The plot of Manjhi – the Mountain Man tastes a bit more sour than an average Bollywood movie (spoilers follow!). The people living in a forgotten Indian village called Gehlaur, being deprived of basic infrastructure and blocked by small but rocky mountains, must each day choose between covering a 70 km road to reach the nearest city or taking a shorter but more dangerous hilly path. Among the inhabitants of Gehlaur are the Manjhi family who live a challenging but happy life. That life turns grim when Dashrath Manjhi’s wife, Falguni Devi, having set off to the city for health reasons, dies after falling off the rocky way. Her strong, stubborn and grieving husband swears that he will not let anybody else face such a fate. Played by Nawazzudin Siddiqui, at present one of Bollywood’s most interesting actors, Dashrath Manjhi sacrifices the next 22 years of his life to “break the mountain.” Armed only with his simple tools, facing dire conditions, public derision, and a state of mind nearing lunacy, he finally manages to cut a safe path right through the cruel rock.
So why is it a sourer story than an average Bollywood movie? Because it is true. Dashrath Manjhi is a real-life hero who, mocked as crazy during his work, became a national symbol of sorts after finishing this unimaginable feat. A hospital was named after him, a few documentary movies were made, and now the full-time biopic is hitting the screens (Manjhi – the Mountain Man’s premiere was on August 21). In 2014, the village was visited by Aamir Khan, one of India’s best known actors and celebrities and featured in his TV show, Satyamev Jayate. While Manjhi did appear in some of the documentaries, he did not live to see either Khan’s visit or the new movie, having died in 2007.
When Aamir Khan’s motorcade, with its cameras ready and police assisting, was on the way to the village and its awaiting crowds, it was reportedly misguided and went the wrong way for 10 km, venturing into dangerous territory. This was when Manjhi’s story and village were already famous; after all, Dashrath Manjhi completed his task in 1982! The motorcade incident, in your correspondent’s view, shows the extent to which the region was neglected, indeed forgotten. No government institution helped Manjhi during his lonely quest (which, as Indians have already noted, took as many years to complete as the construction of Taj Mahal, and in both cases the grand work honored the deceased spouse). Moreover, no institution offered much assistance even for many years after Manjhi completed his work. The path paved by Manjhi, now often used by the villagers, can serve as a symbol of how often the poor of India have to take matters into their own hands. Even after gaining national fame the village for a long time received more attention than help.
There are additional aspects to this story. Gehlaur lies in the district of Gaya in the state of Bihar, one of India’s most underdeveloped states. Not that far away is Bodh Gaya, a sacred place where Gautama Buddha had attained enlightenment and to which Buddhist pilgrims today flock from around the world, leaving behind a handsome income for the tourism industry. Still, the district around Bodh Gaya is in a state of neglect and Maoist guerillas are active in some areas. Manjhi, Dashrath’s family name, is a caste name of the untouchable community of Mushars. Many untouchables prefer to be called dalits and the Mushar community is in fact nowadays called mahadalits in Bihar to signify their dire situation (dalit means “broken, downtrodden,” and maha means “great, big”). Mahadalit is in fact a recently coined and administrative category, introduced a couple of years ago by the government of Bihar to group together the most downtrodden of the dalit communities and offer them preferential treatment. Hence Manjhi’s origins are in many ways symbols of some of India’s greatest problems.
Just like all of these problems, the story told by Manjhi – the Mountain Man can be exploited politically. In May 2014, Manjhi became the chief minister of Bihar… Obviously, this was not Dashrath Manjhi but another member of the same community, Jitan Ram Manjhi. The latter Manjhi at that time belonged to Janata Dal (United), the ruling party in Bihar. The party leader, Nitish Kumar, decided to place Jitan Ram Manjhi on the chief minister’s throne because Manjhi, hailing from a mahadalit community, would be the face of Janata Dal (United) to ensure the support of the lowest castes ahead the upcoming elections. A seasoned politician, Kumar seemed sure that Manjhi would remain a puppet. Manjhi, however, led an abortive rebellion, which ended with him losing his post and being expelled from the party. In March 2015, he established a new party, the Hindustan Awam Morcha (The Front of the People of India).
The elections in Bihar are due soon and with many parties contesting it may be a close contest. Manjhi’s new party may become an important element of the equation if it wins a large chunk of mahadalit votes. Manjhi claims that he will never support his past mentor, Nitish Kumar. It is believed by many that he may join hands with Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India and the leader of Bharatiya Janata Party, which holds power in India but not in Bihar. If he does, Manjhi may be used to break the rock of the parties that have ruled Bihar for so long.
Manjhi – The Mountain Man hits the screens in the middle of this electoral battle. There is enough in the story to make it attractive to India’s current leaders. Now everybody can try to jump on the movie’s bandwagon. Nitish Kumar and his ruling party are trying to point out how much they have done for the people of Gehlaur and low caste communities in general. The entire opposition is trying to show how little has been done. Jitan Ram Manjhi may be in a particularly convenient position, as he can try to model himself on Dashrath Manjhi. Sadly, just like in the case of the village and its rocky path, it is the story that is more important for politicians and media people than the real problem it describes.
However, leaving politics aside, the story of Dashrath Manjhi is inspiring and moving. On a general human level it shows that a single man can have the strength and resolve to “break the mountain.” On a national level it shows what Indian people are capable of, be it together with politicians, without them, or, if needed, despite them.
Krzysztof Iwanek is a South Asia expert with the Poland-Asia Research Centre (Centrum Studiów Polska-Azja). Although Polish, he currently teaches Hindi to Koreans, working as an Assistant Professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Republic of Korea. He holds two MA degrees: in History and in South Asian Studies, and a PhD in Cultural Studies. He has published many articles on India, Pakistan and Nepal. He has also co-authored a book titled Indie. Od kolonii do mocarstwa. 1857-2013 (“India. From a Colony to a Power. 1857-2013”) with Adam Burakowski.