A movie director finds a hero in an ordinary man, and hopes his life can inspire positive action in our society.
With a degree in Engineering and a masters in Business Administration from one of the top schools in the country, Manjunath Shanmugam was a shining example of new India. Pleasant and popular, the 25 year old could easily pass off as just another member of the Bright Young Brigade – with one exception. Unlike his peers who couldn’t wait to land a job with an MNC, Manju wanted to work for a PSU.
His wish was granted when he was offered the role of a marketing manager with Indian Oil Corporation in Lucknow. Two years later, Manju was dead – his body pumped with at least 6 bullets for repeatedly opposing the sale of adulterated fuel at two Indian Oil petrol pumps in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh.
Manju’s murder, just two years after the assassination of IES Officer Satyendra Dubey, sparked a wave of shock and outrage amongst his contemporaries. Some of his alumni came together to form the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust, which played a pivotal role in pursuing his murder trial. With support from the media, police, legal and corporate community, the Trust also went on to advocate integrity and accountability in public life through various initiatives.
More than eight years after Manju’s death, a movie is being made on his life. Who was Manju, and what can we learn from him? What prompted a man who had never met Manju to devote over 4 years and his life’s savings to make a film on him? My Big Red Bag in conversation with Sandeep A Varma, the director of Manjunath, and Akhil Krishna, Manju’s friend and batch mate.
MY FRIEND, MANJUNATH
All of us remember three things about Manjunath: music, football and ‘values’ – yes that’s right, values. He was an excellent singer who sang from the heart, and full in throat – I think his voice reflected his character. On the football field, he was always seen trying to motivate the team to give their best all the time. In class and off it, he spoke of values, and of what he thought was right.
I remember a time when our brand management professor asked “What is brand loyalty?”, and pat came his reply : “Brand loyalty is like a mother. Whatever happens, you will never leave her”. While the rest of us teased him for giving such a “senti” answer, he was quite unmindful. If it was from the heart, how could anything ever be wrong with it?
Manju practised what he preached, to such an extent that he lost his life for it. What I learnt from his death – and from Satyendra’s – is that we need to start practising these values together. Taking a receipt of 100 Euros for the taxi ride that cost 100 Euros. Not looking left or right while writing an exam. Not giving a PSU purchasing officer an expensive watch while submitting a tender in his office. Instead, just doing what one is supposed to do.
How are Manju’s batch mates, alumni and other students supporting the movie?
There are two key initiatives that we have undertaken to support the movie:
1. Manjunath’s batch mates from IIM Lucknow (2003) have collectively raised Rs. 20 lakhs, which will be donated towards screening of the movie for underprivileged children. For this, we are collaborating with some NGO’s who provide education and vocational skills to these kids.
2. We are also collaborating with alumni across all IIMs to encourage children and youth to watch the movie. For this, we are teaming up with some companies to run special campaigns to maximize our reach.
The idea behind both these campaigns is simple – we want the movie to reach the youth of the country, and hope theywill imbibe the value of honesty, long term thinking and making responsible choices after watching it. We also hope to remind them that it is possible to come together and fight crime and corruption – all it needs is people who care enough to take positive action on their emotions.
Akhil captured the life of his friend in this tribute that appeared soon after Manju’s death.
MANJUNATH, THE MOVIE
Sandeep, what prompted you to make this movie? Were you inspired by recent films in mainsteam Bollywood, such as Black Friday and No One Killed Jessica?
I got interested in making a film on Manju’s life in 2008, when I was doing some pro bono work for the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust. As I delved deeper into what happened with Manju, I was staggered by the sheer maturity and courage shown by the young man, and how that inspired strangers to fight for justice on his behalf.
I was initially torn about making the movie – I usually shy away from headline grabbing subjects, and I was aware that I would be accused of being opportunistic. But I couldn’t get Manju and his death out of my head. To me, he displayed true heroism – something I could relate with much more than the celluloid heroes we create. He was also an interesting person – very cinematic, a musician – very ordinary and yet exceptional in what he did.
I wouldn’t want to compare this movie to the others you have mentioned because it doesn’t focus on one incident in isolation. Although the movie is being described as a biopic, it goes beyond Manju’s life and death to what happened thereafter. In fact, Manju is a metaphor in the movie for all such “ordinary” heroes and what they stand for.
Firstly, I am not sure if every film in India seeks to say something to the audience –though I certainly wish it did! I think the true craft of film making is for a film to have a message which is projected in a way that appeals to the audience – that’s the skill a film maker should strive to perfect, rather than give up trying.
Manju is sheer inspiration to me – he has changed the way I look at life. The movie is not so much about how he died, but how he lived. He’s given meaning to me. If you’re simply going through the motions of your job (whether you are a film maker, journalist or working with a soft drinks manufacturer) without any concern for the society you live in, you will never be truly happy! That is what I’ve learnt from Manju, and that is the point of the film.
