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Non-Review Review: Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (“The Man Who Feels No Pain”)

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

The Man Who Feels No Pain is the best film at this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Vasan Bala, The Man Who Feels No Pain is a delightfully self-aware Hindu action comedy which focuses on a young man who – as the title suggests – was born without any capacity to feel pain. Surya has lived a sheltered life, raised by an over-protective father and an over-eager grandfather. Surya’s life has been shaped and defined by the steady stream of popular culture that his grandfather has fed him, in lieu of access to the outside world. Surya’s moral compass is shaped and defined by comic books and eighties action movies, instilling in the boy a very firm sense of right and wrong and giving him a moral certainty about how best to respond to injustice.

When Surya is thrown out into the world as a twenty-year-old adult, there is a serious question as to whether Surya or the world is ready for the experience. The Man Who Feels No Pain is many, many things. Most immediately and superficially, from its opening scenes, it is a loving and knowing parody of eighties action movies and the superhero cinema that they spawned. It works incredibly well on these terms, managing to expertly balance the demands of both the action sequences and the comedic beats. However, the most endearing and engaging aspect of The Man Who Feels No Pain is the way in which it blends this celebration of contemporary pop culture into a broader exploration of growing up.

At its core, The Man Who Feels No Pain is an exploration of that old C.S. Lewis adage that growing up means putting away childish things; including the fear of being seen as childish.

The Man Who Feels No Pain is not exactly a subtle film, but then it would not be a loving homage to action cinema if it was. As befitting its influences, the movie is built around dichotomies and juxtapositions, contrasts and mirrors. This is most obvious with the central characters of Karate Mani and Jimmy, two twins played by Gulshan Devaiah, who embarked on very different life journeys as a result of one fateful moment. Karate Mani becomes a stereotypical “old drunken master” character while Jimmy transforms himself into a “cliché psychotic villain.” This doubling recurs throughout the script; Surya’s conservative and anxious father is mirrored with his liberal and freewheeling grandfather.

However, the central contrast in The Man Who Feels No Pain is that which exists between Surya and Supri. The two central characters knew each other as children. With Surya unable to feel any pain, he finds a kindred spirit in Supri. The young girl from his apartment building has a strong sense of justice, standing up for those who are victimised and wounded. The central irony, of course, is that Supri often lacks the confidence to stand up for herself. While she fends off Surya’s bullies with a cricket bat, she cannot stand up to her abusive and alcoholic father. Even after she becomes a black belt at martial arts, she cannot stand up to her dismissive and condescending husband.

While Surya lives a sheltered live internalising the logic and morals of blockbuster entertainment about the importance of heroism and virtue, Supri has a more conventional childhood. If Surya never had the chance to grow up, Supri grew up too quickly. While Surya has been allowed to indulge his hopes and dreams, Supri had those slowly crushed out of her. Despite the film’s knowing sense of humour and self-awareness, there is something deeply affecting in how The Man Who Feels No Pain treats Supri. Supri is a character who faces personal crises perhaps more relatable and more understandable to the film’s audience.

Supri is a child who grew up in a world that expects her to be completely responsible all of the time. In one of the movie’s most quiet and sincere sequences, Supri goes walking with her mother and reflects upon the expectations that society has heaped upon her. It isn’t just the obligation to obey her husband-to-be, although that is definitely a factor. It is the broader existential anxiety of having to map out an entire future before adulthood has properly arrived. Supri remarks on the irony of a culture that valourises teenage millionaires, when she cannot even be certain what she hopes to accomplish as an adult. Her life choices have always been restricted, but somehow she is expected to make monumentally important decisions without any hesitation.

In contrast, Surya is completely free of all of these familiar burdens and familiar expectations. Because of his unique condition, he has been consciously sheltered for all of his life. (“You can google it,” the movie assures its audience, foregoing unnecessary exposition.) Most children with this medical issue do not live past four years, because pain is a necessary teaching tool. The film underscores this very effectively and very efficiently in a darkly comic montage demonstrating the eagerness with which children throw themselves into dangerous situations. As a result, the actual plot of The Man Who Feels No Pain only really kicks into gear when Surya makes his first proper trip into the city as an adult and is separated from his grandfather’s attention.

Again, The Man Who Feels No Pain is as shrewd as it is playful. The idea of a character who does not feel any physical pain is fertile ground for physical comedy. Indeed, like a surprising amount of Indian cinema including hits like PK, the set-up allows Vasan Bala to play with the sort of physical comedy long-associated with silent cinema. The choreography within The Man Who Feels No Pain is astounding. It’s visually stunning in the way that the best martial arts films can be. There’s a consciously stylistic flourish, one that seems to reflect the Indian film industry’s long-standing prowess at showstopping dance numbers. In fact, reflecting those roots, more than one fight scene in The Man Who Feels No Pain is set against a show-stopping musical number.

