It’s a rags-to-riches story for K. Manju. From selling coconuts, he has become one of the biggest producers in the Kannada film industry

His is the perfect poverty to pelf tale. He idolised Vishnuvardhan and went on to become his best friend. K. Manju sold coconuts, cleaned toilets and drove an autorickshaw, but today, he is arguably the biggest film producer in Kannada. He’s a colourful character who loves the limelight, be it taking on a fellow producer or signing Sunny Leone.

The interview:

From auto driver to one of the biggest producers you have come a long way.

I was a great fan of Vishnuvardhan. My father sold coconuts. I’d steal from him to spend on garlands. My mother worked as an ‘ayah’ at Nimhans to raise us. We didn’t socialise because we were poor and relatives are attracted only to money. I don’t blame them. I became an auto driver, earned some money which I lent to friends. I married and built a small house. I don’t know if it was my wife’s luck or my parent’s blessings but I was making money. We lent some money to a director and that’s how our tryst with the film industry started. Our first major investment was in “Police Story” in which we made a small profit. I believe in keeping my word. That’s the secret of my goodwill. I was branded as belonging to a gang only because one of my friends was. I decided to go my way. I have made money and lost too. A lot of people have used my goodness. I’ve had the good fortune of interacting with legends like Raj Kumar. I became very close to Vishnuvardhan. I made a film with Kamalhassan who’d refused offers from other producers. He was pleased because I agreed to all his conditions. He’s an actor you have to watch and admire. You can’t buy him with any amount of money. I agreed even though I hadn’t watched the original. ‘Rama Shama Bhama’ remains my biggest hit. Kamal has promised to do another film for me. I could have made a lot of money but have not, thanks to irresponsible directors. I’m sure a mega hit is just round the corner.

You dreamed of building a house close to Vishnus and did it.

I was living in Sarakki and Vishnu Sir would call me often. He would seek my company whenever he was free. I looked for a place and bought a plot close to his house. I did it only for him. I spent most of my free time with him. He called me the day before he passed away. I was in Shirdi and we were planning a get together the next day.

You’ve been making films since 2000 and most of your films have flopped. You are the reason because producers look for good directors but you sign stars first.

Very true. There are very few hits. Stars ensure a good opening. It’s the responsibility of the director to write a story that’ll satisfy his fans. I provide everything. What they narrate and what eventually emerges is entirely different. The director is the major cause for a flop.

K. Manju’s films flop but he doesn’t lose money says the industry. How’s that?

I know a star’s worth and see to it that the film is within the rate I can sell it at. I market the film vigorously ensuring a good opening. I break even most often. I’m also in the good books of banks that never refuse my request for a loan. There is talk that I’m a politician’s front man but I swear it’s not true. God is my only support. I will make films in various languages. My investment is my goodwill.

Now you as a producer have a problem with another. You have a council where you can sort out your differences but you rush to TV studios.

As soon as there’s a complaint the news reaches the channels. When you complain against the president himself you don’t get any support. There were politicians and industry elders supporting him.

Stars here say you pay outsiders their market price but not the locals.

Excellent. Kamal or Mammooty first enquire about their saleability here before asking for their remuneration. Here the stars want money upfront. I offer them a percentage of the profits but they don’t agree. They keep on increasing their remuneration even though there’s no increase in the market. That’s when I get angry. I’m planning a film with Upendra which Ramesh will direct. I know he’ll not refuse what I offer. Stars here act in a couple of films and demand 1 crore. They should grow but not at our cost.

Stars fear you because you let loose a string of expletives.

I’m polite to an extent. I’m straight forward. You’re right I abuse but only those who deserve it. Yogi’s father who’s also a producer accepted the sum I offered his son because he knows the difficulties. I believe in straight talk and always honour what I commit.

You’ve made so many films and no one knows better that a star does not assure a hit but you still sign a Sunny Leone and a Vikram without deciding on a director.

I wanted to make a film in Hindi. I signed her after gathering information about her. I want to make a good film with her. I’ve signed the Tamil director Sasi Kumar for a film. This is the first time you’ve signed a director first.

He’s director and a star. I agree I used to make the mistake you mentioned. Believe me there’s a paucity of writers here. I also have faith in people which is the reason I signed Abhay Simha to direct Mammooty. Sriram promised a lot with ‘Godfather’ but didn’t deliver.

Are you making films in other languages because you are disgusted with the industry here?

I love Kannada. I will make a couple of films in a year here. I ultimately want to serve the people and am planning to contest the next elections.