Manjhi is a story of making the impossible possible
Manjhi: The Mountain Man has opened to rave reviews stating how the movie is a miracle. We caught up with director Ketan Mehta who in the midst of controversy, piracy and anticipation for the movie, was the perfect picture of calm and determination as he shared with us the experience of making Manjhi, the major flux in Indian cinema and his hopes and dreams.
How did the idea of Manjhi germinate?
In 2007, when Dashratha Manjhi died, there were articles in magazines and newspapers about this amazing man who broke a mountain for the sake of love for 22 years of his life with just a hammer, a chisel and his will. I thought it was an amazing story and couldn’t believe it at all. When I actually went to the village and stood there, looking at the mountain and the road he had carved out of it, I couldn’t believe that somebody could even think of doing it. He spent 22 years of his life just doing that. I instinctively felt that this is an amazing and inspiring story and needs to be shared. The story of making the impossible possible. This is what myths are made of but this was all real. This was all within our lifetime.
Did you immediately plan that this is the film you’re making?
We then started the research work. We went to the village and met the family, villagers, social scientists and journalists from the area and worked out the entire deal. After that we worked out the script.
How did you select the writers?
Usually I do the first draft myself and then get in the writers accordingly. For this, I wanted someone from the region to get the authentic feel and language. We took on Varadraj Swami and Shaiwal from the region to do the research and write the dialogues while Mahendra Jakhar and I wrote the script.
How did you zero in on Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte?
In Nawaz’s case, I’d seen some of his work and this was before he became so popular. He is certainly one of the finest actors of his generation. He and his presence were so similar to Dashratha Manjhi’s that the moment I met him and saw the intensity in his eyes, the decision was instinctively made. For Phaguniya, we auditioned almost a hundred girls. It wasn’t a very easy choice because the girl had to be earthy, urban, sensuous, sensitive and strong. All of this in one person was difficult to find. Finally when we took Radhika’s audition, we immediately said that this is a girl for whom somebody can break a mountain.
In terms of the recce, was it your decision to stay at a place that was similar to the mountain where Manjhi worked originally or were you looking at something more specific in terms of your vision?
Actually, we went to the location and shot at his village on the same mountain range where he carved out the path. There was no doubt about that. The mountain has a character of its own and it has a major part in the film, as much as that of the actors. In spite of it being a Naxal-infested, backward area with no infrastructure, we decided to go back and shoot there. It was the toughest shoot of our lives. We were staying at Bodh Gaya and everybody would wake up at 3 o’ clock in the morning, travel for one and a half hours to the location, then climb a mountain every day to shoot.
Are there any interesting experiences from the shoot that you can share with us?
(Laughs) If you’re referring to disasters, then no, none of those happened. Manjhi’s spirit was looking after us. But imagine a unit of hundred people climbing a mountain every day and not having any major falls or injuries. It is a miracle by itself.
Were there any anecdotes shared by friends and relatives of Dashratha Manjhi that you have incorporated in the script?
Our research was quite thorough to begin with because the entire village and the family participated in the shooting. One thing that came up before the shooting was that despite the fact that he was battling a mountain for 22 years, he was a very humorous man. He had a laughter that was grand and glorious. When these details come out, it somehow changes the colour of the character.
Was the movie made with a social agenda to inspire?
I need to get inspired myself to make a film. I spend almost two and a half years on a project and I have to be passionate about it to make it worth the while for others. This is the kind of story that is worth spending that much time, energy and money on and to share it with as many people as possible.
You’re a director who has constantly given us biopics. Tell us about your attraction to them.
I have done a dozen films and they’re all of different kinds. From a European classic like Madame Bovary to folklore to musicals to thrillers. The last three films have been biopics because I have realized that most of the times, fact is stranger than fiction. These are all really amazing, inspiring stories to tell and they’re all rooted in reality. Their believability and connection with the audience increases manifold.
But at every opportunity that you get to recreate these stories on screen, do you add a little fiction to the fact? For instance, you said in an interview that there is no actual story about Mangal Pandey, that nobody really knows.
You see, a biopic is not a biography. It is a vehicle for communicating ideas. Mangal Pandey is not just about Mangal Pandey. It is about the beginning of the idea of freedom in the Indian context. Similarly, Rang Rasiya is not just the biography of Raja Ravi Verma. It is about the idea of creative freedom or the freedom of expression and the dynamics surrounding it.
But do you think that it is this kind of creative freedom that causes the kind of controversies these films have been surrounded with?
I think we are controversy infested people. We love controversies.
Is that the fundamental difference between the films made in India and the West, say French cinema or Hollywood?
I think the Indian film industry is a vibrant film industry. We are just very argumentative people so anything we do turns into an argument. We’ve got a very different language and genre of filmmaking as compared to European filmmakers. We are the largest filmmaking country in the world and we have some incredible filmmakers, artists and technicians. The new generation of filmmakers is being adventurous, exploring new themes and forms of storytelling and the audience is getting more receptive. A whole new generation of audience has now emerged which is looking for change and different stories. We are going through a major flux in Indian cinema and I am very optimistic about it.
One problem that you have faced quite regularly, even with your last film, is piracy. Are you upset or have you given up on it? What do you think you should be doing to prevent it, especially with a print getting leaked right before the release?
We were traveling all over the country because we decided to not sit comfortably in Bombay and Delhi and promote the film. We decided to go across India and try and connect with people directly, especially with the younger people – students in schools and colleges – and promote the film in a very different and direct manner. That’s when we heard about the film’s leak. Fortunately, the print that has leaked is an earlier edit of the film. The final edit is different. But yes, it was shocking, the film getting leaked ten days before the release has huge implications. Viacom 18 is distributing the film and they are doing whatever they can to minimize the impact of this. This epic battle of a man against a mountain cannot be enjoyed on a laptop. Another thing that has happened is that even those people who have seen it on the internet are praising it, creating a buzz about the film and saying that they’ll go back and watch it on the big screen because it is so visually stunning.
In general, what do you think about piracy? Do you think something like the FBI warning for Hollywood should now be included in Indian films as well in terms of the imprisonment and the fine?
I think it is a criminal act which ends up seriously hurting the creators. Technology is growing at such a rate that it is difficult to prevent it now. We didn’t expect this to happen and didn’t know how to react to it. A warning should be included as this has now become a serious issue and needs to be tackled seriously.
The Nawazuddin you started working with and the Nawazuddin now are two different entities altogether. You started the movie with a brilliant actor and you are finishing and releasing the film with a great superstar. What do you think about that?
I think Nawaz and Radhika both belong to a new breed of actors who are actor-stars not star-actors. That is their quality and I hope they manage to retain that balance because that is their strength.
Did you watch Bypass or Ahalya?
I haven’t seen Ahalya yet because I’ve just been traveling around, trying to finish the film. But I intend to because wherever I go, people are talking about it and for a short film to create such a buzz is unique in India. I have seen Bypass though and Nawaz is just brilliant.
Was Deepa (Sahi) involved in any part of the filmmaking?
She’s a hands on producer of the film. It is fortunate to have a partner who is as mad about cinema as you are. We dream together and together try to make them come true.
What, according to you, are ingredients needed to become a successful director?
Success, I feel, is a term that has too many aspects. I just try to make a film I believe in. You most certainly need to work hard and believe in yourself.
What message would you give to budding filmmakers?
Keep dreaming. We give up too early. That’s what I learnt from Manjhi – impossible is a just a state of mind.
Any forthcoming projects?
I am planning a film on the Rani of Jhansi. She’s certainly one of the most fascinating female characters in world history. We have roped in Kangana Ranaut to play the role.
By Nandini Bhatia