Initially screened at film festivals in 2018 (specifically, TIFF and MAMI), Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota captivated my attention with a spunky trailer around July of 2018. The trailer which had Abhimanyu Dassani’s Surya walking towards the camera and explaining his rare condition by breaking the fourth wall all while reacting nonchalantly to some serious blows resonated with a section of the internet. It had an energy and attitude unlike anything typically seen in mainstream Bollywood movies. With footage and narration shot specially for the 3-minute clip, this semi-unconventional trailer instantly had my attention. Needless to say, I’ve been longing to catch this film ever since.
Flash forward seven months and the movie finally saw a limited theatrical release. I presume it took that long to acquire a distributor who would finally bring it to big screen cinema chains. Regardless, the movie is out now and has become somewhat of an internet darling, being praised, heralded and held on some form of otherworldly pedestal; something that comes along once in a generation. It’s an action comedy movie through and through and has a lot going for it, even though it occasionally falters and stumbles on its way to the finish line. For the purposes of this review, I shall abbreviate Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota and refer to it as MKDNH.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of MKDNH is that it actually has an interesting, potentially compelling plot grounded in some semblance of reality. We’re guided through the narrative by Abhimanyu Dassani’s Surya, a rare person born with an even rarer condition. His congenital insensitivity renders him incapable of feeling any physical pain. After losing his mother to a chain snatching incident, he largely grows under the shadow of his affable grandfather (Mahesh Manjrekar, in top form) and a strict, overprotective father (Jimit Trivedi, competent). He devours hours upon hours of kung-fu action movies and aspiring to become one, hones his craft by practicing under what essentially amounts to house-arrest. Naturally, once he gets a chance to move out of the house, Surya is eager to flex his muscles and meet his karte idols which lands him in sticky situations and propels the plot forward.
Borrowing a page or two from the premise of Kick-Ass and the style of Deadpool but never quite to the point of ripping them off, Vasan Bala’s script crafts a narrative that at least attempts to maintain some verisimilitude and refrains from going Bollywood levels over-the-top. This, aided by the intensely naturalistic cinematography by Jay Patel lends the movie a street-level authenticity. Possibly constricted by the budget, the film shoots in normal alleyways and residential complexes which only enhances its relatability. Despite its rare condition then, the situations are presented in a matter-of-fact manner and the entire film could be taking place in your backalley, making it intensely accessible.
That said, the writing suffers from not being dense enough and I attribute it to being an issue with both the writing and the editing. The script often becomes self-indulgent at times, and Bala (having directed it himself) together with editor Prerna Saigal lets scenes linger on for far too longer than they probably should. This coupled with the extensive use of slow-motion makes the narrative feel stretched-out. In fact the movie seems obsessed with using slow-motion and making every action sequence count, especially in its first two acts. It’s cool for a while but quickly overstays its welcome when even reaction shots start getting a similar treatment. What could’ve been a super-tight movie under 2 hours ends up being a 2 hour 20 minute slog.
Bala’s script however does some decent work with its characters. The standout is undoubtedly Gulshan Devaiah who plays both the one-legged Karate master and his twin brother, a “cliched psychopathic villain” in the movie’s own terms. As Karate-Mani, he takes down scores upon scores of “thugs” in a single stretch, despite fighting on a crutch. As Jimmy, he borders on insanity although in an often hilarious way with a humorous accent that will have you tickling over dialogues that may not even be inherently funny. Their relationship is somewhat quickly glossed over through flashbacks but there’s enough material there to have both characters stand-out and even feel like they’re played by different actors.
The standout though is Radhika Madan’s Supri. Surya’s childhood neighbor and his only companion, Madan is ripe for growing up into his love interest. Instead, she grows up learning how to fight from Karate-Mani and fights like a bad-ass. In her full-blown glorified introduction fight sequence, she takes down a gang of thugs single-handedly, tossing out the damsel-in-distress trope in the process to come across as the damsel who puts others in distress. Its effect would’ve hit even harder had the slow-mo been less pronounced; nonetheless, it serves to showcase her grit. But more importantly, the movie also goes on to portray her in her own words, as a confused, young girl unsure of her goals and ambitions, battling insecurities and comparisons with millenials who’re amassing millions of followers in this social-media obsessed world. Supri struggles to come to terms with her cluelessness in life, especially when her peers are razor focused about their career paths and her actions convey those conflicted emotions effortlessly, while also answering lingering questions about her presence in what is essentially a low-life male-dominated society. It’s a fine bit of career work that swirls around the stereotypical Bollywood “heroine” image and Madan truly shines when delivering those lines and depicting her character’s inner battles and affinity to be drawn into fights.
