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In pursuit of the bigger picture

Film producer Manish Mundra talks to Zahra Amiruddin about how he straddles the world of chemicals and cinema

June 30, 2016 08:47 am | Updated September 16, 2016 05:04 pm IST

Drishyam Films has produced a slew of interesting indie titles, including Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015), and Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi (2013).

Drishyam Films has produced a slew of interesting indie titles, including Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015), and Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi (2013).

There often exists a large barrier between the reel and real world. This is not in terms of a storyline, but more as working your way as an outsider into a closely-knit circuit of directors, actors, and producers. For businessman turned film producer, Manish Mundra, the walls were broken when he chanced upon a 140-character tweet by Rajat Kapoor who was in search of a producer for his film Ankhon Dekhi (2013).

And while the story of a CEO of a Nigeria-based fertiliser company, breaking into the film industry is now part of current indie cinema lore, Mundra’s production house that is tucked in a lane in Andheri opposite Yash Raj Film and adjacent to Balaji Telefilms, has a symbolic story. Drishyam Films has found a space with the bigwigs of the Bollywood world, even though its approach to the kind of cinema it produces is far from the usual masala-mix of its neighbours. Its founder, being both a businessman (with interests outside of cinema) and film enthusiast produces smaller, offbeat films.

The production house that was founded in 2014, has produced a slew of interesting indie titles, including Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015), Prashant Nair’s Umrika (2015), X: Past and Present (2015) by eleven directors, Anu Menon’s Waiting (2016), and the recently released, Dhanak by Nagesh Kukunoor. Both Masaan and Dhanak were critically well received at the Cannes Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival respectively.

As a 15-year-old boy in Deoghar in Jharkhand, Mundra was lured by the magic of cinema, and he knew that he had to someday tick the box that said, ‘produce a film’. Mundra says, “I had one of two options. One was to come to Mumbai and struggle my way into the film world, or work hard, complete my professional qualification and have enough finances to create cinema. I chose the latter.”

His family battled numerous financial struggles, and he first began his career as a businessman by selling saris and cold drinks. But Mundra’s desire to make money and acquire a professional qualification brought him to Jodhpur, where he completed his MBA. He then bagged a corporate job at the Aditya Birla Group before joining fertiliser company Indorama’s Jakarta branch in 2002. Later, Mundra would set up its petrochemical operations in Nigeria from scratch. He explains where his passion for cinema stemmed from by saying, “As a child, my parents behaved like the censor-board who decided which films we could watch and the ones that we couldn’t. So when we did go to the movies, it was like a joyous festival.” For him, a film’s story didn’t end with the credits, since he would continuously work out different scenarios in his head, conjure-up his own plotlines, and write his own endings.

A parallel career

Like any Bollywood buff growing up in the 1980s, Mundra’s biggest hero was Amitabh Bachchan. He now sits in an office adorned by a huge mural of the Bollywood legend, apart from other cinematic artworks of Fight Club and Cinema Paradiso . And while the films and stars adorning his walls maybe commercial hits, he’s not interested in the big starrers, as much he is in stories that have a human connect. “While there is a huge market for commercial films that are done on a larger scale, I do believe that there exists a small corner for films with braveheart scripts. Turning them into commercially viable films is what we’re working on,” explains Mundra.

Last year, the production house, in partnership with Sundance Institute, organised the Drishyam–Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab 2015 in Goa. With films like Margarita with a Straw , Umrika and Masaan having emerged from similar lab experiments, Mundra is convinced that young and emerging screenwriters need his support. “Engaging with young filmmakers is inspiring because they have the courage to leave everything behind and take risks. I didn’t have it in me to struggle like the way they do, and leave everything behind to chase their dreams,” he says.

He goes on to explain that he’s currently in a phase where the dynamics of human relationships, and stories of transformation are really what catch his eye. Drishyam Films has begun a VFX division, and is working on two in-house productions which are, Atanu Mukerjee’s Rukh starring Manoj Bajpayee and Amit Masurkar’s Newton starring Rajkummar Rao.

When Mundra isn’t in the city promoting his films, he’s divides his time between Nigeria and Dubai, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He gives full credit to his business and film teams that he says are the ones that really run the show. “My role is very limited. I’ve reached a phase where I don’t work day to day, but rather to produce a vision, and select scripts, the rest is done by my self-propelling inspirers.”

Mundra believes his role should be limited to setting a reasonable budget that eventually sees greater profits. The monetary loss he made on his first film Aankhon Dekhi , didn’t deter his spirit as a producer because he didn’t believe in just ticking the filmy box and moving on. He says, “I don’t call Aankhon Dekhi a failure, because it helped me break into a space that wasn’t mine.” We guess the indie gods were really listening.

The author is a freelance writer

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