Manjunath is the story of an incorruptible oil-corporation employee who died in a nondescript village in Uttar Pradesh when he was 27, with six bullets in his chest. Even to those unfamiliar with the real-life Manjunath Shanmugam, a Tamilian from Karnataka, this is not a spoiler. Sandeep A. Varma, the director, opens his film with text that tells us as much.
The question, subsequently, becomes one of drama. How does one make an interesting movie out of a story whose end everyone knows? A few months ago, we had Shahid, another film about an idealist. But that had courtroom jousts and Hindu-Muslim differences. It had love and sibling rivalry. Manjunath’s story is quieter and also inherently less cinematic. Scenes of an officer going around petrol pumps inspecting the levels of adulteration in fuel don’t exactly set the pulse racing. And that’s how Varma, with his low-key approach, seems to want it.
Manjunath is fashioned along the lines of what is turning out to be the narrative technique of the year. After 2 States and Purani Jeans, here’s another story that begins in the present and keeps flashing back to key events. The present is when Manjunath goes missing. (We know he’s dead.) And in the flashbacks, we see the kind of man he was.
The external drama comes in the form of threats from the oil mafia, especially from Golu (Yashpal Sharma). The internal drama comes from Manjunath’s personal life, like his being dumped by a girl in Bangalore, after which he gets drunk and gropes his friend Sujata (Anjorie Alagh). Sarathy plays this scene well, with the right mix of mortification and awkwardness the minute he realises what he’s done. The actor makes us see that Manjunath was an odd man out — a lower-caste student surrounded by upper-caste classmates, a swarthy Tamilian in North India, a man with a strong moral compass in the midst of those who were content to let things lie.
One of the many things we want to know is this: Did Manjunath feel like an outsider, or did he blend in? What was he thinking when he rushed out at night, all alone, after getting a tip-off about shady dealings? Was there no one around he could take with him? Was he, as the doctor says, a paranoid schizophrenic (he keeps staring at flies outside windows), and did this feeling of persecution exacerbate his recklessness?
The film doesn’t give us satisfactory answers, and the director, instead, shifts his attention to another set of questions, structured as a debate between Manjunath’s ghost and Golu, one of the killers. Such an outré stylistic device is, frankly, distracting in a film that strives to be realistic. Manjunath, somewhat redundantly, makes an appeal to Golu’s conscience, but Golu has the more interesting questions. Did you give a thought to your parents when you were off waging your idealistic wars?
This, perhaps, should have been the film’s framing device. Instead of simply dramatising what we already know, maybe the director should have structured his story as an inquiry into the implications of honesty in today’s world. Manjunath is so focused on what happened that it forgets to tell us why it happened. Why not give us a few more scenes about Manjunath’s interactions with the villagers who live without electricity, and who find the kerosene they depend on being siphoned away by the oil mafia? This sort of insight – as Swades so memorably demonstrated – is more conducive to thoughts of bringing about change than simply having a single scene where Manjunath reads the parts about upholding dharma in the Bhagavad Gita. This is the kind of film about which you use words like “well-intentioned”, “earnest” and “solid”. But it never catches fire.
Director: Sandeep A. Varma
Cast: Sasho Sattiysh Sarathy, Yashpal Sharma, Seema Biswas.
Storyline: An idealist is killed when he pokes his nose into the affairs of the oil mafia.
Bottomline: A solid film that never really catches fire.