A boy who feels no pain grows up into a man-child who is obsessed with movies, martial arts and finding the chain-snatching gang that was responsible for his mother’s death. Along the way, the high-kicking Surya reunites with his childhood sweetheart and gets involved with the fratricidal battle between a gangster and his one-legged karate trainer twin.

Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is set in the 1980s and ’90s in Mumbai and pays fond homage to martial arts films that circulated at the time through theatres, television and video cassettes. The comedy is the opening title at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1). The movie stars debutant actor Abhimanyu Dasani as Surya, Radhika Madan as his one and only love and Gulshan Devaiah as the sparring twins. Mahesh Manjrekar plays Surya’s indulgent grandfather, who encourages Surya to consume movies and pushes him into the arms of adventure.

The Ronnie Screwvala Productions project was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The movie doesn’t have a release date yet, but it is unlikely to suffer the fate of 40-year-old Vasan Bala’s directorial debut Peddlers. The drug-themed drama, also set in Mumbai, was made in 2012 and screened at the Cannes Film Festival, but it hasn’t been released since. Bala, who has assisted Anurag Kashyap on several films and contributed to the screenplay of Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet (2015) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016), told Scroll.in that while he hadn’t found closure with Peddlers, his new film is “in a better zone”. Edited excerpts.

Is ‘Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota’ a reworked version of your older script ‘Side Hero?
No, it isn’t. The only similarity is the martial arts theme. That one was about one of the stunt artists about whom we read in film credits, the one called henchmen number 3. But that one too was an intimate story like Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.

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Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018).

What is the world that ‘Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota’ taps into?
I didn’t want the film to be set in a quaint, small town. It had to be hyper-real.

When we were growing up in Bombay, karate was a big thing. I too learnt karate at a place with the unlikely name Gujarati Seva Mandal. We had heard of these Bangalore goons with names like Karate Suresh and Karate Johnny, and Karate Mani was an action master in the movies back in the day.

The film looks at the mythology around martial arts, in the movies and real life, like the Blind Swordsman in Japan and these characters who overcome their disabilities. The one-legged karate master played by Gulshan Devaiah was a myth but also a reality.

What was the starting point for your film?
My relationship with my grandfather. My memory was always of him as an inspirational figure. That seeped into the screenplay – a grandfather who would have had an interesting life.

He would let me do what I wanted to do. When I would face bullying or any other problem, he would say, take care of it yourself. He was protective but never said, look what I am doing for you. We would watch movies together. He also encouraged me to play sports. He died in 1989.

I started writing the film in 2015, but it took two-and-a-half years to reach Ronnie Screwvala’s desk. We met various producers¸ but nothing happened. Everybody seemed to like the subject, but nobody seemed sure how to mount it. After a while, it became difficult to convey what this film was about, since it’s so form-heavy. It’s not a high-concept film, not a straight-up biopic or about two people trying to get married in Delhi.

People asked, why are the stakes not high? They don’t understand that intimate stakes too can be part of a narrative. You don’t have to climb Mount Everest all the time.

Ronnie saw the passion behind the film. He understood that it has a certain expression and energy, but is not so stubbornly arthouse that it cannot come out. It was a relief to have somebody who understands about world-building.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018). Courtesy RSVP.
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018). Courtesy RSVP.

Did you get your dream cast?
I had met Abhimanyu and Radhika one-and-a-half years ago. Once I got a producer, I approached Mahesh Manjrekar. I wanted someone who had this slightly roguish charm, and could have lived that kind of a life when he was younger.

Mahesh had that flamboyance, and he is also a great actor. I have been following his career, and have, in fact, seen him as a kid when he used hang around Ruia College in Matunga. He looked like a guy who had a following even back then. Thankfully, he agreed, because I didn’t have a back-up.

I always knew I would cast Gulshan Devaiah. He had busted his knee in a skiing accident. I felt that I was pushing him, but he was very excited and took up the role as a challenge. He built himself up from scratch.

Female martial artists are a challenge in India. Radhika Madan had no inclination to learn karate or wasn’t an action movie buff, but she had the right body language. The crew was very impressed with her for her will to perform at her best.

