Among the good-looking young heartthrobs and muscle-ripping macho men, comes Manjunath, a real hero who lost his life fighting corruption. And that’s the reason the adman-turned-writer-cum-director Sandeep Varma chose to tell the story about this young IIM-graduate. He speaks to Pandolin about hard work and passion that went into making his first feature film.

What inspired you to make a film on Manjunath Shamugam?

I have a background in advertising, so people who fought his case after he died and run a trust called Manjunath Shanmugam Trust had contacted me for some free work in advertising.  As I researched his story, I realised things that didn’t come in the headlines. I don’t like to be opportunistic and make a story based on headlines. When you think of someone like Manjunath, you think of someone very idealistic. But I discovered that he was very interesting as a person. He was hardly idealistic in his college life, very ordinary like all of use, popular amongst his friends and a musician. So I immediately got curious to know what happened to him. Obviously there was a graph in his character – from someone ordinary he became so exceptional to take a stand in his life at such a young age. I also realised that the trustees, who were interacting with me, were fighting for him in spite of not being related to him. In fact they got to know of him after he died. So I felt it’s quite extraordinary for people who are not family, to fight for him despite no big money or glory being involved, to face the mafia and risk their careers for him. To me, cinema is about heroism and aspirational people. And I felt that all the time we are writing stuff about fictional celluloid heroes, but here was a real life hero who inspired others to go out of their comfort zone to do stuff. I was so drawn into Manju’s story that I thought the audience will definitely be interested in it.

Did you also write the screenplay of Manjunath? Can you tell us a little about the writing process?

Yes I did. After I decided that this material is worth being made into a feature film, around two and half years later, my instincts told me that this has to be an authentic screenplay rather than a fictionalised account, loosely based on someone. There are so many stories which come out that have been inspired from the headlines, but become filmy. My sense of commercial cinema is anything that entices the audience to come watch the film and like it. And I felt my movie could have a bigger draw if I could piece together a screenplay of a feature film rather than a documentary, which builds up to the climax, has emotional ups and downs and base it on what really happened. Sometimes when one doesn’t have incidents happening between two scenes one tends to create fiction. So I went back to his friends, petroleum dealers, sometimes his family and professors, to find those one or two incidents that could have happened which would fit into my screenplay. Till the time I was doing my research I was completely on my own ‘coz there is nothing called developmental fund in our country.

That brings us to the producers – given the nature of the subject was it easy to get people to fund the film?

The process to find producers was very interesting. You need to have a very good screenplay for anyone to be even remotely interested. Once my screenplay was in place, a few people expressed interest in it. But some of those private parties wanted to ‘commercialise’ the film, which means UP wala gunda hai toh gaana bhi suntan hoga and all that. In my film even the man who pulls the trigger is treated in a realistic way. He is a family man. Such people do not look like demons who only have such habits. Sometimes they have kids, families, friends. I think what is more unnerving to know is that the guy we see on the street could pull a trigger on someone. I rejected some of the proposals of these private parties. In the meanwhile I had written to National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). They approved my script. However NFDC had budgets that didn’t work for me. I wanted to make a movie which people would watch. So I wanted to give it a certain degree of sheen on the screen. I know one can do a lot by efficient production, but you need money to create that look. And you have to at least be competitive to the film that is playing in the next screen in the multiplex.

Normally NFDC doesn’t do co-productions, but I made a special representation to the Managing Director and requested them to come in as a co-producer as it was a very special film. I told them they could come on board with whatever money they had and I would get in the rest. But I didn’t have that kind of money in the bank. And if I got in another producer, as a director, I would have two people to be answerable to. Every decision would be debated upon. So I realised that if NFDC is funding the film, then the rest of the money has to be got in by me. Then the process of borrowing started – from my wife, my family, Manjunath’s batchmates, IIM alumni and others. I took an official loan in my company’s name. My staff reduced their salaries so that we could pay off the instalments. It was quite an experience to put together the funds, but we were all pretty happy doing it. The thought was that if you are ever going to put money into a film then this is the film to do so, ‘coz you can’t lose. Even if you lose the money, you will always be proud of empowering such a script. Once the film was ready, my job was still not over….

Please go ahead…

I wanted to take the film across to a large number of screens across the country. My first choice to distribute and market was Viacom18. I felt that they could handle this kind of content innovatively. I got through Mr Sudhanshu Bhatt, the Group CEO of Viacom18 and was given a 20 minute slot with him. We agreed to watch 20 minutes of the film, but eventually he sat through the entire film. Apart from the movie quality, which I am sure he must have liked, it was the fact that such movies are rarely made that made him say  a ‘yes’. As a studio they felt that they must back such kind of storytelling.

Sandeep Varma briefing actors

Was it the realistic nature of the script that made you choose a newcomer to play the title role?

There were two reasons. One, I didn’t want an overriding image over the character. The person I have cast is a very young and interesting actor I found down south. We have not revealed him at all. In fact in the movie his name is not there in the beginning credits. Second, Manjunath’s youth appealed to me the most. So I was looking for that maturity and sense of responsibility in a 25-26 year old. Also he was in UP, a South Indian and dark-skinned guy. I needed all these qualities in a single actor. I could not even figure it out in any mainstream popular actors in the A-list, it only makes sense to cast them if you want to attract a fraction of the audience. We only have fair-skinned young boys, who would look very unreal in this kind of challenge. They all look very elitist. As a filmmaker I wanted to make a film that hits your heart and makes you feel Manjunath’s dilemma and fight. So the option of a known popular actor was ruled out.

