Festival favourites tend to have a reputation for not doing well at the Indian box-office, as they come with a preconceived notion of being artsy and catering to a niche audience. “Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota”, however, has a lot going for it that could entice a larger, mainstream audience. For starters, its promos make it seem like a superhero or a martial arts film, unlike any Bollywood has seen thus far. Secondly, it features a fresh, young cast in film that’s infused with nostalgic retro sounds and look. Finally, it is the sophomore directorial feature from writer/director Vasan Bala, who, along with Anurag Kashyap, wrote the excellent character study that was the serial killer film “Raman Raghav 2.0”. The film had its premiere in the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival 2018, winning the People’s Choice Award.
Surya suffers from congenital insentivity to pain. As an infant, he met with an accident when muggers tried to snatch his mother’s gold necklace, causing severe nerve damage to the little boy, making him immune to physical pain. Against all odds, Surya grows up in a sheltered childhood under the watchful eye of a strict father, watching Hong Kong martial arts films and old Bollywood action fares on VHS with his grandfather Ajoba, all the while nurturing an intense hatred for muggers. The only constants in his life are his water backpack, out of which he must drink regularly to avoid dehydration and fainting, and his best friend Supri, his oasis in an otherwise barren world, the latter of which is literally dragged out of his life following an accident.
Several years later, while following a chain of posters announcing the reorganisation of Surya’s favourite 100-Man Fight by the legendary one-legged Master Karate Mani, Surya runs into Supri, herself a martial arts expert. Surya’s childhood hero Karate Mani, meanwhile, turns out to be a meek drunk who has an axe to grind with his twin brother Jimmy. When Jimmy snatches a sentimental necklace off Mani’s neck, Surya’s hatred for muggers bubbles up and he makes it his mission to bring it back for his hero.
“Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota” is filled to the brim with throwbacks and references to not just kung fu classics but also popular Bollywood action films of the 80s and 90s, both at the script level as well as in its execution. In that sense, it feels very much like a Bollywood “Kill Bill”. Director Vasan Bala throws in as many namechecks to martial arts superstars and hit action films as he can muster. Much like “Kill Bill”, this film also references a classic Bruce Lee costume unashamedly, only this time it is his red tracksuit from “Longstreet”. Even Supri’s wardrobe, for that matter, is evidently styled on Julie Estelle’s Hammer Girl from “The Raid: Berandal” in her introductory scene and her climactic scene from “Headshot” in the climax. Several plot devices are also lifted straight from popular Bollywood films of decades gone past: a dead mother, the polar opposite twins, a drunk father and his suffering wife and the ever-important sentimental heirloom accessory. The very witty, often hilarious meta script presents these all-too-familiar ideas in a very fresh and modern setting. Even the soundtrack samples zany classics from Bollywood as well as quirky original songs.
Fresh-faced Abhimanyu Dassani, with a face that the females might swoon over and a body that men might be jealous of, is very likeable as Surya and a decent actor to boot. His efforts and hard work with the action scenes are evident in the effortless way he goes about them, making the viewers believe that Surya is a lad who has honed his skills with years of practise. Equally believable is Radhika Madan as Supri, who makes up for her only slightly lacking acting skills with her martial arts skills. Veteran actor Mahesh Manjrekar is a delight to watch as doting grandfather Ajoba but it is the inspired casting of Gulshan Devaiah that steals all the limelight as the twins Mani and Jimmy. His villainous Jimmy, in particular, is a complete joy and owns every scene he turns up in.
This is not to say the film is completely without its faults. The first half particularly spends a lot longer than required in flashbacks. In trying to etch Surya’s backstory too intricately, it feels unnecessarily stretched in parts. If the crux of Karate Mani and Jimmy’s animosity can be explained within the duration of the song “Life Mein Fair Chance Kiska”, surely lesser time could have been spent with Surya’s flashbacks, keeping the film tighter and focused. The action direction by Eric Jacobus and Anand Shetty is exciting and reverent, lensed well by Director of Photography Jay Patel, but there comes a time when the slow motions become too excessive to bear.
Does the film spend too much time servicing nostalgia? Maybe, but even the sternest eye can’t possibly be not swayed by the charms of the cast and the many joys of Vasan Bala’s screenplay. I honestly believe the distributors and producers of the film missed a beat on the film’s theatrical run. It didn’t enjoy a healthy marketing campaign and only played for limited showings for a week in most places. This is a film that could have benefited vastly from a strong word of mouth but was sadly taken down prematurely before word could spread. It is, however, heartening to see it continue its strong festival run and must absolutely be watched if it comes to a festival near you or on Netflix, where it’s started to stream in some territories.