Manjunath is a character that will never leave me
Sasho Satiiysh Saarathy made his debut with the poignant biopic Manjunath. As we caught up with him in what turned out to be a surprisingly personal interview, Sasho tells us about how he was shortlisted for the role, the kind of guidance he received from the stalwarts he worked with and the immense personal change he has undergone after having played this powerful role.
Tell us a little bit about how Director Sandeep Varma got in touch with you regarding the project. What was it that drew you to this role?
Sandeep Sir held auditions at several places around the country, and I attended the one in Bangalore. I was actually there to perform as a singer for a corporate event when I heard about the audition and thought I’d give it a shot. He liked me at the time, but told me that he couldn’t promise anything. I came back to Bombay, and did a couple more rounds of auditions before he zeroed in on me for the role. We had a workshop for 3-4 months prior to starting the shoot. I was lucky to work with stalwarts like Seema Biswas ji, who has played my mom in the film, Yashpal Sharma Sir and Rajesh Khattar. The workshops we participated in were very helpful, and during rehearsals, I’d get immense support from all these great actors.
I was a struggling actor at the time, and would sing in corporate events, and do various odd jobs. I’d faced rejection from almost a hundred auditions, and I was used to walking in and hearing that I wouldn’t be the right fit for the role. I have wheatish/dusky skin, and it’s not easy in our country to land quality roles. I didn’t know about Manjunath or his story at the time of audition, and later, when I looked him up and came to know of it, I was literally ashamed of myself because of how incredibly brave he was and because it’s such an important story. I learnt a lot on the job, and will always owe any future projects to it. It’s been a dream come true.
What was the initial brief that you received, and what was your process of interpreting it for your performance? What was the previous acting experience you had before this film?
Sandeep Sir had instructed me to come with a clean slate, to drop all that my acting school background taught me, and that I’d need to do this role with a lot of integrity. I had to unlearn my understanding of acting, and be receptive to his guidance. When Sandeep Sir started researching this project, Manjunath was no longer alive, and all the research was based on the information we collected from his closest friends and family from all over the world. One of his closest friends is from the US, and I met him to find out more about Manjunath as a person. I also met his parents and spoke to them about him; it was challenging because it was important not to hurt their sentiments. When we walked into his house, I realized that this was a house that was still in mourning. They only gave Sandeep Sir permission to make the film because they trusted him, and nobody else.
When I met his parents, I also understood better what Sandeep Sir meant when he said to bring integrity into the acting – here was a man who had rejected a bribe of 50 lakhs. Anyone would’ve chosen the survival of the family over integrity at the point, and it’s especially remarkable because he came from a humble background. I wanted to play this role with complete honesty. It’s been an emotional journey for all of us, and while we took some creative liberty in the second half, most of the film is from Manju’s life, based on stories that his friends and family shared with us. We knew these were things that had actually happened, and these moments had actually been lived by a real person – this was very powerful. Before this film, I had no prior experience besides the auditions I’d attended and my acting school education at ‘Actor Prepares’, Anupam Kher’s academy. I’ve always been a movie buff, though, and I’ve watched a lot of films.
We’ve read that the cast and crew had to shoot under the guise of working on a ‘romantic movie’ in UP to avoid suspicion. Why was this?
We had to shoot under a different name and used ‘Yuhee Chala Main’ to whoever inquired about our project. Whenever I go somewhere, I like to get to know the location a little bit. When I went to Lucknow, I wanted to familiarize myself with the set before shoot, so I sought permission from the director and the producer to go out and explore the place a little. I went around the city and by the time I got back it was almost 10. I got to know that everyone had gotten worried about my whereabouts and safety and had been looking for me. They were very particular about my safety, especially because this was such sensitive material and everyone knew about Manju’s story in Lucknow. So things could get dicey.
Sandeep has shared a couple of experiences in previous interviews where he apparently even encountered guns. All of this was kept completely under wraps from me as they didn’t want my performance to be affected. They gave me complete freedom, while keeping me completely secure. I got my own separate room, and refused to take calls from my family for 22 days. Sandeep Sir would always tell me to focus on nothing but my role. Especially because it was a biopic, it had to stay true to what we’re doing – we had to honor a martyr, this was no joke.
What were some of the other challenges you faced while shooting?
