Mumbai Opener: India's Quirky Superhero Pic 'The Man Who Feels No Pain'

Courtesy of TIFF
Abhimanyu Dasani stars as a man who turns a rare medical condition into a superpower.

Vasan Bala’s film is a retro genre concoction tracing new ties between Hong Kong martial arts cinema and vintage Bollywood.

The first Indian film to screen in Toronto’s Midnight Madness section and the opening film at this year's Mumbai Film Festival, The Man Who Feels No Pain is described by its director, Vasan Bala, as an “ode to Hong Kong martial arts cinema and Bollywood films from the 1980s and 1990s.”

The project, which ended up winning the People's Choice Award at Midnight Madness, is characteristic of the Indian new wave, a still-emerging scene led by a group of young directors known for their offbeat stories and stylistic hat tips to a diverse range of cinematic influences.

Bala, one of the new cohort’s leading voices, began his career as an assistant for acclaimed Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap (director of the Cannes’ Directors Fortnight contender Gangs of Wasseypur who also co-directed Netflix’s first Indian original, Sacred Games, with Vikramaditya Motwane) as well interning for Michael Winterbottom during the shoot of the British director’s India-set drama Trishna in 2011.

The Man Who Feels No Pain revolves around a Mumbai man (played by newcomer Abhimanyu Dasani) who was born with the medical condition known as “congenital insensitivity to pain” (CIP). “Most often, such people don’t live beyond their early years since they injure themselves without crying for help,” he explains. But Bala’s story is more inspired by classic Jackie Chan flicks than any preoccupation with medical realism: the film’s plucky hero tries to put his “disease” to good use by becoming a real-life crime-fighting superhero — cool, fearless and impervious to pain.

“We follow him and his dreams and the fact that he refuses to grow up, much like characters in movies by Buster Keaton and Stephen Chow,” Bala adds. The director does note at least one undercurrent of social realism in his protagonist’s colorful adventures, an element drawn from Bala’s own biography: “Growing up in middle-class Indian households, the only escape from our ordinary, safe lives was through films like Jackie Chan’s Project A and Armour of God, or those by [Bollywood icon] Amitabh Bachchan.” It’s the longing for escape and adventure that he hopes young Indian filmgoers recognize in his hero.

Before Bala made his maiden trip to the Toronto festival, he told THR that he expected to feel like “a fan boy standing in front of Gasper Noe and Shane Black knowing what kind of discoveries Midnight Madness has made over the years.” [Their respective movies, Climax and The Predator, also screen in the section.]

He also said he hoped that the exposure will help genre films catch on in India. “We have so much more to say in the garb of escapist entertainment,” he says, “and you can say whatever you want to say [if it’s in this storytelling form]. That really drives me.”