The chance interaction between film maker Rajat Kapoor and Manish Mundra on Twitter a couple of years ago has, by now, assumed the status of a legend in independent, or indie, film circles. Kapoor vented at the lack of producers willing to back authentic scripts, and Mundra, a complete stranger and outsider to films at the time, tweeted back saying he would produce his film.
After earning an MBA degree from Jodhpur University, Mundra moved through several firms in the Aditya Birla Group before joining Indorama’s Jakarta branch in 2002 and setting up its petrochemical operations in Nigeria from scratch. All this while, he harboured an intense passion for the movies. “I had two options at the outset of my career: either I go to Mumbai and jump right into films, or I work hard in corporate life, make my fortune, and then create cinema,” says Mundra. He took the pragmatic way out, and now produces films from his sizeable salary as a CEO. He also has a small stake in Indorama.
For someone who loves films, it isn’t surprising that he says he wants to leave behind a cinematic legacy. “My logic is that we all have to go one day, but what is left behind is something you create. If you create good cinema, then that film becomes a conduit for your life after death.”
Last September, Mundra bailed out the 16th edition of the Mumbai Film Festival, organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, when title sponsor Reliance Entertainment pulled out. His contribution totalled Rs 50 lakh, making him the single largest contributor to the fest. He has set up a film company, Drishyam Films, in Andheri in Mumbai, which is now producing a slew of interesting indie titles, including Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masan, Anu Menon’s Waiting starring Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin, and an experimental project, X, which has 11 directors contributing to the same story. There are a lot of emails, tweets and inbox messages cluttering Mundra’s feed. But his theory is simple: “I’m very clear about one thing — I need to read the script and sit with the director. Then if I feel a connection, I immediately decide to just do it.” He is drawn to films dealing with human behaviour and relationships.
It’s his roots, believes director Ghaywan, that draw him to stories from the hinterland. Umrika is a story about a boy who tries to save his mother from heartbreak by fabricating letters from his brother, who is believed to be in America but is actually missing. Mundra’s third production, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak, is a heartwarming tale of a brother and sister set amid the dunes of Rajasthan. It has just clinched two prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival — the Grand Prix for best feature-length film and a children’s jury special mention for best feature. His connection with human interest stories from the hinterland isn’t restricted to cinema. Mundra speaks proudly of a school he has set up in Jodhpur, which provides free education and meals to over 250 students whose parents can’t afford to educate them.
Mundra concedes his life has taken an interesting turn since that Twitter chat with Kapoor. Most of his time still goes into managing his business, but late evenings, early mornings and weekends are reserved for reading scripts. Yet for all intents and purposes, he is a director’s producer. “Cinema is a director’s viewpoint, my role is just to finance, to enable the director to focus his energy on his art rather than the budget,” says Mundra. His business background has armed him with an appetite for risk, something that has proved to be a great blessing for Indian film makers who aren’t interested in joining mainstream Bollywood’s Rs 100-crore club. Ankhon Dekhi’s Kapoor recalls how when he was worried about the film’s release or prospects, Mundra would tell him, “Sir, why are you worrying? You have made a wonderful film. That is enough.” Mundra has a vision and the conviction to follow it through to the end, says Kapoor. “All the films he is producing are stories that he believes in, the kind of cinema where his heart lies.”
After Sundance and Berlin, Mundra is busy working on the release strategy for Umrika and Dhanak. After losing money with Ankhon Dekhi, he has learnt the value of international co-production. “They reduce your financial liability and give you a larger perspective, a bigger market, and more forces to support the film worldwide,” he explains. He has dabbled in different production models as well: Ankhon Dekhi was fully financed by him; Umrika was co-produced with Shetty; Masan is a co-production with Phantom Films, and international producers Arte, Pathe and Macassar.
Drishyam is now entering the distribution market and will release both Umrika and Dhanak later this year. “The market is changing. There are more people like me who believe in content-driven cinema. India has a huge audience but the key is to keep budgets low. I want to make small, beautiful films,” he says optimistically. He has been learning on the job, and is determined to break even this year. “I believe Masan will go to Cannes; Birdman had many parallels with Ankhon Dekhi. And about Oscars 2016, god willing, Umrika will be there!”