Vasan Bala’s second film was long overdue. The wait’s been well worth it. The wild and wacky Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, produced by Ronnie Screwvala, elevates the superhero action genre to a higher plane and gives us reason to follow his career from here on with keen interest
By Saibal Chatterjee
Cinema is a director’s medium. Artistic and commercial choices shape a film no matter where and how it is made. However, one criticism mainstream Bollywood persistently faces is that the films it produces are rarely self-reflexive. They are usually for mass consumption and there is no room in them for personal expression or exploration.
So when Vasan Bala’s zany actioner Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota comes along, you cannot but sit up and take notice. Here is a Bollywood vengeance drama that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of its maker. A delightfully unabashed celebration of schlocky genre movies of an era gone by, it offers a happy blend of pulpy melodrama, quirky narrative sleights and heavily stylized superhero movie dynamics. Vasan Bala clearly knows his onions inside out.
There hasn’t been a Hindi film quite like Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota in several decades. Is that the reason why the director who burst on the scene in 2012 with the Cannes Critics Week selection Peddlers, has had to wait six long years for his second film?
The unfortunately unreleased Peddlers had flashes of the flair and flourish that find full expression in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. Vasan Bala is a director to watch. His wacky, refreshingly joyful tribute to the B-movies he devoured as a boy is underwired with his deep love for cinema as a whole. You can see his personality and vision in every frame of the film. Happily, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota faces no threat of not making it to the multiplexes.
Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota, with which the 20th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival opened in October, returned home after a major triumph at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award. In doing so, it edged out Hollywood biggies like Shane Black’s The Predator, David Gordon Green’s Halloween and Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation. No mean achievement for a film made on a minuscule fraction of the budget of an American production.
Vasan Bala is the first-ever Indian filmmaker to break into TIFF Midnight Madness, a section devoted to genre films that shock and startle. Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota thrives on defying expectations. The film’s narrative angularities impart a staccato, delirious rhythm to the storyline.
“All these years I’ve been fighting… this whole want of a plot,” the director told this writer in Toronto. “That is probably why I haven’t converted more of my ideas into films. For me, the story starts from scene one. But the plot kicks in whenever it has to.”
It isn’t only its absurd quality that sets Mard Ko Dard Nahin apart from the crowd. The wonderfully varied background score enhances its inherent unbridled energy. The director admits to the influence of Shankar-Jaikishan’s orchestration on the film’s soundscape.
The male protagonist of Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota, Surya, a 21-year-old man who is congenitally insensitive to physical pain, is played by first-timer Abhimanyu Dassani. The cherubic, middle-class ‘superhero’ is on a mission that borders on the ridiculous.Muggers caused his mother’s death. He’s out to eliminate them all. For all his heroics, he is a believable guy because he isn’t exactly infallible. Socially awkward, susceptible to dehydration and often vulnerable, he is driven by a sense of intrepidity engendered by his medical condition.
Like the film itself, this protagonist has come in from the cold and does many a thing that you least expect him to. We root for him nonetheless. Vasan Bala’s directorial flair and the general zaniness of the ‘action’ turns the film into a deliciously crazy ride.
As the hero goes about his job, he is aided by his childhood crush Supri (debutante Radhika Madan), an adventurous grandfather (Mahesh Manjrekar), and the one-legged karate master Mani who inspires him to pull off ‘great’ deeds (Gulshan Devaiah). The plot takes a turn when Mani’s evil twin Jimmy (Devaiah again highlighting his incredible versatility) appears and unleashes his henchmen on the hero.
Although Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota is a full-on tribute to B-movies of all kinds – the title, of course, harks back to Amitabh Bachchan in Manmohan Desai’s Mard– the filmmaker grew up on multiple cinematic influences. “The first film that my father took me to see,” he says, “was Franco Nero’s Django (a spaghetti western made in the mid-1960s). “Later on, Doordarshan curated such an interesting variety of films without the help of algorithms – Ozu and Bergman, Bollywood and MGR films. It was a great time.”
Vasan Bala points to the critical bias towards B-movies. “Rambo: First Blood, Taxi Driver and Born on the Fourth of July are all about Vietnam vets, but Rambo will never unlike the other two earn the status of a great film although it does not fall short in emotion, expression and craft,” he says.
How did he come up with something as wildly weird as Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota? Vasan Bala replies: “When you are writing your film you are so into that world that you are completely convinced about it. It is with that passion and zeal that you convince the producer. It is with the same passion and zeal that you make the film. You think it’s quirky or offbeat only when the film is out and people tell you so.”
Idiosyncratic or not, Vasan Bala has the makings of a worthy flag-bearer of a cinematic tradition that is crying out to be rescued from the morass of mediocrity.