In Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, a boy with congenital insensitivity to pain grows up to battle the evil twin of his martial arts idol following the theft of a prized locket whose disappearance reminds the boy of the death of his mother caused by a chain-snatching gang.
Circuitous and low on logic? Sure. An excuse to assemble actors and a crew for a movie? Indeed. A tribute to cinema’s ability to act as a time capsule as well as a dream machine? Most definitely.
Vasan Bala’s second feature after the unreleased Peddlers is stuck in a moment it never wants to get out of. For Bala’s pain-immune hero Surya, that is childhood, filled with sunshine and bullies, a doting grandfather with a taste for action and martial arts films, and the love of neighbour Supri, she who can destroy obstacles with her laser eyes. Surya’s condition is not strictly medical. He feels no pain (but has learnt to say “ouch” when he gets punched or pricked) and must stay hydrated at all times (Why? Why not?).
Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) also appears to have acquired some invincibility along with immunity to physical suffering. His heart, however, is still pounding beneath his chiselled abs. When Surya meets Supri and his hero Mani as a young adult, he scissors through the air in delight. This is the moment Surya has been waiting for ever since he watched a video tape of the one-legged Mani (Gulshan Devaiah), the son of karate legend Kyoshi Michael Kamaraj, defeat a hundred opponents.
Vasan Bala’s action comedy, which he has also written, plays out at the intersection of cinephilia, nostalgia and mischief. Everything is hyper-real in this neighbourhood version of The Avengers and touched by an appetite for pulp and cult films and memories of a childhood in Mumbai in the 1980s and ’90s. There’s a pastiche quality to Surya’s adventure, a personal edge to the madcap humour, and an anything-goes attitude towards the plotting.
The tangential is the main item here. The film advises itself and viewers on how to react to the material: don’t think so much, or else you will see the logic, one character says. Supri talks about the pleasure of the itch that you simply have to scratch. She could be speaking of the movie itself.
The film’s ambition is best characterised by a line uttered by Surya: Come, let’s go meet our childhood.
The use of the voiceover in films to string together sequences is a well-worn device, but this movie uses it well to set up its self-reflexiveness. A scene plays out and is then replayed with another outcome for post-modern effect. Surya’s droll commentary is filled with pop culture references, quotations of action movie titles, and real or imagined aphorisms attributed to martial arts legends. Did Bruce Lee really say that when the moment of reckoning arrives, it is best to be bare-chested? Of course he did.
Although Surya’s mission is hardly life-altering, a great deal happens – often far too much – over the 138-minute runtime. The movie is a bit too high on the hijinks, and some cold-hearted trimming would have saved the narrative from spinning out of control. Supri, who is Surya’s idealised one-and-only-love, has an unsatisfactory track of her own that purports to say something meaningful about domestic violence, but never quite does.
Some bits are not as funny as imagined, but when the humour lands home, it does with a bang. The character studies anchor the movie through its sidewinding journey. Mahesh Manjrekar is a riot as Surya’s indulgent grandfather, who teaches Surya to handle his condition and protects him from his addle-brained son-in-law Jatin (Jimit Trivedi). Manjrekar is a middling director but a gifted actor in the right role, and Bala beautifully uses his fleshy face, beer belly and ear for Mumbai patois. Also delightful is Gulshan Devaiah, playing Mani and his hilariously stereotyped criminal twin Jimmy.
The bulky man of the title is but a child, and Abhimanyu Dassani is perfectly cast. The debutant actor steers the cheerful homage to chopsocky films with the perfect balance of earnestness and innocence. Surya feels no pain, but there is nothing unfeeling about Vasan Bala’s retro tribute to the small, silly and lasting ways in which the movies leave an imprint on the soul.