However, as much as Surya is defined by the absence of physical pain, the film suggests that his upbringing has spared him the emotional pain that many people feel growing up. With his wide-eyed (and -goggled) innocence, Surya has been spared the emotional trauma that the world has inflicted on other characters in the narrative like Supri or Karate Mani or even Jimmy. Abhimanyu Dassani plays Surya as an overgrown kid, somebody who understands the world in a very childish way, but with complete and unquestioning devotion to what he is doing. The Man Who Feels No Pain is a comedy, and often plays Surya’s obliviousness for laughs, but the film clearly has a deep affection for the simplicity with which Surya understands the world around him.

The Man Who Feels No Pain has a surprisingly large heart, even beyond its impressive stuntwork and its love of reckless violence. The Man Who Feels No Pain understands what it is to feel listless and lost in an increasingly fast-moving and uncertain world, the unrealistic expectations heaped upon a generation asked to navigate a complex and confusing society. Surya is something of an idealised fantasy figure, a man who views the modern world through the eyes of the child, and the irony that this gives him a clarity of purpose and understanding that more mature individuals can lack. It is a familiar premise for a movie like this, but elevated in The Man Who Feels No Pain through strong performances. Radhika Madan gives an unshowy, but great, performance as Supri.

There is recurring sense that the more mature and jaded characters within The Man Who Feels No Pain would do well to be more childish, that Supri could do more than simply live up to the expectations of the people around her. Indeed, one of the movie’s funniest gags does not involve Surya at all, but instead focuses on the completely insane and over-the-top plan that Supri’s mother concocts to help her daughter escape the trap of her husband and father’s plans. Seemingly emboldened by the faintest glimmer of a spark behind her daughter’s eyes, her mother decides on a course of action that is incredibly reckless and stupid and probably dangerous. However, there’s never any question that it is precisely what Supri needs at that moment in time.

It helps that writer and director Vasan Bala clearly has a great deal of affection of the kinds of movies that he is playing with here, from the grubby direct-to-video martial arts movies that inspire the “one hundred man battle” that becomes a central part of the film through to the superhero movies that infuse so much of modern pop culture. These movies are ubiquitous and influential, even beyond Surya’s obvious affection for them. It is telling, for example, that his otherwise grounded and very serious father gets married while looking like Tony Stark and that Surya’s campaign of heroic hyperviolence is defined in turn as “Indie Avenger” or “Mumblecore Justice League.”

Bala understands the genre and how it works, parodying the conventions of the superhero genre by illustrating how it warps Surya’s world view. This is all delightfully affectionate, most obviously in the red tracksuit that Surya wears by way of a low-budget costume, but also in the way that his tragic origin story informs the plot of the film in an incredibly surreal way. When his mother is killed during an attempted robbery of her locket, evoking the death of the Wayne family and the fate of Martha Wayne’s pearls, Surya vows vengeance on all “locket-snatchers.” Naturally, in a delightfully convoluted way, the narrative contorts to offer Surya a supersized “locket-snatcher” that he can bring to justice.

This is a much gentler sort of parody than something like Kick Ass, but it demonstrates a similar understanding of how the genre works. It is not a deconstruction or a critique, but instead a celebration of the narrative and formal absurdity of these sorts of structure. Surya’s childhood was defined by a particular and specific trauma, and so he allows himself to be shaped and moulded by the trauma as an adult. It’s playful and cheeky, in a way that emphasises the weird internal logic of the genre by applying it to an extreme example. Similarly, the movie’s decision to portrayal Surya’s tendency to end up dehydrated as his kryptonite is also a fun and playful nod towards the narrative mechanics of superhero stories.

It helps that the film has charm to burn. The script is razor sharp and moves along at an incredible pace, considering the film’s two-hours-and-a-quarter runtime. Surya’s childhood memories are genre-inflected, from his recounting of the story of how his mother went into labour to his recollection about a time-travelling robot that was sent back in time to kill him as a child. Everything in the movie is shaped or informed by the conventions of a story like this, most obviously the characterisation of the relationship between the twins Karate Mani and Jimmy. This heightened surrounding framework allows for a number of delightfully surreal escalations that sustain the movie across its extended runtime.

At one point late in The Man Who Feels No Pain, Surya helpfully explains that although he does not experience pain he can feel pleasure. That seems like a pretty good summary of the film itself.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

2 Responses

  1. Looks very interesting! I hope this comes to Netflix sometime.

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