Vasan Bala — director of the upcoming action comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (The Man Who Feels No Pain)—grew up in a middle-class Tamil-Brahmin family in Matunga, often regarded as the Mylapore of Mumbai for its bustling Tamil population, flower and silk markets, South Indian eateries, religious temples and the iconic Aurora Talkies film theatre.
The cultural context of Bala’s childhood is significant, since his traditional middle-class upbringing squeezed out any opportunity of a creative bent in his early career (he studied commerce and dropped out of his master’s degree, working desk jobs for several years in banks). Yet, that same childhood—spent watching movies on VHS, and later, re-enacting scenes with friends —would inform and energise the pubescent aesthetics of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (MKDNH), his second feature after Peddlers.
In MKDNH—which premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and opened the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival—debutant Abhimanyu Dassani plays the role of Surya, a young man suffering from ‘congenital insensitivity to pain’, who fights petty criminals and villains inspired by the martial arts action heroes of his favourite movies. The film is a heady pastiche dripping with subtle and on-the-nose references to everyone from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Franco Nero to Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, MGR and Amitabh Bachchan.
“The greatest privilege of a filmmaker is to have a conversation with his childhood and put it out as fiction. Most of my favourite directors—and probably yours too—have been doing just that: from George Lucas in Star Wars to Martin Scorsese in Hugo to Alfonso Cuarón in Roma. As a child, I consumed a lot of action movies and would do elaborate role plays with my friends. Someone would be Spock (from Star Trek) and I’d be Captain Kirk. We also watched a lot of martial arts films such as Armour of God, Enter the Dragon, Return of the Dragon, Fist of Fury and Bigg Boss. All these movies and memories inspired the world of Surya in MKDNH,” Bala says.
The return to his playroom, though, was a long road for Bala. In the early 2000s, when he decided to quit his banking job and work in cinema, his family begrudgingly advised him to go work with Mani Ratnam, which seemed like the most sensible thing to do. Bala moved to Chennai for some time but didn’t get an opportunity to work with the master.
He got his first break assisting Anurag Kashyap on Dev D and Gulaal, both released in 2009. His debut feature film, Peddlers, produced by Kashyap, followed the lives of destitute boys caught up in Mumbai’s drug trade. Despite encouraging reviews and a screening at the International Critics’ Week section at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Peddlers did not find distributors and remained unreleased in India. Over the last six years, Vasan co-wrote Bombay Velvet and Raman Raghav 2.0 and directed short films Geek Out and Bunny—all the while dreaming of making a film for the big screen.
MKDNH has been produced by Ronnie Screwvala and will release in January-February once it completes the festival runs. Screwvala will also produce Vasan’s upcoming project, Till The Last Breath (Marte Dum Tak), another action-heavy film set in a different and alternative space.
As for his disapproving parents—who weren’t too sure about the dreams of their errant son—Bala beams, “They are very happy with me now, with all the good things that have been happening. They had given up hope for a long time.”