(I apologize for the lack of screen captures. My DVD wasn't cooperating with my computer.)
If you are unfamiliar with the work of Yograj Bhat, who is one of the best working filmmakers in Kannada language cinema (aka Sandalwood) right now, then I feel sorry for you. Although he had been around for years, Yograj didn’t have a real breakthrough as a director until 2006 with Mungaru Male, which also launched the charmed careers of Golden Star Ganesh and Pooja Gandhi. Mungaru Male was a revelation and a super hit. The film follows the story of Preetam (Ganesh) as he tries to win over the engaged daughter of his mother’s close friend. The things that made Mungaru Male so special continued on into Yograj’s next film Galipaata and into the one after that... Manasaare.
Manasaare has all the trademarks of a Yograj Bhat film - otherworldly aesthetics, lovely songs, and a deep emotional core. What makes the film a bit different from the previous two is a script by Pawan Kumar. The film is still centered in the issue of family and society but Manasaare frames it all in reference to mental illness. Manohara (Diganth) is an orphan living with his father’s brother’s family and like many young people, he is jaded and cynical about society. Manohara doesn’t see the benefit to living by rules, especially when all of society seems to be actively working to crush his dreams; he builds an electricity machine for his neighborhood only to see it crushed by the cops, who declare it a nuisance; he sees the tangle of his friends’ love lives and how they give up romance for the stability of marriage. Manohara doesn’t want any part of it.
One day after a drinking session with a friend, Manohara is mistaken for an inmate of a mental asylum and is swooped up and sent to a rainbow colored rehabilitation center. It is there he meets Devika (Aindrita Ray) and finally learns what it’s like to really live outside of society.
And Manohara himself isn’t a typical hero. Diganth really proves that he’s not just another pretty face with his performance. Diganth is in almost every frame of the film and a lot rests on his performance. He has to be believably douchey at the beginning and show a slow transformation to a decent human being. This isn’t one of those roles where flashing dimples will be enough - Manohara really goes to the depths of despair and to the dizzy heights of first romance.
This sounds like a depressing scenario for a film but Manasaare is full of humor. Manohara has a wicked sense of humor and he falls in with a rogues gallery of inmates, including Dollar, an inventor who returned from the USA and is continually trying to escape back. [“Obama! Obama! Obama!” he yells, tearing through an open gate to freedom.]
Devika is an interesting character and Aindrita Ray does a wonderful job portraying her. Since she is an inmate in a mental asylum, we expect that she will be ill but Devika doesn’t have a stereotypically feminine disease. She is no wilting flower with filmi depression that just needs a man to cheer her up; nor is she a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who exists to show Manohara the error of his anti-social ways. I don’t want to spoil too much because you really need to see this film but I’ll say that Devika’s illness stems from her mistreatment at the hands of men. What separates Devika’s story from so many others is that her mistreatment not dressed up for the audience’s titillation but only very strongly implied and we, the audience, are never for one second supposed to think that it’s her fault.
Watching Devika gradually let down her defenses for Manohara is really heart-warming. Seeing her laugh for the first time should melt even the coldest heart. And Manohara, once he has something other than himself to think about, realizes that he needs to learn to live within the society.
Along with the main story of Manohara and Devika is this thread of mental illness. When Manohara is scooped up into the institution, he explains that he is not crazy and wants to go home - of course, the staff tell him that that is exactly what a mental patient would say. When his family, who are already fed up with Manohara’s shenanigans, come to visit him, they treat him delicately, filtering all his past behavior through the lens of mental illness, and relieved that there is such an easy explanation. They are wrong to judge - Manohara is not ill, just too smart for his own good and after be-friending some of the inmates, he understands the difference all too well and how easy it could be to give up on society and just live a life free of responsibility from everything and everyone.
If you are in a Bollywood rut and tired of those “just like Hollywood” flops, I highly recommend this film, both as a great movie and as an example of the innovative cinema coming out of Karnataka.