Manjunath review: An extremely sincere film that is a must watch
There are occasional false notes struck by some awkward writing or a directorial flourish and Director Sandeep A Varma opts for a docu-drama style peppered with some storytelling devices that are not easy to digest.
In a crowded bazaar in Lakhimpur, Uttar Pradesh, two friends have an argument.
One of them, Manjunath Shanmugham, has discovered that the oil mafia’s activities in the area cost his company and the government nearly Rs 20,000 crore annually. His friend, Gautam, is unfazed and walks away muttering something about a flight he needs to catch. Manjunath yells out in a tone that betrays incredulity and despair: “But we are from IIM! The top 5 percent of the country! Hum kuchh nahi karenge toh kaun karega? (If we won’t do something, who will?)”
This scene encapsulates the endearing, idealistic spirit of Manjunath, an extremely sincere film on the Manjunath case that took place in 2005.
The case, that of an idealistic petroleum company officer who was murdered by a disgruntled petrol-pump owner and his associates, made headlines in those days as it came close on the heels of the Satyendra Dubey murder. I haven’t had the chance to watch the other six (or is it five?) movies that are releasing this week but, by most accounts, this seems to be the best of the lot.
Much like last year’s brilliant Sundance winner Fruitvale Station (a similarly structured film based on real events), Manjunath isn’t interested in trying to add drama through events – in the first minute of the film, you’re told that the protagonist was murdered.
It instead attempts to build a solid, complex character sketch, showing Manjunath (played by debutant Sasho Satish Sarathy) as a cheery, fun-loving and regular guy who hangs out with his friends.
In college (IIM Lucknow, with the film actually being shot there), he is shown having a fondness for the occasional drink and sometimes making bad decisions because of it. He dresses like your average college nerd -- a collared t-shirt, ironed jeans and running shoes is his idea of a casual look. Like many engineering grads, he fancies himself as a bit of a rock star, and enthusiastically sings at college gatherings; so what if he cuts the most un-rockstar-like figure ever?
Sarathy, making his Hindi feature debut, is a little uneven in certain scenes but his sincerity compensates for that.
Because he is an unknown, regular and relatable face, we have no difficulty believing that he is Manjunath. Thank heavens the makers resisted the urge to cast a recognisable face like, say, R Madhavan, in this role.
Where most Hindi films fail, in casting secondary characters, this one shines. From Manjunath’s closest pals Gautam (Faisal Rashid) and Sujata (Anjori Alagh) to his parents (veterans Kishore Kadam and Seema Biswas), every character feels like flesh-and-blood instead of a screenwriting diversion.
Sure, there are niggles in characterisation – for example, a fellow reviewer complained in the interval that Biswas’s Tamil accent left much to be desired and that her sari was of the wrong kind – but none of these are problems that will hamper your experience of the movie. Meanwhile, as primary antagonist Golu Goyal, the ever-dependable Yashpal Sharma gives the movie’s best performance – and it’s a stunner even by his standards. From Laakha (in Lagaan) to this performance, surely he should now be considered as the quintessential Bollywood bad-man of this era. Give him Amrish Puri’s crown, somebody.
In fact, if there’s anything that prevents Manjunath from soaring and reaching Fruitvale-Station-esque heights, it’s the occasional false note struck by either an awkward piece of writing or directorial flourish.
Director Sandeep A Varma, making his mainstream-ish feature film debut, opts for a docu-drama style peppered with a few storytelling devices, not all of which are easy to digest. For example, while a ‘Greek chorus’ narrative features a band playing generic four-chord indie rock may make sense from a thematic point-of-view (the real Manjunath was obsessed with music and was constantly humming and singing to himself, something the movie shows), it grows tiresome after a while.
Similarly, an imaginary parallel track involving Manjunath and Golu works really well the first time it appears and then proceeds to overstay its welcome. Meanwhile, the background music by Nitin-Subir-Sonam of Parikrama is effective in parts and annoying in certain scenes where they opt to use the piano-and-strings combo in a manner that makes you think you’re in a five-star hotel lobby. Ugh.
However, it’s easier to forgive these flaws because one can tell that, just like the titular character, it is obvious that the filmmaker comes from a place of extremely good intentions. Of all the films releasing this weekend, Manjunath seems to have been promoted the least. Here’s your chance, dear viewer, to turn this film about an underdog into a real-life underdog story.
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