Director: Vasan Bala
Cast: Abhimanyu Dassani, Radhika Madan, Gulshan Devaiah, Mahesh Manjrekar
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is a fanboy's ode to the movies. Writer and director Vasan Bala goes back to his childhood and summons up the films he grew up loving – from Hong Kong martial arts movies to Manmohan Desai. And from this colourful, delightfully nutty source material, Vasan conjures up an action-comedy, which looks and feels like a comic book, about an unlikely superhero.
Surya has congenital insensitivity to pain. He doesn't notice when bullies insert a compass into his thigh or when his hand is cut. He has to be taught that when you see blood, you say ouch. His grandfather fires his imagination by introducing Surya to the great martial arts movies – we see the 1985 cult film Gymkata being inserted into the VHS, which of course plays a key role. And Surya grows up to be, at least in his own head, a crime-avenging superhero whose kryptonite is dehydration. Surya always carries a water-pack with him so he can keep sipping.
Vasan stuffs this story with so many film references that you could keep yourself reasonably entertained by just playing spot the source, starting of course with the title. It comes from Manmohan Desai's 1985 film Mard, in which we were solemnly told: Jo mard hota hai usse dard nahi hota. You might recall that in the same film, Dara Singh carves the word mard with a knife on his infant son's chest, which of course bleeds but the baby keeps smiling and then grows up to be Amitabh Bachchan. The great Bruce Lee movies – Fist of Fury, Enter the Dragon – are also major inspirations. Movie iconography is in every frame – like in countless Bollywood movies, Surya has a childhood love Supri. But they part and when they meet again as adults, she is beating up men in slow motion. The action is set to Kishore Kumar's classic song 'Nakhrewali'. It's both funny and surprisingly romantic. And it reminded me of that memorable gun fight in Bejoy Nambiar's Shaitan, in which bullets and bodies bounced in sync with 'Khoya Khoya Chand'.
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is peppered with gems like this. The highlight is the action – there's a sequence of inspired mayhem in the villain Jimmy's posh office. And the climactic showdown between the good guys and the baddies has its own unique lunacy. Through these fights, pay close attention to the expressions of the henchmen – one pretends to have passed out so he doesn't have to fight any longer – it's priceless.
As is the character of Jimmy, who is introduced to us as "clichéd psychotic villain." Jimmy is the sort of nutcase who sits in a bathtub filled with rose petals and gives orders. His greatest joy is tormenting his nobler and more talented twin brother Mani. Both roles are played by Gulshan Devaiah who is furiously alive to the range of possibilities that the characters offer – so Mani, the one-legged Karate master, has a weary sadness about him as he declares mournfully: I want to die legend. And Jimmy is a sadist in spiffy clothes who tells his brother mid-fight – tu Kamal fan hai, tu Rajni fan hota na. Mind you, Jimmy isn't doing any fighting himself. He doesn't get his hands dirty.
The other scene-stealer is Mahesh Manjrekar as Surya's grandfather. He has a Yoda-like wisdom and a few killer lines. Debutant Abhimanyu Dassani also does well as Surya, summoning up the right mix of earnestness and eccentricity. Surya remains a boy even when he's an adult – sort of like Tom Hanks in Big – and Abhimanyu's guileless manner fits well. Radhika Madan is sparkling as Supri – she combines a fierce spirit with vulnerability. Watch her in the scene, in which she explains the delights of khujli to Surya who like pain, doesn't feel itchy either. She's absolutely lovely.
Vasan's rich imagination gives us a roster of memorably kooky characters. Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota is self-aware. Surya who is also the narrator breaks the fourth wall often which adds to the fun but to keep a film like this afloat, you need unlimited buoyancy and wit – think of Stephen Chow's wildly inventive Kung Fu Hustle or Shinichiro Ueda's One Cut of the Dead. In Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, the energy peaks and dips. The writing isn't consistent and some scenes feel flat. The plot is far too rambling – in fact, a sub-plot about Supri's fiancé seems tacked on and jarring because it hardly fits with the absurdist tone of the film.
The good news is that the film ends with the hint of a sequel. I think if Vasan finds his footing, we might get a worthy desi superhero franchise. I'm going with three stars.