Manjhi: The Mountain Man tells the true story of Dashrath Manjhi (1934–2007), played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Manjhi is famous for having created a path through a hill near his village of Gehlore, Bihar, using only a hammer and chisel, in “just” 22 years. He undertook this task after his wife Phaguniya (played by Radhika Apte) fell from the hill and her life could not be saved by the nearest hospital – transport to the hospital being forced to go all the way around the hill.
Now for the Bechdel test: Rewind a little. When Phaguniya goes into labour with her first child in the movie, a group of unnamed women rush to support her and shout instructions to each other. That’s all the lip service the Bechdel test gets.
As for feminist aspects of the movie, Phaguniya is portrayed as the stereotypical “strong woman” – beating her husband with a broom and so on – which in my book would make a feminist audience feel patronized. Yoohoo, people! Beating her husband does not make Phaguniya a feminist: the t-shirt says, “This is NOT what a feminist looks like”. So we are forced to choose an alternative route – who is a feminist’s ally in this movie? Workers and women unite and take back the same night, after all.
There are plenty of “down with patriarchy” kranti moments – against caste, for one. Manjhi’s community is literally called a “caste of rat-eaters” by upper caste characters in the movie, and Manjhi celebrates the day when Parliament passes the abolishment of the practice of untouchability into law. Yet he is beaten for daring to touch the evil zameendar Mukhiya (Tigmanshu Dhulia), and gruesome treatment of Manjhi’s community is yo-yoed at us now and then – and it’s no lip service this time. Mukhiya also terrorizes and tortures anyone who crosses his path, and his son (played by Pankaj Tripathi) abducts a woman from Manjhi’s community, rapes and kills her. In the coal mines Mukhiya owns, one of Manjhi’s community falls into a fire, and Mukhiya refuses to put the fire out to save the man’s life. A brief appearance by Naxalites twists the plot against Mukhiya, but, true to life, his problems are short-lived. All this evilness paints a good solid representative picture of caste-based violence in the country. Manjhi speaking out against these atrocities is also suitably kranti.
The second, funner kranti is portrayed as the movie deals with the issue of madness. People call Manjhi a certifiable nutcase for taking a hammer and chisel to a mountain – understandably. After a decade or so, when they see that he’s making some headway, they start treating him as a holy man who’s accomplished the impossible while in the grip of his “junoon”, as they call it – he pretty much lives off the grid, except for a short period when he has to take care of his children. And the madness in his eyes, words and laughter is subtle yet patent. I don’t know who made Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s eyes glitter like that – maybe it was Siddiqui himself who took a special acting course in eye glitterification. But it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off his face. My favourite scenes are when he smoulders at the mountain and talks to it – sometimes lovingly, sometimes angrily, sometimes reverently, sometimes gratefully. The mountain is pretty much his closest friend and confidante throughout the movie, after the death of his wife. The importance of telling audiences that rock, like trees, is something to be loved and revered cannot be stressed enough. This is the main reason I’m glad Manjhi was made.
Which brings us to the Man vs Nature narrative. Destroying a mountain is, of course, a violent act – as violent as any of the acts are that support our production-driven economy. The difference is that the villagers of Gehlore suffer from being cut off from the rest of the world by the mountain. And since we are forced to choose between the mountain and human beings, we choose human beings.
Caste- and mental illness-related stigmata aren’t enough for the movie though. And this is where it gets all simplistic and Eggs Kejriwal – Manjhi is hamstrung by corruption and zero-tolerance Emergency measures, and the meaty grant the government gives him doesn’t reach him at all; it’s stolen by Mukhiya. He tries to lead a mass protest and gets jailed for a while. Today’s climate of the “middle-class man” and the AAP’s self-righteous tunnel-vision about corruption make this part of the movie seem so last season. But no, it’s not the same thing at all. This kranti against corruption is a legit “gimme-money-to-break-mountain” agenda, because Dashrath Manjhi’s work is one of those rare things that unites most of us on the spectrum, from left to right.
The biggest aspect of kranti and catharsis, though, is an internal one. In a wicked quest to wrest Jungian archetypes and narratives from any story, à la Clarissa Pinkola Estés, this is clearly a case of destroying the mountain within, of carving a path through our most unspeakable emotions, the ones that hold us hostage and hobble the way we live our lives. Dashrath Manjhi does go through the inevitable internal ups-and-downs involved in a big project – writing a doctoral thesis comes to mind – the usual cocktail of hope and despair that accompanies any work on obstacles. Having to quote Churchill here is no pleasant undertaking, but “the only way out is through”. That’s exactly what Manjhi did with the mountain, quite literally, so that no one from Gehlore would have to travel around it again.
A journalist (Gaurav Dwivedi) who documents some of Manjhi’s work over the years once complains to him (Manjhi) that he’s sick of working for a corrupt newspaper. When Manjhi tells him to start his own newspaper, he smiles and says that would be prohibitively difficult. To which Manjhi predictably replies: “Harder than breaking a mountain?”
I suppose we kranti-practicers, especially kranti-practicing feminists, are all going to have to hold ourselves to that standard now. Hammer and chisel – and Google maps, to find the nearest misogynistic sub-culture.