In 2005, Indian Oil Corporation’s marketing manager Manjunath Shanmugam had to pay the price for being honest and raising questions against the corrupt with his own life. The IIm gradaute had sealed two petrol pumps in Lakhimpur Khiri, Uttar Pradesh, for having sold adulterated fuel. All of 27 then, Shanmugham’s body was found in his car with six bullets in it. Like every other case in our nation, there was a hue and cry initially, but it soon died down and “Manju was forgotten”. This is the reason why filmmaker Sandeep A. Verma decided that his story needs to be told. However, a lot of struggles awaited Verma–from producers who wanted item numbers to the lack of credible data. It took him six years to finally emerge out of it all with a feature film titled Manjunath. “It was the kindness and commitment of strangers who were fighting for Manju’s cause that drove me,” Verma, who is a known name in advertising circles, told THE WEEK during a freewheeling chat in which he discussed the making of the film.
Why did you choose Manjunath’s story?
I know it sounds like a cliche but the story literally chased me. It was in 2006 that a friend of mine from Mysore spoke to me about the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust which has set up to fight for justice. She wanted me to help the trust with some creative work like posters and audio-visual productions. During the course of my work with the trust, I got to know a lot of things about the case that hadn’t appeared in the newspapers. What amazed me the most is that these people who were fighting Manju’s case were not even remotely related to him. IOC didn’t file a case nor did his parents. But the trust included police men, lawyers, IIm graduates, who would all drive down to Lakhimpur for hearings, staking their careers, lives and money. Why were these people so involved was what went through my mind. A lot of people whom I spoke to dismissed Manju as too naive to fall into these traps. But it kept bothering me that how could an IIM graduate be naive? What made him do this?
What made you decide on adopting a feature film format when saying a true story?
Look the other option is a documentary, which in this country no one watches or rarely gets a release. I was very clear from the beginning that I would make a feature film as it takes into account the emotional quotient. I watched an interview with Manju’s parents in which his parents were saying that they have no expectation of justice. All of us are all brave in theory, but when it comes to real life we find excuses like family and all that. Manju had all these constraints–he was from a poor family, he was the eldest son, his father didn’t earn more than Rs 5,000 a month. But still he chose to do the right thing. And usually the parents of those who are killed like this or in war are very proud of their children. But when I met Manju’s parents, I saw no pride, they were just hopeless because of all the injustice meted out to their son and them. So this is my attempt to make Manju’s story heard and feature film is the best format that has an instant connect with the audience.
How difficult is to stick to facts while making a film based on real events?
My whole intention was to make an authentic film and wanted it to be largely watchable. All the instances and conversations are based on the stories that the people around Manju narrated to me during the research. I am not a rich guy but I have put in my entire savings in this film because whomever I showed this script to wanted me to fictionalise stuff or add item numbers. The only thing I haven’t projected a lot is the details of the scam. Irrespective of which sector Manju chose to work in, an honest officer like him would have had to face these dangers. So I didn’t want to divert the attention of the audiences by giving too much emphasis on the scam. So I have covered it in a peripheral way.
How did you go about casting for the film?
There are no big stars in the film and it was a conscious decision because I wanted a rank newcomer to play Manju. He was a Tamilian and was an average-looking young man, but he was a star among the girls. He was interested in rock music and was a singer, too. So I wanted a normal looking boy to play Manju’s role. I found my guy during an audition in Bangalore. The biggest compliment I received was from Manju’s father who told me after having seen the film, that it felt like his son was talking to him. The film also stars famous actors like Seema Biswas, Divya Dutta and Yashpal Sharma. Another important part of the film is the music, which is being scored by the Indian rock band Parikrama.
What is the biggest learning making Manjunath has given you?
The biggest learning is the understanding that our first instinct about anything is always right. We should follow it despite what others say. I had a very close producer friend to whom I took the script. He tore it to pieces in front of me and told me that he was doing it for my good, because he loved me a lot to let me get into such a big blunder. It did confuse me for a small stretch of time. But here I am, having made the film I had in mind and now I know that it wasn’t a mistake. It is best to follow your heart. We are educated and that makes us very calculative and scared to take risks. But if you believe in something, let go. This film helped me get in touch with myself.