihar
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