After a long sabbatical, Ketan Mehta is back with the tale of Dashrath Manjhi, the man who moved a mountain for his love

He took the poets literally. Well, Jigar Moradabadi would not have thought that somebody would emulate his words when he wrote “Ye ishq nahin aasaan itnaa to samajh lije, ek aag ka dariyaa hai aur duub ke jaana hai”. Dashrath Manjhi didn’t swim through a channel of fire nor did he construct a Taj Mahal, he simply chiselled his way to the pantheon of romance by cutting through a mountain so that no other should suffer the fate of his beloved. A resident of Gehlore village of Gaya district in Bihar, Manjhi lost his wife because of the injury sustained while bringing water for him through a narrow crevice that separated the village from the farm. She could not be taken to hospital in time because once again the mountain came in the way. Taking on nature and the administration, Manjhi decided to bring the mountain down with his hammer. At first people laughed at him, but not many can snigger when your conviction lasts for more than two decades. Eventually, Manjhi built a 360-foot long and 30-foot wide road by cutting a mountain for 22 years using hammers and chisels, turning jeers into reverence. His feat reduced the distance between Atri and Wazirganj blocks of Gaya district from 75 km to just one km, a feat unparalleled in the history of humanity.

Now, eminent filmmaker Ketan Mehta is bringing the life of Manjhi to the screen with a film called “Manjhi – The Mountain Man”. Mehta rewinds, “Dashrath Manjhi died in 2007. At that time there were many articles written about him and his achievement. On reading one such article, I was awestruck and instantly felt compelled to make a film on this story. At that time I was making ‘Rang Rasiya’. So on completion of that film I started working on ‘Manjhi - the Mountain Man’. The more I read about Manjhi, the more fascinating it became. We did a lot of research, visited his village, met his family members and other acquaintances and collected all material available on him in the press and audio-visual media. Out of all this research the final script emerged. We announced the film on 17th August 2012, on the 5th death anniversary of Dashrath Manjhi, and started shooting in October 2012 on the original locations at Gehlore village.” ”

Recently, a Patna Court gave the green signal to release the film after it quashed a petition of filmmakers Dhananjay Kumar and Jamshed Ashraf, who claimed Manjhi had given them exclusive rights to make a film on him. Mehta says the court decided to go with Mehta’s counsel’s argument that Manjhi was a public figure and nobody can have an exclusive right to make a film on him. “You can have the right to a novel — not to a public figure’s life! Thousands of articles have been written about him and dozens of documentary films have been made about him, and all this information is in the public domain and there can be no copyright on information in the public domain,” says Mehta.

Mehta is no stranger to biographies, having given us a sense of Vallabhbhai Patel in “Sardar” and the anguish of Mangal Pandey in “The Rising”. But here the rules of the game have changed because hardly anybody knows Manjhi outside Bihar. “As compared to the other biographies, the Manjhi’s story was more rustic, raw, rooted, both earthy and ethereal,” says Mehta.

Our cinema has either portrayed the love stories of the haves or played on the economic divide in matters of passion. There has seldom been space for the romance of the poor, but here is an opportunity as Mehta says, “It is a passionate love story of the poorest of the poor, the wretched of the earth and an incredible story of an amazing monument of love. It is an ode to the indomitable human spirit woven along with the saga of post independence India.”

In times when cynicism often masquerades as a rational approach, Mehta sees Manjhi’s story as a ray of hope, “a real example of being the change, of making the impossible possible.”

Cutting of a mountain is larger than life, but if you take it literally the process can look laboured. Mehta understands this and has brought in his years of experience with special effects. “We have used a lot of digital visual effects to recreate the process of carving out the mountain. The breaking of the mountain is interwoven with the love story to sustain audience interest and make the narrative gripping and inspiring,” explains Mehta, adding there was no need to add fictional elements to make it more dramatic, as “the story of Manjhi is an amazing tale of grit and determination, passion and obsession. In this case the truth is stranger than fiction.”

Talking about the cast, Mehta says Manjhi was a very difficult role, spanning an entire life, and he needed an actor who was rooted enough and skilful enough to carry the film. “Nawaz is a brilliant actor who instinctively connected with the character and has given a brilliant performance.” Producer Deepa Sahi is equally elated. “God that guy is a delight! He acts straight from the heart and hits the bull’s eye every time and no theorising!”

Mehta says Radhika (Apte), who plays Manjhi’s wife Falguni, is a very fine actress with very expressive eyes. “She has given the necessary balance to the love story by her lively and enchanting performance.”

Having been part of all kinds of ‘waves’, it is worrying to find him sitting on the sidelines when things are improving on the creative front in Hindi cinema. Mehta would like us to believe it has nothing to do with the box office failure of the “The Rising” and inordinate delay in the release of “Rang Rasiya”. “I have never been prolific as a filmmaker. I need to feel compelled to make a film. Indian cinema is going through a great transformation. Technology has improved substantially, filmmakers are getting more adventurous in selection of themes, and the audience is more receptive to different kinds of cinema. I am very optimistic about the future of Indian cinema,” he signs off.

A love story in Bihar

On the shooting experience in Bihar, Mehta’s wife and actor-producer Deepa Sahi says, “The director (that’s how she refers to Mehta when they are working) wanted to shoot in real locations — and that too in a location that is reputed to be attacked by Naxals all the time and of course there was panic at first as all the movies that have come out of Bihar have only shown the violent side of it. ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’, ‘Gangajal’, ‘Aparahan’, etc. Plus, the newspaper reports of all the goonda-ism that exists! In fact many suppliers from Kolkata were refusing to send their equipment — even vanity vans — to Bihar due to this reputation. Some girls were not allowed to be part of the unit as the parents felt they would be kidnapped on the way….”

It is for such logistical reasons and safety issues most of the movies that are set in Bihar are shot in Wai in Maharashtra, which resembles rural Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Interestingly, Deepa says everyone tried to dissuade the director at first but it didn’t work. “Then using Prakash Jha’s help we all ventured forth for a recce, hoping all the time that the director would see how impossible the task is going to be! But then on reaching Gaya we met the DM (Bandana Preyashi) — who was a most gracious and helpful lady — and the SSP, again a most wonderful and helpful person, and frankly it is these two who gave us the confidence to go ahead and shoot there. They gave us full security and help and now I can say that despite the physical strain, at least we had a fun shoot there!”

According to Deepa, the shoot in Gehlore, where almost 80 per cent of the film is shot (and yes, she admits some patchwork was done in Wai as well), was very tough physically. “Imagine getting up at 3 or 4, driving without any lights in pitch darkness (there are no streetlights for miles and miles) and then having to climb a mountain every day! No exaggeration, it was the toughest shoot for everyone. How did Manjhi do it for 22 years — alone?” she wonders.

Her heart goes out to Bihar as the nation seems to have forgotten the State. “One has neither experienced such darkness nor poverty before, even in the worst parts of India. They have better roads than Mumbai though! All the people were really helpful, and now I can confidently say: Oh! Shooting in Bihar is easy!”

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