The unseemly fight over Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s film Mountain Man

Cineswami sheds light over the latest court case to rock filmdom

When Dashrath Manjhi died on August 17, 2007, after achieving his life’s ambition, the last thing on his mind would have been a protracted court battle over a film about him. Manjhi was born in humble circumstances in Gahlour, Bihar in 1934. He led an unremarkable life until his wife Falguni Devi died due to lack of medical attention, as the nearest hospital was 75 long kilometres away. The chief culprit was a mountain in the Gahlour hills that stood between the Atri and Wazirganj blocks of Gaya district. Manjhi took it upon himself to tunnel a 360-foot-long, 25-foot-high and 30-foot-wide road through the mountain, thus reducing the distance to just one kilometre. It took him 22 years between 1960-1982.

Now, if that’s not an inspirational story, then you have a heart of stone. Several filmmakers thought so too. One such was Dhananjay Kapoor, who met Manjhi, did copious amounts of research and set about making a film. Failed filmmaker Manish Jha (Matrubhoomi, Anwar) managed to rope in Udaan producer Sanjay Singh to back a film on the same subject. With a shrewd eye on his director’s less than stellar track record, Singh decided not to be king soon enough and the project fell through. Jayatheertha made a Kannada film called Olave Mandara where the protagonist meets Dashrath Manjhi who proves to be an inspiration for him.

And then Ketan Mehta entered the Manjhi mix. The inspirational tale had all the makings of being a redemptive vehicle for him, reeling as he was from the box office disaster that was Tere Mere Phere that he produced and his wife Deepa Sahi directed, and the fact that his much lauded Rang Rasiya failed to secure a release in spite of or maybe because of featuring Nandana Sen in the altogether. Mehta’s version of the Manjhi story was titled Mountain Man and featured white-hot indie actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui (once the poor man’s Irrfan, then the new Irrfan and now just Nawazuddin, despite Aatma).

A fairy tale and triumphant return was being scripted for Mehta, but Kapoor went to court – in Patna. The court heard both sides of the case patiently. Kapoor’s contention was that he had acquired the rights to Manjhi’s story before his death in 2007 (Manjhi’s not Kapoor’s) and therefore Mehta must not release his version. Mehta’s lawyers said that Manjhi’s life was in the public domain, plus his descendants had signed a no-objection letter and therefore it was open season on making films on him.

The judge considered several cases including Shekhar Kapur vs Phoolan Devi about Bandit Queen and AMR Ramesh vs Veerappan’s widow Muthulakshmi about the late bandit’s biopic Attahasa. Eventually, the decision was made in favour of Kapoor. Mehta has been directed not to release his film “during the pendency of the suit.”

Meanwhile, we the public wait to see Manjhi’s story on the big screen. Perhaps Kapoor would be so kind as to oblige us and release his version now that he’s won his case. Or will he wait for Mehta to take the fight to the Supreme Court?

O Manjhi re…