By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the wondrous Taj Mahal for his beloved queen, Mumtaz Mahal. It took him 22 years after her death and an army of slaves and a treasure full of gold and silver to raise the marvel in marble. Both are now buried there, and the Taj Mahal is certainly one of the best known icons of India that is on the must-see list of every tourist. Those who have seen it are awed and amazed by the Taj Mahal’s almost ethereal beauty.
But there was another man — unknown and unsung — who adored his wife as passionately as Shah Jahan loved his queen. And like the emperor, Dashrath Manjhi, an abysmally poor man from Bihar, created something as grand as the Taj Mahal. The untimely and shocking death of his wife led him to take up a hammer and chisel to cut through a stubbornly rocky mountain and lay a road. He did this all by himself. He had no mighty workforce to help him nor a treasure trove, and but like in the case of Shah Jahan, Manjhi’s monument of love also took 22 years to be completed.
Renowned director Ketan Mehta — who has enlightened us with remarkably thought-provoking films — will tell the story of this fascinating man through a feature. Titled Manjhi-The Mountain Man, it will hit theatres across the world on August 21. Mehta being Mehta, he is sure to bewitch us with his movie of the mountain that crumbled in the face of the widower’s will — perhaps much like Moses, who held up his staff and the Red Sea parted for his followers to escape from the pursuing Egyptians. Manjhi gripped his hammer, and the mountain split in two for a road to be built so that men, women and children could flee from death.
Manjhi lost his wife, because she could not reach a hospital in time, the mountain making the journey fatally circuitous. A huge boulder fell on her and as she lay bleeding and writhing in pain, Manjhi tried hard to get her to a doctor in time. But the nearest hospital, the closest point of medical help, was at Wazirganj — 80 km away — the rocky, uneven road delaying the journey even further. By the time, she reached the hospital, she was dead.
Manjhi said to himself on that fateful day that he would not let anyone else die because of this deplorable deterrent, and as he chipped away bits and pieces of the mountain single-handedly, his fellow villagers in Gehlur ridiculed him. They called him mad, but he remained undaunted — steadfastly devoted to his cause as he was to his wife.
Manjhi finally dug a path through the mountain, reducing the distance from his village to the hospital to a mere 13km.
Years later, Manjhi, would tell his admirers and critics that the mountain had shattered so many pots and claimed so many lives that he could not bear to just stand and watch.
Although he lived an extremely impoverished life — he had to sell his goats to buy the hammer and chisel — he never lost heart in those 22 years. Manjhi died in 2007 aged 73, and was honoured with a Bihar state funeral.
Mehta told me over the telephone from Mumbai the other day that Manjhi’s “was an incredible love story — even more poignant and precious than that of Shah Jahan. While the Mughal emperor had hundreds of slaves and a full treasury to build the Taj Mahal in 22 years, Manjhi had none of these. All by himself, he created a passage, a true monument of love, not just to keep the memory of his wife alive, but also to serve humanity and save precious lives. Therein lies the difference between Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal and Manjhi’s rocky road.”
Immortalising The Mountain Man will be Nawazuddin Siddiqui, an actor whose recent performances have been extraordinarily engrossing. As Chand Nawab in Kabir Khan’s latest outing, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he literally transformed himself into a television reporter, and in fact, of the two redeeming features in the film, one of them was his invaluable performance. (The other is Harshaali Malhotra, who plays the six-year-old mute Pakistani girl.)
There are several moments in the movie where Siddiqui shines brighter than the hero, Salman Khan. Remember that scene where the two, clad in a burkha, are running away from the cops. The sequence would have fallen flat had it not been for Nawab’s fine histrionics and lines delivered with incredible timing. Also, one could not have missed Nawab standing on a footbridge, against the backdrop of a stationary train in a railway station, trying desperately to finish his news reporting — even as he grapples with passersby who keep intruding into the field. Only Siddiqui could have carried that scene with such wonderful wit.
Although the 40-plus actor has been around for a while, since 1999, it was only recently that he caught the critical eye. As an Intelligence Bureau officer A Khan, in Kahaani, Siddiqui packed power into that punch with steely resolve; as Faizal Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur, the actor was garrulously cunning; as a trainee clerk, Shaikh, working under Irrfan Khan’s lonely and horribly cynical Saajan in The Lunchbox, Siddiqui essayed a largely underwritten role with finesse and flourish; and as Laik in Badlapur, he brought many shades to the character, cold and crafty, but also warm and sacrificing. Ketan Mehta could not have chosen a more appropriate Mountain Man.
Mehta himself has given us enormously interesting fare in works like Bhavni Bhavai (about untouchability), Mirch Masala (about a wicked subedar rampaging through a village and who finally gets beaten by the women’s chilli powder treatment) and Mangal Pandey: The Rising (about a sepoy whose action spurred the 1857 war of independence).
Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, with Nandana Sen and Randeep Hood, was a colourful portrayal of Raja Ravi Varma’s passionate affair with his muse. The movie did not get a censor clearance for six years, because of its nude scenes. Finally, it hit theatres in 2014 and garnered critical acclaim.
Mehta has always been known for his socially provocative cinema. We have seen that in Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala among a few others. Manjhi-The Mountain Man is bound to create not ripples in a gurgling stream, but volcanic eruptions in a selfishly passive society.
* Gautaman Bhaskaran has
watched every film of Ketan Mehta and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and may be
e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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