Manjunath Shanmugam, an IIM-Lucknow graduate working as a marketing manager for the Indian Oil Corporation, was murdered for sealing a petrol station selling adulterated fuel in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh on 19 November 2005. Ad filmmaker Sandeep A. Varma, 40, discovered Manjunath’s story in 2008 and it never left him. Six years later, on 9 May 2014, Varma’s biopic on Manjunath is all set to release. Excerpts from the interview:
You hold engineering and management degrees from BITS, Pilani and FMS, Delhi. What compelled you to make films? And, as a filmmaker, what kind of stories are you interested in?
BITS had a great theatre culture so I used to do a lot of theatre. For the middle class, however, creative is never a career option because you need to secure yourself first. I had good marks, so I easily got into all the good MBA colleges. After FMS, I worked with some renowned companies such as ITC but I felt there was something inside me that needed to express itself in a bigger way. Eventually I made a tangential entry into the creative field by making ads. Eventually, I got tired of selling things I didn’t believe in, and quit. I think it’s important to own up to your own shortcomings. As a filmmaker, you need not be opinionated, but you need to have a worldview. Even this morning as I was driving, I saw a couple of people hanging off a crowded bus, and I said to my assistant, “How do people travel like this?” I saw it, and she saw it. But I’m the one who’s going to be haunted by this visual at night. And I have always been like this; it used to trouble me because I thought something was wrong with me — you know, baaki logon ko kyun nahin problem hoti hai(Why don’t others get affected)?
When did you first become aware of Manjunath’s story? And what struck you the most about it?
I must have read about him earlier just like everyone else at the time, but I’d forgotten all about it. In 2008, I got a call from these people, who were fighting the [Manjunath] case — they wanted me to do some pro-bono advertising work for the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust — a booklet maybe, or perhaps a poster. I had never done free work for anyone before, but I thought this was a good thing to get involved with. So that’s how I first dug into Manjunath’s story. To begin with, I had to get in touch with Manjunath’s friends to understand the kind of person he was. One expects the likes of Manjunath and Satyendra Dubey (an engineer who was killed for exposing corruption) to be idealistic, and — for the lack of a better word — preachy, but with regards to Manju he sounded like so much fun, especially during his time in college. He seemed to have made a lot of mistakes — of all kinds. He had also flunked a year. It was very easy to identify with and relate to him, and whatever I could gather about his life told me that all of us have known someone like him in college. So that made me curious, and I asked myself: “What is it that is so inspiring about this man?” Here was a guy who was just like the rest of us; the only difference perhaps was that Manju wasn’t a cynic. So what happened to him?
Since real-life stories rarely lend to neat cinematic narratives, most biopics tend to take certain liberties to smoothen the storytelling. Did you give in to the temptation to fictionalise or take liberties with Manjunath’s story to make it more suited for the big screen?
Generally speaking, you get attached to certain things in a story, write your screenplay in line with them, and then later find that there are gaps that need to be filled. For instance, from point A to point B, your screenplay needs to have certain elements in it. In a biopic or fictional film, you can write some scenes. In my case, I decided that instead of taking the shortcut and writing a scene, which would probably have taken me around four days to do, I thought I’d take some time with it. Since I had access to a lot of sources and the support of Manju’s family, his friends, and IIM Lucknow, I went back to them to understand more about Manju, to fill the holes in my screenplay.
What were some of the key obstacles you faced in reconstructing Manjunath’s life?
The basic problem, especially in the case of a guy who died, is that everyone wants to praise him. But I wanted to get under the skin of the character. For me, it was clear that I was telling the story of a common man, not a “hero”. So I needed to find his dark side, his mistakes, but people were unwilling to talk about them. You know they would have all said, “Bada accha aadmi tha (He was such a nice guy).” So I had to spend a lot of money on beer and catch people offguard, and sometimes get someone else to ask them the questions I needed answers to.
Your film also examines the divide between the youth’s idealism and cynicism. You have said “a lot of people thought Manjunath was foolish.” Even the tagline of the film, “Idiot tha saala (he was an idiot)” is a sarcastic rejoinder of sort. Where do you place yourself in that discussion?
I am an impotent idealist who didn’t have the courage to follow up on my convictions. So I am trying to play it out through my films.
A substantial part of the film is centered on Manunath-the-person. However, in some parts of the film (the second half), Manjunath is present as a ghost. What compelled that narrative choice? Were you interested in deconstructing what Manjunath signified — both as a person and as a symbol?
Manjunath’s mother once told me “my son was brave. He was not foolish.” I was shocked to hear that because you would expect her to be hurt and you wouldn’t expect that kind of reaction. Immediately, I remembered — although I am not comparing — that Bhagat Singh’s mother wouldn’t have felt like this. So it occured to me — what if Manju was hearing all this? But yes, I have used that device to extrapolate the Manjunath-the-concept. I am aware that everyone, including me, is reacting to the image of Manjunath, so he becomes a symbol. Then the movie extrapolates the basic question, the one it implies but never asks — again without being didactic or preachy: Who killed Manjunath? Was it the guy who pulled the trigger? Or was it us?
The film is centered on the life of an ordinary man — how difficult was it to fund this biopic?
I was told that since a large part of the film is based in UP, let’s put a beedi jalaile kind of song to excite people. Since the film is also about the mafia, you can show them enjoying an item song. But the point of the film is that Manjunath is not dealing with bad people. He was becoming bad for them as he was cutting into their vested interests. Till then, they were his friends. Manjunath’s mother had met them, they had touched her feet and everything. So these are not people whose farm houses would have crocodiles and half-naked women. They are normal people running a business — but if you try and mess with them, they will deal with you in their own way. So I didn’t want to depict them as anything else. These were some of the things I didn’t want to compromise on because I felt that was the whole appeal of the movie.
This interview was first published at The Sunday Guardian