No one noticed this is a week late, right? Nah, you are forgiving people who don’t obsess over whether Margaret is keeping her schedule.
This isn’t an Indian film, in that it doesn’t follow the standard technical aspects of Indian film. But it is an Indian film in that it is telling a story that is set in India, for the appreciation of people who live in India. That’s a funny little niche, but this film isn’t all alone in there. There’s also Delhi Belly, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, The Householder, all kinds of films that are Indian in content and audience but not structure. What I love about these moves is that it is Indian talent throwing themselves fully into telling a new kind of story, and then happily going back to the usual way they tell a story. It’s just so open to new experiences in the nicest way. Good for you, Bhagyashree’s son! And good for you, rising talent in the mainstream industry Radhika Madan! And good for the Indian audience and critics which gave it a decent shot at success.
I get angry when a director tries to be fancy and does stuff Hollywood style that could just as well be done Indian style, especially when they go on to get accolades for it. But this film is telling a story that demands the style in which it is told. The key to the film is in the central character trait, our hero who feels no pain. And yet, that pain still exists. We need to tell this story in a way that allows for both the magic of a world without pain, and the reality of a world with it. And this is something that traditional Hindi film styles simply cannot do.
In my review of Zero, Reflects on Life pointed out something brilliant. Zero was made using magical realism, the story works if the audience is in that place of magic-that-is-real-but-magical. That’s not how Hindi film works. Magic isn’t magic because it is every day. Hindi film narrative is in a world that accepts what in other industries might be considered “magical” as average, and that effects how the stories are told. So, for instance, if a couple who separated years earlier randomly end up on the same train car in a Hindi film, that isn’t magical fate which means they will be together. That’s just another moment of the plot, it always happens. In Hindi film, a hero who is not bothered by pain is just “a hero”, there is no plot with that at the center. So this film has to take a different film language to tell a story where that DOES matter. Along with all the other things that are supposed to be real, but unusual, that happen in this narrative.
Vasan Bala, the director/writer, took his time to decide the perfect way to tell his story. He’s been working with Anurag Kashyap for a decade, and wrote two movies before this one. Along with Anurag, he also helped write dialogue for The Lunchbox, and Trishna (Michael Winterbottom directed, one of those movies set in India but not made by or for Indians). And then, finally, he made this movie when it was all perfectly planned in his head.
It’s really the director’s movie. The fact that I didn’t bother to learn the name of Bhagyashree’s son, beyond calling him “Bhagyashree’s son”, is a good indication of the impact his performance made on me. And that’s fine, this movie is carefully crafted around the visuals so that it only need a decent performance at the center. Radhika Mohan put in a more than decent performance, but then her character required a more than decent performance which is why Vasan Bala cast an actress he knew could do it, an actress Anurag had just picked as his lead for Pataakha with two more films lined up after that.
The most important character is the one played by the most important actor. Mahesh Manjrekar is not only a character actor with decades of experience, he is also an award winning director in his own right. And so he plays the grandfather of our hero, and the one character who is both completely average and normal, and yet who still believes in magic. The character who is the key to the whole film, the one who takes a realistic tragedy and chooses to see it as a magical opportunity, and somehow makes the whole world just a little bit magical, and still real.
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A friend said to me once about Indian films “they like a lot of story in their stories”. A big way this film is NOT Indian, is that there is so little story in the story. Our hero is born with a medical condition that does not allow him to feel pain. His mother dies when she is attacked by chain snatchers on the way home from the hospital. His maternal grandfather raises him by showing him action movies so he will understand pain. He is separated from his female best friend as a child and grows up, only to find her again when he tries to track down the hero of his favorite karate video and learns she has been trained by him. They join together to take on the evil twin brother of the karate master and defeat him.
The story isn’t really a “plot” because this film doesn’t believe in plot, but the characters do. Life just moves forward, day by day, it doesn’t have a beginning or end. But sometimes you need to believe in a beginning and end in order to see your way forward. That’s what his grandfather was trying to teach the hero. Most people don’t survive with his condition, because they see it as a “condition”. His grandfather spun him a fantasy, to see it as a special power and not give up on life. And then our hero grows up and gives that same gift to Radhika Mohan, his childhood friend grown up. She never believed in fantasy, she was just trying to survive. Her father was an abusive drunk, she survived that and then fell into a marriage with a guy who would keep her sheltered and fed and buy her parents medicine, but she never really lived. If she looks at her life as a never-ending future, and a never starting past, then this is the only choice. Small logical safe steps. But if she looks at the world as a story, then she is escaping her life, starting fresh, defeating the villain, finding love, and then getting a happy ending. Our hero FORCES the world to have a plot. He tracks down the Karate hero and learns he has a lifelong feud with his twin brother, and that Radhika is his student. There is no reason to confront the twin brother just now, no reason Radhika couldn’t have walked away from her husband at any point earlier, not even a reason the hero and Radhika couldn’t have been reunited sooner (he knew her name, she still lived with her parents). But he declares now is the time to confront the brother, which means now is the time Radhika has to leave her husband, and finally all of this means that now is the time for Radhika to finally make her move on the hero.
This movie has a sex scene which is the opposite of the usual Indian sex scene. Usually we see the way it feels for the couple having sex, mountain tops and beautiful music and perfect beautiful bodies. But this time we see the way it is in reality while understanding that for them it feels different, that they are seeking the fantasy. Radhika takes him up to the roof, puts down a blanket, talks to him about the joys of the body, and then kisses him. The next morning in the cold light of dawn, he talks about feeling an orgasm while he cannot feel pain (this is the one line that I wish a better actor had said, I’m not quite sure what he is supposed to be feeling here). And she smiles and goes off to buy a morning after pill. They didn’t have sex because they are overwhelmed by magical attraction, or because music started playing and stuff. They had sex because Radhika decided she wanted to have sex and made preparations for it, and he wanted it too. And then they had messy awkward conversation in the morning. But the characters will rewrite it into the magical version they want, we even see the start of that with Radhika smiling as she takes her morning after pill and then starting to smile and dance a little on the way back home.
Over and over again we see the reality, and then the fantasy that characters choose to live with in. Mahesh Manjrekar starts it, but then (shockingly) Radhika’s mother bursts out at the last minute with a crazy plan to distract the family while Radhika “escapes”. But, she isn’t escaping! Like, she doesn’t need a distraction or to hide from the guards or anything. She is a grown woman, she could just walk out of the building because she hates her husband. That is the reality, but the reality wouldn’t get her to walk away. So her mother creates this bit of crazy fantasy and adventure to drive her away.
That’s what this movie is about. Taking messy unpleasant reality and turning it into a fantasy in order to survive it all. That’s the title, “Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota” (Man to whom pain never comes). It doesn’t refer to our heroes medical condition, it refers to a choice to reject the pain of the world, to live in the fantasy instead.