Cinema good or bad invites you to daydream. Childhood reruns of our favourite movies were fuelled as much by admiration as by the urge to emulate.
We’d slink away in the afternoons, fashion broomsticks as guns, think up grandly outsized worlds and disappear in them.
With his new film Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, director Vasan Bala retreats to that primal feeling of fantasy, and performs a touching reversal: he stacks up the imaginary outtakes of his own childhood and returns them to where they belong — in a movie.
This is maybe why, save for a playback of It’s a Challenge from the Chiranjeevi-starrer Aaj Ka Goonda Raj (1992), we never quite see the films Vasan references.
It’s all meant to be in Surya’s mind. As the VHS-toting lead of this chopsocky fantasy, Surya (debutant Abhimanyu Dassani) is indivisible from the martial art movies he loves.
The film is littered with slo-mo shots of Surya frozen in mid-air — a visual salutation to a cinephile’s perpetual ‘suspension of disbelief’. He also happens to suffer from a rare congenital condition, one that renders him insensitive to pain. Most film lovers turn to cinema to soothe their wounds. What will Surya — a movie maniac who feels no pain — turn his fury to?
For a parody, this film cares too deeply for its backstory. Vexed by his son’s violent playtime brawls, Surya’s father (Jimit Trivedi) moves the family into a secluded villa, far off the city limits. There the boy grows up under the watch of his grandpa (Mahesh Manjrekar), a tender figure who parents and spoils him in equal measure.
Their relationship is rendered softly by Vasan and appears to stem directly from life. In a scene where Surya makes repeated visitations to the bathroom, evidently to answer puberty’s call, grandpa dubs him ‘Michael Schumacher’. Manjrekar is warmly memorable in the part, ensuring to highlight the chasm between ‘caring’ and ‘controlling’.
Seventeen years on, at the urging of his would-be stepmom, Surya, now all grown up, returns to Mumbai. I was put off by the choppy editing of these parts.
Scattered scenes take turns setting up a dropkicking heroine, Supri (Radhika Madan); a drunken karate master, Mani (Gulshan Devaiah); his evil gangster brother, Jimmy (Devaiah again); and Supri’s oppressive father; and fiancé.
The second half was where I was hoping to have the most fun, but while the action scenes boast some delirious choreography, and the humour remains whacky, I found the film’s narrative hook faltering. The ‘clichéd-ness’ of the characters works wonderfully in the flashier portions, but backfires whenever the film takes itself seriously.
Despite Devaiah’s brilliant pauses, Mani and Jimmy end up just how they’re introduced: as drunken master and his psychotic twin.
Vasan — who’d directed the stylishly tongue-in-cheek short film, Geek Out, about a keyboard warrior playacting as a comic book hero — makes an effort to tone down the sarcasm in Mard. He wants audiences to receive Surya as more than just a fool, to find glimmers of a real hero within the heavily reel one, and it’s this obsession with truth that wears down the film’s pace.
That is, until the climax. The ending showdown of Mard is an uproarious action film orgy, staged in tribute to Bruce Lee movies but attuned in goofiness to the finale of Takeshi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse.
Cinematographer Jay Patel and stunt director Eric Jacobus convert a Mumbai residential block into a bloodied battlefield; bones click and crunch as Surya takes on the final baddies of his karate-crazed mind, culminating in one of the funniest sign-offs in recent Hindi cinema.
I’ll be rewatching Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota several times over for this monstrously satisfying end, and I urge you to do the same. Don’t just relive your childhood through Vasan Bala’s film — wink and watch it win.