Apart from the fact that I had to control my emotions, there weren’t really any challenges. I remember coming home after an intense day of shoot and taking a shower with sea salt to get out of the character – sea salt in water makes it a good conductor of energy, and I’d try to wash off the energies of the character sometimes. At times, I still couldn’t shed it.
I found myself changing after understanding the character – and you could see this in small ways. At the time of shoot, tampered rickshaw meters were pretty common and while I would generally not fight with the rickshaw-wallah for the extra change, while playing Manju, I started standing up for my own rights in the smallest ways. It was strange because I felt like I wasn’t myself. It’s a change that persists to this day – I’ve realized you can’t shed the character completely once you slip into it. It registers unknowingly, subconsciously. I’ve seen what his life was, what he went through – and that’s going to remain with me all my life.
In your opinion, what is it that makes the protagonist so easy to relate to?
I guess it’s because we have all had this confrontation inside us at some point – take the tampered meters of the auto rickshaws, for example. This kind of corruption is rampant. We walk to a train station, and find a ticket master eating vada pav with the counter shut – you want to tell him to put it down and to give you the ticket, because it’s his job, and you shouldn’t have to wait for him to finish. You always know what the right thing is but we’re brought up with a mentality of ‘Apne kaam se kaam rakh’.
With Manjunath, we can really see the struggle. He was told the same thing, and he went through it before he taking the plunge and taking a stand. This is a conflict that I feel we can all relate to. We still see people who stand up for their rights and eventually get mauled and this creates an inner fear. To bring about a change in society, you first have to bring about a change in yourself, before reflecting that into the world. Manju is a part of the aam janta, it’s just that he chose to cross the line.
According to you, what is the role of whistleblowers in present times? In that context, what is the significance of this film?
I wouldn’t refer to any particular political climate, but whistleblowers are very important because corruption is still rampant. Before the release I was interviewed on a talk show by CNN-IBN and a few whistleblowers had attended the event. One of them was commenting on the tagline of the film, which reads ‘Idiot tha saala’; whistleblowers are always at risk because they don’t conform to the norms of society – but are they really idiots for standing up to what they believe in? One of the people on the talk show also told us about how he had a friend who had been working on the RTI act, and how he had lost him to this cause. When you meet such people, you realise what a closed-off society we actually live in, and how tough the choices are.
Until we have complete unison in rising up against social evils, the whistleblowers are the ones who motivate us. And that requires a lot of guts. Luckily, people are a lot more aware now, and are beginning to stand up for their rights. I hope we’re looking at a brighter future, and while it’s very easy to say all this, I just pray that I will have the courage to step up as well, when my time comes.
What were some of the events held before the World Television premiere, and how do you feel like the film is doing its bit to eliminate corruption in society?
The dialogues of the film are very thought provoking, and we had seminars held across IIM’S in the country, including Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Indore. We aimed at reaching out to students – school, undergraduate and postgraduate, and also did a session at St Andrew’s in Bandra. It was important to reach out to youngsters while they’re at this age – everybody still wants to do something meaningful, and they’re still earnest. It’s when you come out of school, and encounter real life (and often, get a good beating in life) that you become more jaded.
In college, you actually want to make a change – it’s important to foster that and not lose sight of it later in life. All the students had different takes on the film, but the most common takeaway was that it was very thought-provoking. I tried to ask them – if they encountered a situation like this, would they stand up for the right thing? They all hoped for and wanted to make a change, after they crossed over into the ‘real world’. As for myself, that’s a question I’m still trying to answer.
Tell us about the response the film received from various sections of society.
We had a multiplex release, and we had the metros as well as two-tier cities. We got a lot of appreciation, although it didn’t particularly do commercially well. Whomsoever we reached out to or who watched the film, were very moved by it. There were Manjunath shirts made, and there were screenings at PVR. There were many IIM graduates who were passionate about it, as they had personally all known Manju. We also had a screening in Singapore for the IIM alumni.
Thanks to Manju, I gained recognition for having played his role. The people I interacted with were rather astounded when they met me, though – I had put on 10 kilos for the role, had stopped going to the gym. People generally go flab to fit for their first film – I did the inverse, and all I’d do is eat and sleep, to physically prepare for the role.
Do you plan to pursue acting in the future, and what are your other plans?
I’m working on my second film right now, MA Pass. It’s a teen film where I’m playing the male lead. Hopefully, other projects will shape up soon. I keep reading scripts, but this is the one film I’ve liked so far – I want to do the right kind of stuff, films which have strong scripts with interesting characters that I can relate to.