The story of Manjunath picked me, says director Sandeep Varma

Firstpost spoke to Varma about his film and here are some excerpts from the interview.

Simantini Dey April 30, 2014 02:38:23 IST
The story of Manjunath picked me, says director Sandeep Varma

A 27-year-old IIM graduate is recruited as the marketing manager of Indian Oil Corporation at Lakhimpur, a nondescript town in Uttar Pradesh. Lakhimpur, like some small towns in the state, is a place where illegal gun shops are a regular sight and murders not out of the ordinary. However, as he settles in, he dares to take on an petrol adulteration racket and seals two petrol pumps for selling impure petrol. What happened after he sealed those petrol pumps is what we have read in newspapers and what media referred to as 'the Manjunath case'.

In 2005, the bullet riddled body of Manjunath Shanmugam was found by police in Lakhimpur. The case was widely covered by the media and the accused were brought to book, although several of them have later appealed to higher courts for a re-trial. At that time, amid media frenzy,  a lot of people came out in support of Manjunath across the country. After almost nine years, filmmaker Sandeep Varma attempts to recreate Manjunath's story on celluloid. The filmmaker is all set to release his film on the anti-corruption crusader on 9 May and has gone to great lengths to bring the story alive.

Firstpost spoke to Varma about his film and here are some excerpts from the interview.

Why did your pick Manjunath's story to be made into a motion picture?

The story ‘picked’ me actually I feel. I was working on another feature, had been signed on for that, and I got a call from the Manjunath Trust Trustees who were fighting his case for justice. They wanted some creative work like posters, etc to be created pro bono and had got to know that I had a creative advertising background.

As I researched on Manjunath, two things staggered me. One was he was totally unlike what I’d thought he would be. I’d thought he’d be idealistic, preachy, etc but he was interesting, very ordinary in the sense of how we used to be in college, he made mistakes, was a musician —  basically very cinematic. It made me curious that if he was so ‘like any of us’ then what happened to him to make him do what he did? Secondly, also that the people fighting his case, did not know him, were not doing it for glory or money, just strangers, taking on something thousands of miles away, just because they were inspired by what he did.

I thought these may be ingredients of a story worth telling. And my research proved me right later.

Is Manjunath — the film, the exact retelling of true events or has it been fictionalised?

Sometimes, when attempting the screenplay of a true story, you have to fill a ‘gap’ in events. This is where people tend to fictionalize. Or otherwise what they think would be more ‘commercial’ angles, like a love angle or songs, etc. I chose not to take this shortcut.

I decided early enough that the thrill for me on why I grabbed on this was because (and if) the real story itself would be so engaging - you would want to tell it like it is. If I felt like telling it like it is, the audience would have the feeling that ‘this actually happened’ when they see it.
So whenever that ‘gap’ came, I took the more arduous route – headed back into research to find something which would fill that gap. Just needs a bit more rigour, more time but it’s worth it.
Regarding ‘commercialising’, music was an integral part of Manju so I didn’t have to push it. He was fun, so that was there already.

The story of Manjunath picked me says director Sandeep Varma

Sandeep Varma, the director of Manjunath.

Let’s just say the story itself was so engaging that I did not have to fictionalize much. However, I must also say that it is being called a ‘biopic’ in the media since people need genres to slot movies into. It actually bends the genre – some very interesting, unexpected things happen in the film in the second half.

How difficult was it to find funding for a film on such an offbeat and serious issue?

It was not easy. Let’s just say I dipped into all I had – I wanted to put my money where my mouth was. But it is something I don’t like to talk about – it’s the story of a real hero – this is the least we can do.

How was the casting done? Who plays the titular role and what made you think that the actor was suited to play the part?

Manjunath is played by a very interesting new young actor who I found down South. I was looking for boy who had charisma and warmth and yet was very ordinary looking and identifiable. I think we found this in our actor - he will make waves in future, and at present we are keeping him under wraps.

We were also able to assemble a fantastic array of actors in the supporting cast – Seema Biswas, Yashpal Sharma, Divya Dutta, Rajesh Khattar, Anjorie Alagh. There are other actors who are experienced theatre/TV/film actors who have agreed to do one scene roles because it was a tribute to real characters.

Another unique aspect- in my quest to have real looking actors, we have the Inspector General of Uttaranchal playing an important role in the film, and also someone very senior at CNN IBN as part of the cast.

What kind of research did you do before writing the screenplay? How long did that take?

The research itself took 3 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 family’s version through his brother, who was constantly in touch with us, and far more articulate understandably.

There were also the cops and lawyers who gave great details and insight. It was quite heartening to see even those who see so much injustice first hand and have the most reason to be cynical, be so supportive of the Manjunath case and film.

We also relied on a lot of legal papers to reconstruct the actual crime and investigation. We avoided meeting the other side (convicts) because that was not the point of the movie in any case. It’s a positive movie about Manju and the sheer inspiration he provided.

Was permission taken from Manjunath's family before you began making the film?

Yes, this film is officially supported by Manjunath’s family, the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust (who fought his case) and IIM Lucknow (where we shot several portions of the film, for free)

Have his family members seen the movie? If so, what was their reaction when they saw it?

Manjunath’s father and brother 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.”

How did you incorporate music into the film? What made you think of Parikrama?

Manjunath was the lead singer in his college rock band. Anyone who knew Manjunath would tell you, if there was one thing you would remember about him - it was his singing and his music. When he was placed in Lakhimpur, he would sing to his mother, over the phone, every night. For Manjunath, music was in his soul. There was an incident which one of his friends (and drummer in Manju’s band) told me that proved this.

In the last six months before Manjunath’s death – he was battling with himself about what was the right thing to do – his duty towards his job, or his duty towards his parents (of being the son and provider to his family). If he did his job – he would be putting himself at risk. During this time, in a conversation with his friend, he told him that “nowadays I just ‘can’t bring myself to sing, the song just doesn’t come out’.”

Because of this, I knew I wanted music to be an integral part of the film. I wanted the music to be authentic rock, not what we normally hear as rock music in Bollywood. It had to reflect what Manju was - edgy, restless and leaving an impact. So I approached the boys from Parikrama for not just the songs, but also the background music. They initially told me “We don’t do Bollywood”. But once they read the script they were hooked, and they’ve really worked hard and put their heart into the music.

Was the film shot in real locations? If so, what was the experience like to shoot in Lakhimpur, Uttar Pradesh?

Most of the film is shot in UP (Lucknow and rural parts of UP), fairly close to the real locations.

IIM Lucknow gave a permission to shoot on their campus and wonderful support as well – they are very proud of this alumnus and the film.

The location(s) in the film is an important character in the real Manjunath’s story as well – so a lot of actors are local, sounds, voices.

During the reccis itself we realized that ‘Manjunath’ was still a well known name and a sensitive topic in the area. So for one, when we did shoot in UP it was under a pseudo name, where only the key technicians knew what we were shooting, as we did not want expose the film unit to any kind of risk.

The remaining portions of the film were shot in the South and in Mumbai.

Since we were shooting under a pseudo name, a surreal experience was being given a lecture by an old owner of a petrol pump where we were shooting with his permission (but under the garb of a name which sounds like a love story), that ‘filmmakers must make better, more genuine stories – and then went on to tell me the true story of a young man called Manjunath who did such a heroic thing in these parts …..’


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