But your other pivotal cast members are well-known actors like Divya Dutta, Seema Biswas and Yashpal Sharma. Tell us about the thought involved in casting them.

Manju had a very close relationship with his mother. She is a woman of very few words, but a woman of great strength. Manju’s mother, who had never been out of her house, came to UP to stay with him. She went with him on midnight trails and would go with him to raid petrol pumps. In a land where she didn’t know a word of the local language, she stood by him and gave him courage. So I felt the actor should have a lot of strength in the eyes. And I could only see Seema Biswas as Manju’s mother. I think she is one of the most underrated actors in our industry. On the other hand, Divya was the biggest revelation for me. She plays Anjali, one of the trustees who fought Manjunath’s case. I needed someone who had the strength in the character to face challenges in the male-dominated ambience. I was trying to get Divya for a while and everyone told me to cast someone else.

In fact I went to shoot in UP without an actor to play Anjali. Finally eight days before the shoot of her character was to commence, I got through to Divya. I gave her a three hour narration on the phone. And within five days she was in Lucknow. I’d never even met her before. But the interesting part about the casting was that despite the seniority of actors like Seema and Yashpal, who is playing the person who pulled the trigger, they agreed to do workshops. All of them are playing characters and not just themselves, so I wanted them to feel very real.

Can you elaborate on the workshops and rehearsals you held to prepare your actors to become the characters.

My workshops started five months before the shoot in Mumbai. Someone like Seema would have come 10 times to the production office for it. Yashpal has toh practically re-written his character with me. I told him that I always have a bound script, but it is a loosely bound script. I always play with my actors to get out their best. I told Yashpal, let’s re-write the dialogues so it would sound like his words instead of words given to him. We sat together over many days and went through each scene. I would shoot those scenes and write the lines which he said instead of what was written. Then we would discuss it and change what we liked. Also Seema and Yashpal arrived a few days before the shoot at UP. They insisted on it. Seema had met the actor who plays Manjunath, but she wanted to see him in the getup of Manjunath and bond with him like a son.

Clearly you like to follow an organised method as a director. But is there room for spontaneity?

I like to be very clear on what I am doing in the scene and have the actors well-rehearsed. So normally they don’t take more than 2-3 takes to get the right emotions. Also depending on the actors, I don’t overstretch them. I think 16 takes are quite boring. The spontaneity goes down. The actor needs to be fresh and into the emotions. So there’s a little bit of fixedness as well as room for fluidity. Also real locations throw their own challenges or, you can call it opportunities. If you are extremely sure of your script then you can make variations in the scene to make challenges into an opportunity. I like to leave a little bit of leeway for some creativity to happen on the shoot day.

Sandeep Varma, Director, Manjunath

What was the biggest challenge you faced while shooting Manjunath?

We had anticipated difficulties so we were prepared. Outside Mumbai we never shot in the actual name of the film as we were shooting in areas where the incidents had happened. I was surprised to find that Manjunath is quite a well-known figure in those parts. We didn’t want to have an official security guard around us ‘coz that also attracts attention. So we had three guards dressed in plain clothes accompanying us throughout the shoot. ‘Coz of the nature of the story we shot a lot at petrol pumps. We tried to project ourselves as a Bollywood love story. But love stories aren’t shot so much at petrol pumps, so there were local dealers who did get suspicious and asked us innumerable questions. But I hand mentally prepared myself for all this because of my recce experience. So I knew if I had to come back to these parts to shoot I had to take care of my unit. Most of the unit, apart from top technicians and actors, did not know what movie we were shooting. We even kept media away as it takes no time for journalists to talk to each other and the entertainment news to reach the crime section. Only after we returned from the shoot did we announce what the movie was.

What brief did you give to the HODs (cinematographer, art director and costume designer) about the look of the film?
The first thing I told everyone was that under any circumstances we will not compromise. I told them that it is our creative challenge to put out on screen what we don’t have the money for. In my view there are creative ways to get the look and feel. Broadly the look is real, so the lighting has not been kept Bollywood glossy. When you shoot real locations with too many filters, you lose the charm of that place, the imperfections are lost. But there’s a certain kind of consumption that Bollywood audience is used to. So we composed our frames that resembled a marriage between pretty and gritty. I think my DOP (Prakash Kutty), my Art Direction guys (Sumit Mishra for Lucknow and Tina Dharamsay for Mumbai) and me, worked very hard on picking the right locations and figuring the best time to shoot. If you work hard you can make real locations look prettier than set locations. Meanwhile coming to costume designing, the actor who plays Manjunath doesn’t look like Manju at all in real life. I had cast him for his performance. In fact the actor’s own sense of dressing is also unlike Manju. Here we were dealing with real characters, so we had to make them look genuine and as real as possible. The costume guy, Rohit Chaturvedi, played a creative role in finding the perfect attire that would reflect the real person and at the same time suit the actor.

Has Manjunath Shamugam’s family watched the film?
I had consulted them and met them for inputs during the shooting. His parents watched the film and liked it.

– By Rachana Parekh