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Manjunath biopic: 'A story worth telling'

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From mortgaging his house to seeking funds from friends and family, Sandeep Varma crossed various hurdles to bring on the big screen the heart-wrenching story of Manjunath Shanmugan, an Indian Institute of Management (IIM) graduate who was killed for speaking out against corruption. The first-time director says he found immense "cinematic potential" in the story.

At a time when the Bollywood calendar seems to be near-crowded with biopics on iconic names like Milkha Singh, M.C. Mary Kom, Bhupen Hazarika, Kishore Kumar and Dara Singh, "Manjunath" is Varma's humble effort to bring alive an ordinary officer's extraordinary courage to fight corruption.

"It was a story worth telling," Varma told IANS as he recollected the process of making the film, which will be released by Viacom18 Motion Pictures April 25.

Manjunath's story grabbed headlines in 2005. A graduate of IIM-Lucknow and an executive with the Indian Oil Corporation, he was killed Nov 19, 2005, allegedly after he threatened to revoke the licence of a Lakhimpur Kheri petrol pump owner for selling adulterated fuel.

The incident evoked strong reactions from people across the nation soon after, but Varma started toying with the idea of a film in 2008. He got more involved with his story when he started making posters, leaflets and audio-visuals for The Manjunath Shanmugam Trust.

"There was a curiosity aspect about the case. I asked a few people: 'Why do you think this happened to Manju?' People said he was naïve, but that ran false - he was in for three years (he flunked one year), worked in UP for three years. he knew where he was working and he knew the repercussions of what he did.

"I find it extremely inspiring that someone as young as Manju (27) took on such a job knowingly, he did the right thing, repeatedly putting his life at risk. I felt it is a story worth telling - of a real life hero," Varma, an ad filmmaker based in Mumbai, told IANS over the phone.

He had no money to translate the story on to the screen. When he approached producers and investors, he realised "it was difficult".

"The audiences are ready for something new and different, but the people in the trade are stereotypical. Audiences will accept a well-told story as long as its grammar is entertaining," said Varma, who faced questions if his "UP-based movie will have a spicy item number or two".

The director found an answer in crowd-funding, and received support from Manjunath's alma mater for permission to shoot on the IIM-L campus for some days.

"It was critical to shoot at IIM. We shot there in 2012, and the rest was done around Lucknow and some other places in UP and in Mumbai too," Varma added.

As a matter of precaution, the project was given a pseudonym during the shooting to avoid unwanted attention and resistance. However, Varma found that even children in the area knew about Manjunath's story and he was a "hero" in their eyes. That egged on the director.

He invested 25 percent of the "medium budget" himself, mortgaged his house and sought funds from his friends, family and Manjunath's batchmates to bring the film to life. He also found solace in the fact that actors like Divya Dutta and Yashpal Sharma agreed to work in the film for a nominal fee.

But there came a point where he felt he would have to perhaps empty his bank balance to make the film. And he admits he was scared.

"I then went to Manju's parents and told them. But they said they won't give anyone else the permission to make a film on their son. Then I came to Mumbai, and the words started haunting me. I knew this project was mine to do, and I didn't want to take a chance with it," said Varma, who has roped in a new face to play Manjunath on screen.

It was a year ago that Viacom18 Motion Pictures came on board. Varma is now confident that the movie will get a good release window and that it will be promoted well.

The actor who has played the titular role has been kept well under wraps till now. Another interesting aspect is the fact that when Varma was asked to include an item number to spice up the film, he took the unbeaten path of asking Indian rock and roll band Parikrama to compose true blue rock tunes for the movie.

(Radhika Bhirani can be contacted at radhika.b@ians.in)

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