'The Man Who Feels No Pain' ('Mard ko dard nahi hota'): Film Review

Hit and miss, but mostly good fun.

Indian writer-director Vasan Bala's prize-winning Toronto premiere is a comic homage to vintage action movies.

The first Indian production ever to play in the Toronto International Film Festival's genre-friendly Midnight Madness section, where it won the Audience Award last weekend, The Man Who Feels No Pain is a self-referential action comedy in the mold of Kick-Ass or Deadpool. Vasan Bala, the film's resourceful writer-director, launched his debut feature, the crowdsourced crime thriller Peddlers, at Cannes in 2012. Very different in tone, this follow-up project is a love letter to the pulpy B-movies that inspired his younger self, all couched in the overwrought style of Bollywood melodrama.

The Man Who Feels No Pain is a fun ride, unashamedly zany and eager to please, even if the humor is very broad and the sprawling plot too baggy for an action-driven piece. With attention-grabbing novelty on its side, this infectiously goofy curio should enjoy healthy festival play after its buzzy TIFF world premiere, while its crossover potential with several different audience demographics should boost theatrical prospects.

Opening in the thick of a mass brawl before diving deep into explanatory flashback, Bala proves his mastery of close-up, slow-motion combat from the start. Choreographed by Eric Jacobus and Dennis Ruel of California-based specialists The Stunt People, these scenes are dynamically staged but pleasingly low-tech, with scant trace of the CGI or gravity-defying wire effects that dominate contemporary chop-socky thrillers. Indeed, the story that follows is packed with homages to old-school analogue action classics, from Bruce Lee to John Woo, The Terminator to Die Hard. Even the film's title comes from a line in the 1985 Hindi blockbuster Mard (Macho), which starred Indian screen legend Amitabh Bachchan.

Bala's protagonist is Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani, son of Bollywood icon Bhagyashree Patwardhan), a geeky Mumbai misfit born with a rare medical condition that makes him insensitive to pain. An unreliable narrator who dreams of being a brave action hero, Surya offers a steady self-aware commentary on his own story, occasionally indulging in heroic fantasy before rewinding the film to show us the more mundane reality. "Too dramatic," he admits, "that's not how it happened."

Growing up on his grandfather's (Mahesh Manjrekar) collection of vintage VHS action movies from the 1970s and '80s, nerdy schoolboy Surya dreams of developing his martial arts skills and tracking down the street muggers who caused his mother's death. He enlists his ass-kicking neighbor and best pal Supri (Radhika Madan) into his masked crime-fighting antics, but a confrontation with Supri's drunken bully of a father backfires and Surya is forced to flee Mumbai.

A decade later, the adult Surya's superhero fantasy life still far overshadows his dorky reality, especially in his innocent dealings with women. Returning to Mumbai, he unexpectedly runs into old friends and former role models, including the one-legged martial arts star he once idolized, Karate Mani (Gulshan Devaiah), and a two-fisted beauty who turns out to be his long-lost childhood crush Supri (Radhika Madan).

Still keen to do good in a bad world, Surya intervenes in a feud between Mani and his twin brother Johnny (Devaiah again, doing versatile double duty), a sleazy gangster with an army of combat-trained henchmen. Bad idea. Meanwhile, Supri is on the verge of marrying a domineering sugar-daddy due mainly to desperate financial motives, but the reappearance of Surya in her life forces her to rethink. After an initially prickly reunion, she inevitably starts to warm to his boyish charms.

Powered by a steady soundtrack of zingy pop tunes in multiple styles, The Man Who Feels No Pain offers undemanding, mindless enjoyment. Bala and cinematographer Jay Patel give the film a vivid comic-book look with sunny colors and kinetic camera moves, from Spielbergian crash zooms to an arresting aerial shot that rockets upwards from a Mumbai rooftop into outer space.

The plot is pure hokum, of course, and rambles far too much when it should be building to a tense crescendo. Many of the jokes get lost in translation, and all the characters are simplistic sketches. But Bala deserves credit for grand ambition and lively execution, especially considering his modest budget was clearly not in the Deadpool league. A mischievous cutaway gag around the end credits, hinting at a possible sequel, is perhaps not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

Production company: RSVP
Cast: Abhimanyu Dassani, Radhika Madan, Mahesh Manjrekar, Gulshan Devaiah
Director-screenwriter: Vasan Bala
Producer: Ronnie Screwvala
Cinematographer: Jay I. Patel
Editor: Prerna Saigal
Music: Karan Kulkarni
Action director: Anand Shetty
Foreign action director: Eric Jacobus
Foreign fight coordinator: Dennis Ruel
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Sales: XYZ Films

134 minutes