How did you develop the script and how long did it take? How close is the script to known facts about Manjunath and his stint at Lakhimpur?
The research itself took three years – this included meeting Manjunath’s friends and batch mates, his professors at IIML, attending the case hearings, speaking to petrol pump dealers, etc. I saved meeting Manjunath’s parents for the very end – since I did not want them to keep reliving the experience. But we had the family’s version through his brother, who was constantly in touch with us and provided numerous details on his life.
The cops and lawyers involved in the trial also helped throw light on several facets of the situation. It was heartening to see even those who see so much injustice first hand, and have the most reason to be cynical, be so supportive of Manjunath’s case and the film.
We also relied on legal papers to reconstruct the actual crime and investigation. We avoided meeting the suspects and convicts because that was not the point of the movie. It’s a positive movie about Manju and the sheer inspiration he provided.
How are you producing the movie – has any mainstream production or distribution house stepped forward to help?
I sent across the script to NFDC, who expressed an interest in producing the film. But the NFDC budget was insufficient for the kind of production value I wanted. So after looking around and toying with the idea of being answerable to two producers, I decided to invest the balance half myself. Now I did not have that kind of money, so I begged and borrowed – put in all my company funds, personal funds, took a loan, a lot of contributions came in from IIM alumni, my own batch mates and some young people who were moved by the thought of this film. That’s how the film production came about. After the film was finished I showed it to the CEO at Viacom18 Motion Pictures, who loved it, and since then has been extremely supportive.
In my experience, technicians (crew) are always supportive if the director has genuine passion – they go out of their way, work for less money, put in extra hours – to support that passion. But in this film, it was the cast who came to the fore. The fantastic array of actors that I was fortunate to assemble – Seema Biswas, Yashpal Sharma, Divya Dutta, Rajesh Khattar, Anjorie Alagh – have all been exceptional. Several other experienced theatre/TV/film actors also agreed to make single scene appearances, because it was a tribute to real people.
In my quest for realism, we have the Inspector General of Uttaranchal playing an important role in the film, and a senior executive of CNN IBN is also part of the cast.
Manjunath is played by a very interesting new actor, who I found down South. He will make waves in the future, and at present we are keeping him under wraps.
The boys from Parikrama initially waved me off with “We don’t do Bollywood”. But once they read the script, they were hooked – they’ve really put their heart into the music. So much so that they have pointed out aspects of the film that are not even obvious to me – things that I imbibed intuitively without a conscious realization.
Did you learn something new as you made the movie –about society or about yourself?
About society – I think we talk more, do little. A lot of people openly support people like Manju, but privately would never advise their brothers/sons/friends to take a stand that involves any kind of risk taking. The movie’s tag line (Idiot Tha Saala) and the movie itself is an impulsive distillation of this secret view we all seem to carry.
The experience of making the movie was very tough on me, physically and emotionally. I think on an average I have not slept more than 3 hours at a stretch on any night in the last 4 years. The onus was always on me, even as many ‘angels’ came forward to help. The flip side is that I did not miss a single day at work , even when I was ill. I think it tells us something about the way we are, something medical science is yet to fathom.
I believe you screened the movie at IIML this year – how did Manjunath’s friends and families react to the movie and which parts resonated with them?
We did not screen the entire film at IIML – just a teaser. But many of Manjunath’s friends and his family have watched the film. When Manjunath’s father saw it he said,
I don’t know how you have made this movie. The boy playing Manjunath, his expressions, his relationship with his mother – was just like my real son. I felt like my son is talking to me.
Since this is election time: Given a choice, what is the one change that you’d like to see in our government and in our citizens post elections?
I’ve always felt our movies reflect our politics. We get what we deserve. I think elections and governments are overrated. Our life is governed by how we are between the elections. For example, who kills Manjunath? It is us, not the guys who pull the trigger. It is our apathy that encourages the next guy to pull the trigger. In any other civilized society, there would be a huge uproar and people would demand answers.
The people who fought Manjunath’s case at great personal risk are the real heroes. I feel sad that so many other heroes’ families are still awaiting justice, many without hope. The fault lies with us.
Sandeep, any closing remarks for people reading this article?
We need people to be aware of the film – spread the word on social media, share the trailer, like the FB page – encourage more fans, share the music once it is released.
The film industry trade cynics tells us that the audience is only interested in watching slapstick comedies, soft porn or movies with ‘large ensemble dance numbers/item numbers’.
I think the audience will prove them wrong. They are ready.
Manjunath releases on 9th May, 2014 in theatres across the country. For more details, visit the movie’s website. If you’d like to support the movie in cash or kind, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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