What made you take a chance on Abhimanyu Dasani?
I had bumped into him at casting director Mukesh Chhabra’s office. He stood out. He had that energy and innocence. He is also very well brought up and very well-mannered. He is not aggressive, just like his character in the film.

I didn’t want Surya to be compared to Forrest Gump. Surya has been isolated for years, and that is why his reactions are off. Surya is like a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old who hasn’t really grown up.

One reference point was Tom Hanks’s Big. When the character suddenly grows up, he doesn’t act like a kid, but he remains a kid who is older.

What were the other references?
The films of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow, for sure. Also Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Bruce Lee. Keaton and Chaplin were actually responsible for some of the first action comedies. We don’t credit them enough for their great stunt work.

In terms of martial arts films, there was everything from Police Story to Enter the Dragon to Fist of Fury to Armour of God. And Michel Gondry too was a huge influence. Like the scene in which Surya and Gulshan’s Karate Mani are lying down and looking up is a direct reference to Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The inspirations were there, but we also had to be true to the world of Indian martial artists. We knew, for instance, that the stunts were not going to involve wire work and would be more about hand-to-hand combat and brawling, but in a stylised and choreographed way.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018). Courtesy RSVP.
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018). Courtesy RSVP.

How challenging was it to shoot in Mumbai, and find the locations that suggest the period you are exploring?
The Bombay I grew up in was supremely intimate and didn’t seem crowded. It wasn’t a ‘spanon ka sheher’ or a commute. It was about a few people in a huge city and the crossing of their paths.

This is the Bombay I have always loved and tried to explore. Bombay is always tough to shoot in, but more than that, it has this sense of urgency, which I didn’t want for the film. If you are trying to go against the grain and set the story at a certain pace, it becomes difficult.

Among the locations were Ghatkopar, Khar, Grant Road and Bandra. Surya’s housing society is in Khar. I was being David Fincherish with zero budget, and suddenly, we lucked out. The colony had been vacant for ten years.

The karate centre is a physical training school in Grant Road. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero and Sacred Games have been shot there. Even the location of the house where Surya lives after he supposedly leaves Bombay is bang in the centre of Ghatkopar. We didn’t leave Bombay city limits at all, not even to the preferred Madh Island shooting location.

The film is set in a typically middle-class corner in Mumbai. How much of the setting has been inspired by your own childhood and adolescence?
I spent my entire formative years within a five-kilometre radius. I grew up in Matunga East, around the Five Gardens area. Going to Aurora to watch movies was tradition. My father had seen Enter the Dragon when he was a teenager at Aurora, so that tradition passed on.

Aurora, VHS and Doordarshan – these were the three main things for me. Remember the colour band that used to come before programmes on TV? I could watch that too.

Doordarshan had all these pulpy Bollywood films and then classic Hollywood, arthouse, kung fu. There was no conscious effort on my part to be educated in the greatest and worst of cinema – the idea was to consume everything without any perspective or bias.

Bombay gave me a culture shock at 21, when I properly ventured out to work for ICICI Bank. I had a commerce degree, and I tried to follow my friends who were good at and focused on what they were doing.

Vasan Bala.
Vasan Bala.

How did you ditch banking for filmmaking?
When I told my parents that I wanted to be a filmmaker, my father said, go and enroll at the Film and Television Institute of India. But I was jittery about getting back into college. In 2005, I made a short film, and experimented with shooting with a hired camera. Then the blog Passion for Cinema was launched. It gave all of us aspiring filmmakers a platform. You didn’t feel like an alien, and you could express yourself and have opinions.

I started working with Anurag around this time, in No Smoking. That was the first film set I had been on. I also assisted on Anurag’s Dev.D. Gulaal and Gangs of Wasseypur. Anurag lets you intimately into his filmmaking process and his life. He mentors you with that level of proximity.

Anurag also asked me to contribute to the screenplay of Bombay Velvet, which was floated sometime in 2007 but eventually made in 2015.

And you made your own film in between, ‘Peddlers’, in 2012. What is happening to it?
I don’t know. The film is with Eros International. Every six months, I get an update saying that something is happening. I keep seeing such films on Netflix. I am sure that there is some place somewhere for a film like this.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota had its own journey, but I still haven’t found closure with Peddlers. It would have been nice to have it out there.

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Peddlers (2012).