It seems the biopic bug has bitten Bollywood. In the past few years, many films based on the lives of famous people have hit the big screen. Director Ketan Mehta, however, has always been fascinated by the genre. He has made films like Sardar, Mangal Pandey and Rang Rasiya, and his latest project is Manjhi: The Mountain Man. It is based on Dashrath Manjhi, the man who broke a mountain, and has Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead.
In an act that seems too farfetched even for fiction, Manjhi single-handedly carved a path through a mountain in Ghelaur village in Bihar, using only a hammer and a chisel. He spent 22 years of his life chipping away at the mountain, in the hope that, once finished, the villagers would have easier access to medical facilities on the other side. His wife, Falguni Devi, had died from lack of medical care in 1959.
When Manjhi first struck the mountain, many called him a lunatic. But the criticism hardly affected him. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day. And a mountain, definitely, wouldn't be bored through in a day. But, finally, in 1982, the mountain surrendered. The newly formed road reduced the distance between Atri and Wazirganj from 55km to 15km. A man had moved a mountain. THE WEEK, in its issue dated February 3, 1991, carried a story on Manjhi, becoming the first English publication to do so.
Manjhi died on August 17, 2007, but left behind a story that inspired Mehta. “In 2007, when he died, a lot of articles were written about him and his achievements,” says Mehta. “My initial reaction was disbelief, but it had actually happened. That’s when the idea of making a film came to my mind.”
But the shooting, much like Manjhi's effort, was no cakewalk. “It was the toughest shoot of our lives,” says Mehta. “There was no proper infrastructure wherever we went. We used to wake up at 3am and travel one and a half hours to reach the location. Then, we would climb the mountain so that we could start shooting. It was very gruelling, but we kept going because we knew the mountain was going to be such a powerful character in the film.”
Siddiqui agrees with his director. “Physically, it was very challenging,” he told THE WEEK. “It was also a challenge because I was playing a 70-year-old and a 22-year-old at the same time. It was not at all easy to mentally and physically shift my focus. Plus, I had to keep changing my looks.”
Mehta says the story was so inspiring that all the unit members willingly agreed to shoot in Bihar. The local authorities, including the superintendent of police and the district magistrate, also helped the team. “Everyone realised that the location was as important as the story. So there was no major issues and we decided to shoot in the real location,” says Mehta.
Siddiqui says Bihar is completely different from what people perceive it to be. “The people of the village were so supportive that if we told them to keep quiet while shooting a particular scene, they would do it. They understood what we wanted. In fact, the villagers were involved in the film and many have even acted in it,” he says.
Before the movie went on floor, both Mehta and Siddiqui spent a lot of time on research. “The whole process went on for a couple of years,” says Mehta. “When I heard about him in 2007, I was making a film. Once that got over in 2009, I started working on Manjhi. We gathered books written on him and went through documentaries. We then went to his village and met his family. We also met a lot of villagers who had known him.”
Once Mehta understood Manjhi and his mindset, casting was a breeze. “Once the script happened, I started looking for the right person to play the role. And we all know Nawazuddin is the finest actor of this generation. Plus, his body type is same as Manjhi's. Also, his best quality is that he is a rooted man. So I knew nobody could play this character but him.”
The on-screen Manjhi also went to his character's village. And, it was then that he got to know a lot more about the man he was going to reprise on the big screen. “Mentally, you start working on the character when you’re given the script,” says Siddiqui. “Physically, I started working on the role 12 to 15 days before the shoot. I went to his village. I saw his videos. I met a lot of people and they told me that Manjhi was a fun-loving guy with a colourful personality.”
The preparations for the film, however, were not all fun and games. Actors these days are known to work hard to do justice to their characters, especially in biopics. Looking the part is almost as important as acting. Priyanka Chopra and Farhan Akhtar, for instance, went through gruelling training sessions to play Mary Kom and Milkha Singh. So, what challenges did Siddiqui face? “The most important thing while doing a biopic is that you have to go as close as possible to the character,” he says. “The way he walked, the way he talked and even the way he thought. In a biopic, you can’t play the role as you want. You have to give the audience an impression that he is exactly the same guy we read and heard about. You can’t interpret the character in your own way. For example, if you’re playing Gandhiji, you can’t walk as you want, you have to make sure you walk like Gandhiji.”
It's not every day that an actor gets a chance to play such a challenging character, and Siddiqui jumped at the opportunity. “When the script was offered to me, I immediately said yes. This story had to be told. Manjhi can be Superman for the youth. He did the impossible. Everybody should know about this man who is a symbol of will and passion. I think the youth today is self-centred. And this man carved a path that is helping thousands of people.”
Manjhi—The Mountain Man has been touted as one of the most awaited films of 2015, largely because of its awe-inspiring story. The Uttar Pradesh government has declared it tax free. However, a story on Manjhi would be incomplete without a few hurdles. Just before its release, the film was leaked online. “We were shocked and obviously it would affect the film’s collection. But I think what has been leaked online isn’t the edited version,” says Mehta.
Siddiqui says the film is a cinematic experience which can’t be enjoyed on laptops. “I want to tell people that if they want to see my performance, if they want to see detailed acting, they should watch the film in a theatre. On a small screen, you’re just watching information. If you want to feel the emotions, if you want to cry and laugh, watch it on the big screen.”
Combating piracy is a huge task. But, as Manjhi asks in the trailer, “Is it harder than breaking a mountain?”