Director: Vasan Bala
Cast: Abhimanyu Dasani, Radhika Madan, Gulshan Devaiah, Mahesh Manjrekar
Cinema becomes personal when life inspires the movies. It says something about writer-director Vasan Bala's life that Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota – a movie inspired by the movies – feels like the most personal Hindi film of the year. The martial-arts-dramedy-meets-Bollywood-parody about a 21-year-old man who feels no pain – the medical condition 'congenital insensitivity to pain' is even uttered by an inimitably self-serious doctor in a flashback – is chock-a-block with retro hat-tips, spoofy one-liners and stylistic homages, most of whose sources I am unqualified to identify. But I can confirm that the affection looks genuine, and the action, a culmination of a genre fan's long-standing dream. What really sets the kitschy and ultra-cool physicality of MKDNH apart – much like Assamese director Kenny Basumatary's Local Kung-Fu series – is the creator's ability to fashion a childhood ode into something so uncompromisingly accessible.
Most storytellers grow up wanting to make a film; Bala makes one about the overstated perils of not wanting to grow up. Naturally then, there's an unbreakable hero, a silver-tongued grandfather, a complicated heroine, a Karate Master and his evil twin brother. Not in Gotham or Metropolis, but in the Western Mumbai suburb of Matunga, an area not exactly known for a non-conformist, anti-traditionalist worldview. Which is all the more why someone like a naively infectious Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani), or Bala himself, might view this world through their own sepia-tinted swimming goggles. The smaller these worlds, the further and higher they escape.
MKDNH might on the surface be about young Surya, a boy whose 'superhuman' illness makes him a socially challenged do-gooder. But it is really about an artist – any Indian artist – and his inherent eccentricities and misunderstood talents that turn him into a bit of a cultural oddity. The disease is just a device to accessorize a time when everything felt like a romantic do-or-die mission. Most artists are brought up in a society that thinks something is wrong with them. They are perceived to be diseased, different. They tend to look at situations through the intrinsic prism of books and movies – in the form of narratives and frame rates, in the grand grammar of action and romance, in the extreme emotional language of revenge and redemption. If a cat falls from a tree, they see a tiger falling into a pit of fire. This analogy is smartly disguised by Bala's tribute-heavy filmmaking.
MKDNH might on the surface be about young Surya, a boy whose 'superhuman' illness makes him a socially challenged do-gooder. But it is really about an artist – any Indian artist – and his inherent eccentricities and misunderstood talents that turn him into a bit of a cultural oddity
For example, Surya is isolated by a father who treats him like a special case. He must pretend to feel – a robotic "ouch" follows a painless body blow – like normal people. He inspires another outsider (in this case, a childhood friend named Supri), but she is unable to replicate his God-given 'gift'. His voiceovers – "Behind every mind-blowing story are bad life-decisions" – are ripe with superlatives. He intimidates anyone new with choreographed air-Karate moves, as if a camera were always on him. An early tragedy elevates the petty crime of chain-snatching into somewhat of an earth-shattering felony for him. He slides into every police station ready to dismantle a room full of 'corrupt cops'. Kishore Kumar's Nakhrewali scores Supri's (Radhika Madan) action-packed entrance against a gang of thugs, as if the music were choreographed to her moves instead of the other way around. His idol, Master Mani (a frighteningly versatile Gulshan Devaiah), and Mani's eccentric twin Jimmy (a scene-stealing Gulshan Devaiah), are introduced as "clichéd drunken Karate Master" and "clichéd psychotic villain" in Surya's celluloid mind. Blithe Matunga housing societies look like aesthetically lit superhero dens and shadowy hideouts through his eyes. He speaks with the self-awareness of a hero who expects every word to have a musical punchline.
At the same time, Surya wonders why henchmen run so fast towards a hero during an attack; an old uncle asks for vendor registration and cancelled cheques when desperate baddies beg him for a gun in the middle of a hand-combat sequence; Jimmy taunts and teases a one-legged Mani and numb Surya like a Twitter troll who pretends to hate mainstream cinema but is secretly nostalgic about it. It's almost like the adult in the filmmaker is gently poking holes into the myths of his own VHS-fuelled childhood, without completely disregarding its significance.
At many points, you expect Surya to remove his goggles and reveal a setting so barren that it's easy to dismiss him as yet another loner with an overactive imagination. But you don't want him to stop dreaming. You don't want him to stop hearing a soundtrack in his head. He's essentially a Calvin looking for the Hobbes in everyone else. One suspects that this carefree leap of faith by Vasan Bala is the cumulative outcome of a frustrating few years. With his directorial debut Peddlers (2012), he was one of the first protégés from the Anurag Kashyap stable to make a mark at Cannes; the tragedy of Peddlers, however, is that it remains unreleased, and largely unseen, for reasons beyond his control. Co-writing Bombay Velvet might not have helped matters.
Fortunately, he turned a life of movies – rather than his life itself – into a movie. MKDNH is, in a way, a freewheeling embodiment of an artist breaking free. It expresses itself through its influences, and not despite them. It's tempting to assume that the director has, through the remarkably agile and loftily named Surya, created a fantasy version of himself. After all, he is finally…a man who feels no pain.