Documentary channel

Manohar Aich documentary is the story of aging, family ties, and, of course, bodybuilding

Prateek Vats’s documentary is a rivetting portrait of the renowned muscleman in his twilight years.

Prateek Vats’s rivetting documentary A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings is a closely observed portrait of the frailty of the human body and the Indian family. The very old man of the title is renowned bodybuilder Manohar Aich, winner of the Mr Universe world title in 1952, an expert in stretching a metal spring across the length of his ridiculously strong arms, and a byword for machismo in a country that worships it.

Aich was 101 when Vats started filming, and he died on June 5, 2016, a year after the shooting was completed.

The Films Division production is sprinkled with footage of Aich’s past glories, but the man who shuffles across the screen is a Yoda-like figure, frail, stooped and toothless and given to conversing in duosyllables. Over the course of 72 minutes, Vats deep dives into Aich’s inner and outer worlds. Whenever Aich steps out of his house in Kolkata, he is greeted by fawning event organisers, journalists and fans, who insist that he flex his muscles in the typical wrestler’s pose. Aich obliges.

At home, Aich is supervised by his daughter and two sons, and if you forget his stature for a minute – it’s hard to, given the trophies and photographs scattered about and the albums and citations pulled out for the camera – he is just another elderly citizen waiting out his time on earth. Throughout the film, Aich remains inscrutable, either because of advanced age or puckishness.

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.

Vats, a Film and Television Institute of India graduate, started shooting the documentary in March 2013. The 33-year-old filmmaker was intrigued by intermittent news reports of the bodybuilder. Many months after completing his direction course in 2011, Vats and cinematographer Mehul Bhanti set out to Kolkata with nothing more than the intention to shoot Aich’s 101st birthday celebration.

“I found it fascinating that his whole life was about the body, and wondered what it would be like to look at that body that was now over a hundred years old,” Vats told

Aich’s fame made it easy enough to decide against a conventionally narrated biopic with career highlights and talking heads, but the decision to make an impressionistic film came when Vats and Bhanti realised that Aich had little memory of his past.

“How do you make a biopic about a person who doesn’t remember – that was the interesting part for us,” Vats said. “We were initially shattered¸ but then realised that this was what we needed to do instead.”

The documentary eventually emerged over lengthy conversations with the family members, who gave the filmmakers tremendous access to their daily lives. Bani Bannerjee, one of Aich’s two daughters¸ was the first point of contact. Once the filmmakers were past the door, they were at hand to witness the domestic strains and tensions, the competitiveness over Aich’s care, and the lingering frustrations over a charmed life that didn’t always translate into benefits for the children.

One of Aich’s sons gives an impromptu song rendition and then wistfully remarks that his father didn’t encourage his singing talent as he should have. In another startling moment, one that will be familiar to families with invalid members, the other son accuses his father of feasting on “human flesh” when he refuses to eat.

Whatever the provocation, Aich remains unreadable, a blank canvas onto which any interpretation can be projected.

 A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. Courtesy Films Division.
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. Courtesy Films Division.

“We were making a film about a celebrated personality, but we were meeting him at such a lonely spot in his life,” Vats said. “It all came together when we realised that because he was a certain age, his family was his immediate universe. We wanted to give everybody their dignity and not sensationalise anything.”

The emotional outbursts weren’t easy to witness, Vats admitted. “But the family was much more open than we thought they would be,” he said. “It was a tightrope, but they were really nice to us. The film would not have happened without them.”

Although it appears that the documentary was shot continuously over a two-year period, the crew actually spend 45 days in phases. Mixed into the footage of the wisened old man perched on a bed or a chair at home or being feted at various functions is a valuable archival film produced by Doordarshan Calcutta. The clips from the older documentary reveal Aich at the peak of his powers – he is strong, virile and voluble.

Bani Bannerjee complains that Aich hasn’t got his due – no Padma Shri, no Padma Vibhushan, she says regretfully, and she hilariously tries to get a toll booth fee waived by pointing to the personage seated in the vehicle. The “Do you know who he is” approach doesn’t work.

A young Manohar Aich. Courtesy Films Division.
A young Manohar Aich. Courtesy Films Division.

Throughout the film, there is a nagging sense of Aich being both at the centre as well as the periphery of the drama unfolding around him. Since he barely says anything, he has numerous people speaking on his behalf, and since his face is frozen in a mask, it never clear if he enjoys the attention or merely tolerates it.

Vats’s view is that since Aich had always been a hugely popular celebrity, he enjoyed the attention and obliged whoever came his way. “He was always comfortable with the camera, and his students told us about how he would never refuse invitations to functions,” Vats said. “Everybody had a right over him, and his family had accepted that too.”

Perhaps the perception of a reluctant old man who would rather just curl up in his bed comes from Aich’s unrelentingly enigmatic presence. He is a champion of the selective hearing of the very old, and his unmoving face seems to change only when he is frequently asked to repeat his name. He seems to be saying, “Don’t you know that already, and isn’t that why you are here?”

Vats, who does his share of interrogation during the film before drawing a blank, said that Aich’s inscrutability was actually a blessing in disguise as far as the final film is concerned. “This is not a biopic but a portrait – it’s a drifty film about finding out things rather than going in with our own agenda,” he said. “We had all this information about his life already, and we didn’t want it to block our sensory response to the character. The film is not about him but is with him and whatever comes with him at that age.”

The ace bodybuilder’s fragility necessitated some shooting decisions. Since he was of short stature (at 4 feet and 11 inches, he was known as “Pocket Hercules”), the camera had to be placed at the eyeline because Vats wanted to avoid overhead shots. Since a bulk of the film takes place inside the house, the crew had to be alert without rushing through the footage and ruining the effect of a portrait being constructed, one brushstroke at a time.

 A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. Courtesy Films Division.
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. Courtesy Films Division.

Then there was the problem of sameness, of days when nothing of significance occurred. “It was difficult to make out one day from the next, but it strangely helped in the edit,” Vats said. “We could construct our sense of time – the events could be happening over 40 or 400 days.”

A mid-shoot fall in which Aich injured his head ensured that the latter half of the documentary slowed its pace even further and retreated almost entirely indoors. It is in these latter moments that Aich’s vulnerability and the family dynamic fully reveal themselves. Aich seems to be drifting away like an untethered balloon while his family argues over his movements. It’s only towards the closing minutes that he reveals that he has been keenly following Vats and his crew all along. At that moment in A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, we finally get a glimpse of Manohar Aich, one of the strongest men India has produced.

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

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What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.