Seven years after the death of Manjunath Shanmugam, his story comes to life at a multiplex near you. Hari Narayan
AYouTube search for Manjunath Shanmugam, fondly called “machan” by his friends, yields, among other results, low-resolution footage of ManFest 2003, the annual management fest of IIM Lucknow. It shows a confident Manjunath, then a PGDM student, singing Indian Ocean’s Kandisa (Holy Praise) to loud applause. Essentially a prayer in Aramaic-East Syrian, the song exemplifies the spirit of sacrifice, and one of its phrases leads directly to the Sanskrit term sarvam samarpayaami (I completely surrender myself).
That is perhaps what Manjunath did on November 19, 2005. He surrendered himself to the pursuit of truth, knowing fully well the consequences.
Manjunath Shanmugam. The name takes us back to 2005, when the murder of the Indian Oil Corporation sales officer made headlines. He had stumbled upon the selling of adulterated fuel taking place in two petrol pumps at Lakhimpur Khiri, Uttar Pradesh — a known hotbed of petroleum adulteration — and ordered them sealed. When dealers started operating them again, he conducted a surprise raid and was shot. He went there to perform his duty. He came back with six bullets, dead.
What was Manjunath thinking when he walked unhesitatingly into that fateful night? Why did he choose to obey the dictates of his conscience? Was he being naïve? Did he want to make a statement, create a ripple in the collective consciousness of the nation? What was the dialogue between his real self and his ideal self as he took that decision?
These are some questions director Sandeep A. Varma has chosen to explore and present through his movie, named Manjunath . An ad-filmmaker by profession, Verma is the Managing Director of ICOMO Advertising, Mumbai, and has been associated with telefilms like Arjun Verma . He was also the co-writer of Rahul Rawail’s Sunny Deol-starrer Arjun Pandit (1999). He was in the process of making a black comedy, to be shot in Kashmir, for which considerable research had been done. But he chose to postpone it to make a film for which he had to start from scratch.
In a telephonic conversation, Varma explains that it is rare to come across the story of an individual taking a stand and dying in the process, an individual who was as average as any of us but rose above the drudgery of daily life to take an important decision.
The swift manner in which Manjunath’s case was fought by people totally unknown to his family was another factor that inspired Varma. The entire case was seen through in one-and-a-half years.
Varma obtained written permission from Manjunath’s parents. In due course, he developed a good rapport with them, whom he calls zindadil (brave). Varma says that Manjunath’s parents are proud of what their son did. In fact, Manjunath’s father encouraged Varma to present his son’s tale, and Manjunath’s mother told Varma, “Please tell the world that my son was not stupid or naïve to do this. He was a brave boy who died doing the right thing — what we taught him.”
Manjunath was shot in Lucknow, Bangalore and Lakhimpur Khiri. The Director of IIM Lucknow was very cooperative, says Varma. They received full support from the police and administration in Lakhimpur. However, filming had to be done inconspicuously, as the oil mafia is still active there. Varma was surprised to find that Manjunath has become some kind of a cult figure. While shooting, a nine-year-old child was able to identify Manjunath simply by seeing the actor playing the role.
Has the director done justice to the idea of Manjunath? Yes, says Manjunath’s younger brother Raghavendra Shanmugam. He says his parents found reality being replayed as they watched the film.
He still feels his brother did the right thing. He says some are of the opinion that Manjunath acted in haste, but he is proud of his brother. He says that given Manjunath’s idealism, his interest in the Bhagavad Gita — post Manjunath’s murder, Raghavendra scanned through Manjunath’s copy and found asterisk marks at different places, perhaps the verses that Manjunath considered the most important — and his tendency to stand up for what he believed was right, he could only have acted the way he did.
Raghavendra says there was something about the incident that night — some divine power or destiny — that was instrumental in aiding Manjunath the person to metamorphose into a strong idea. The police could have been bribed by the perpetrators and chosen to look the other way; there was no need for unknown campaigners to take up Manjunath’s cause. Yet, justice was achieved. His story was kept alive. Trusts and awards were instituted in his name.
Apart from Manjunath’s family, Varma has shown the film to well-known media persons and film personalities. He also took it to the International Film Festival of Goa, 2012. He now wants to give it a proper commercial release. He feels that the story needs to be told on a big scale. He is currently looking for distributors and plans to release it on Manjunath’s birth anniversary on February 23.
When asked if the movie would work in the hinterland, the director says such movies are better understood by people in rural areas. In order to make the film appealing to a wider audience, Varma says he chose to add certain cinematic elements. In the second half, for instance, there is dialogue between a dead Manjunath and the other protagonists. Varma had in his head an image of Manjunath the person coming face-to-face with Manjunath the idea, long after his death. Here, Manjunath becomes both the subject and the object of his own consciousness. Varma has also chosen to add music by the band Parikrama. Manjunath was a happy-go-lucky individual, he says, and these elements bring out his personality.
Varma is cautious when asked if he has fictionalised the life of the young person. He says there are enough cinematic elements to make it appealing but adds that he has largely refrained from over-dramatising the story. When asked who plays the role of Manjunath, he smiles and says we’ll have to watch the film to find out.
‘There are enough cinematic elements to make it appealing but I have largely refrained from over-dramatising