If you can imagine a mashup of mid-1960s Marvel Comics, ‘70s chop-socky pics showcasing Bruce Lee and Lee wannabes, ‘80s VHS action-adventure fodder and freewheeling, genre-scrambling Bollywood masalas, then you might… No, wait, never mind. Even if you make the effort to envision such an aggregation, you probably won’t be fully prepared for the full-tilt, over-the-top phantasmagoria of “The Man Who Feels No Pain,” the not-entirely unexpected winner of the Audience Award in the Midnight Madness category at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Writer-director Vasan Bala’s wild and wacky yet also warm and fuzzy fable about a resourceful young man who transcends ostensible physical limitations to become a two-fisted, swift-kicking hero likely will prove to be an irresistible crowd-pleaser on the global fest circuit, and in international release on various platforms.
It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, with a decidedly different twist as Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani, son of Bollywood superstar Bhagyashree) grows into adulthood, despite a childhood diagnosis of Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP), and devotes himself to do-gooding with the active support of his tale-spinning grandfather (Mahesh Manjrekar), who enthusiastically exposes his grandson to every available rentable video spotlighting martial-arts mayhem. Of course, young Surya is a Bruce Lee fan from the get-go. But he is even more impressed by the bodacious butt-kicking on display in videos of real-life, one-legged karate warrior Mani (Gulshan Devaiah), whose victories in the face of long odds and when vastly outnumbered are more than enough to inspire Surya when he goes searching for the bad guys responsible for the death of his mother at the hands of street thieves.
Bala generates a fair amount of suspense simply by keeping the audience wondering whether Surya actually is capable of doing all the derring-do that he wants to do. From the start, the movie establishes that this would-be superhero has a debilitating weakness: If he fails to rehydrate on a consistent basis, he will tumble and fall. (He carries water on a backpack, but that’s sometimes not enough.) On the plus side: Surya gets immeasurably strong support from Supri (Radhika Madan), his childhood buddy and present-day sweetie, who just happens to be an advanced student of Mani.
Although the first act indicates that “The Man Who Feels No Pain” will be the saga of Surya’s search-and-destroy pursuit of the thugs he blames for his mom’s death, the movie evolves into something more involving and exciting as it slips into a different groove and becomes a narrative focused on Surya’s fanboy tie to Mani, and his efforts to help his hero deal with the malefactions of Jimmy (also Devaiah), Mani’s twin brother, who doesn’t seem at all grateful that his sibling long ago sacrificed a limb to save his life. Raising the stakes is Supri, whose last-minute decision to help Surya and not repeat her abused mother’s mistakes is one of the movie’s emotional highlights.
Dassani strikes the perfect balance of ingenuousness and ferocity as the hero who repeatedly discovers new ways to hydrate — sometimes deliberate, sometimes providential — to lubricate his heroics. Madan is credible and creditable as Supri, so much so that the final good-versus-evil clash is all the more satisfying. And in his radically different dual roles, Devaiah smoothly traverses extremes with sufficient persuasiveness to make even Nicolas Cage stand up and take notice.