It all peaks into a prolonged fight-sequence that’s really the ultimate payoff. Karate-Mani, Surya and Supri take down Jimmy’s security team comprising of “fighters from Vietnam, Rome and Spain” (in reality, they’re just a bunch of third-grade goons). The entire set-piece is ripe for some brilliant laugh-out-loud gags and hard-to-catch pop-culture references (I almost missed the one to George Lucas’ THX1138) but stands out as an amazing action piece that has immense replay value. It’s a climax befitting of the action-movie genre and it’s here where Bala’s direction truly shines, slow-motion shots are minimized and the focus is on raw, gritty hits packed by punchlines that wiill have your laughing your guts out. It goes a long way in ensuring you leave the theater satisfied.
MKDNH has characters that are neither caricatures nor picture-perfect. They have flaws that make them somewhat easier to connect with. Surya’s immunity to pain lead to his father locking him up for the remainder of his life, resulting in a man who’s disconnected from reality and hasn’t fully grown-up. He’s eager to jump into fights to resolve matters and largely lives by the singular motive to bring all chain-snatchers to justice, one that’s intensely personal for him. He also displays a strong sense of determination in learning to fight under what essentially amounts to house-arrest, although kids would be wise to pick the right lessons here. Madan might be the brawny, karate kid also eager to hop into conflicts but cannot escape a relationship she doesn’t want only because it helps finance her mother’s treatment. She accepts this as part of her fate, believing life to be “practical” and acting like an unhappy grown-up. Karate-Mani might come across as the movie’s only idealistic character, sacrificing his limb to save his estranged brother but even he ends up committing purgery for no reason other than desire? The movie isn’t clear on that one, as it is on a few other things.
As I mentioned, MKDNH takes advantage of its (assumingly) low-budget to shoot on location that in no way affects the filmmaking quality. It looks good and sounds good. Speaking of which, the soundtrack by Karan Kulkarni and Dipanjan Guha is among the film’s highlights. Rappan Rappi Rap is simply addictive with an infectious energy to it and plays at just the right moments in the film; it’s one of the things I’m glad they overused. And it’s chock full of pop-culture references (both Bollywood and Hollywood) from Jungle Book and Star Wars and Batman to Karan Arjun and even the Nirma TV ad that was as staple of the 90s. At the other end is Tere Liye, a soft track that accompanies some of the more serious moments. The background score is competent but mostly comprised of instrumental bits of the film’s breezy soundtrack.
Bala’s script and the general premise of MKDNH have some surprisingly great parellels with the superhero genre. Surya’s insensitivity to physical pain is a superpower unto itself and by using it to fight petty crimes, Surya essentially epitomises a superhero. He even has a semi-costume to go by, with glasses and a water-bag which gives him a weakness that every hero must have: stay hydrated since dehydration weakens his brain cells causing him to faint. All these elements combine to grant Surya an origin story which in turn makes MKDNH an action comedy that masquerades as a superhero movie. And like films of this kind, a sequel is conveniently setup or at least teased with enough potential to actually get made (should this movie do well enough).
So is MKDNH one of the finest films to come out of the Indian film industry this year? Most likely not. That said, it’s one hell of a ride and takes both its action and comedy seriously. For once, here’s a Bollywood action film that’s not necessarily over-the-top, here’s humor that while not exactly subtle, is more situational than crazy, unrealistic or forced. It’s an ode to well-crafted entertainers and a love letter to all the Bruce Lee films of the yesteryears. It’s certainly a commercial film but it might be among the most well-made all-rounded commercial entertainers in recent times. And if it ends up getting a sequel that’s retooled to position it more as a superhero film, you can be quite sure we’ll have people lined up to watch this thing.