Two children cross the desert of Rajasthan to meet Shah Rukh Khan; a village boy is fascinated by the promised land: America; a Banaras girl is punished for acting on her sexual urges – these are the stories of Dhanak, Umrika and Masaan, representing India at international film festivals today.
They have returned victorious from this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. Ahollywoodnd apart from critical acclaim, the other thing they have in common is their 42-year-old producer, Manish Mundra: a pharma CEO.
Mundra’s name is music to every indie filmmaker’s ears. The Indian media (and some Western publications like The Hollywood Reporter) have labelled him the messiah of indie filmmakers. And while that sounds dramatic, it’s not entirely incorrect.
His first film, Ankhon Dekhi (2014; directed by Rajat Kapoor) won several critics’ awards this year, but until he stepped on to the scene, it was stalled because of financial troubles. His second venture, Masaan, ran for over six weeks at theatres: “a first, for an indie film,” he says, hesitantly. Forgive him; he hasn’t learnt to gloat, yet. It’s only his second year in Bollywood, after all.
Like most restrained men in Bollywood, Mundra comes from humble beginnings. He was brought up in the small town of Devgarh, Jharkhand, and claims that his businessman father and homemaker mother (“we were five siblings so it was as good as a full-time job for mummy”) played a crucial role in developing his cinematic interests.
“They watched the films in theatres and decided if they were good enough for us to watch,” recalls Mundra. “Both of them were our censor board. We usually watched mythological movies, but my first serious film was Guide.”
For a conservative household, Guide was “quite a mature subject,” he says (the movie released in ’65 and dealt with subjects like extra-marital affairs and the liberation of women). Mundra believes this changed something within him.
More groundbreaking films followed: Masoom, Mandi, Ek Doctor Ki Maut, and other gems of the ’80s’ parallel-cinema movement. A pattern was emerging. “I knew this is the kind of honest storytelling I wanted to be part of.”
Fuel for filmmaking
But there was a long way to go from watching films to making them. In several interviews, Mundra has stated that his plan was set: to become a CEO by the age of 32 and to start producing films by 40. Both those goals have been ticked off his list.
“Nurturing your passion is one thing, but I’m a very practical man,” Mundra says. “I had two options: I could either struggle for a long time, or I could work hard, make money, and then get into films. No matter how passionate you are about your dreams, you need money!”
Mundra did what middle-class boys are expected to do: he studied. Then, like middle-class men, he became good at keeping jobs and excelling at them, and at 32, became the CEO of a petrochemicals firm based in Nigeria. “I had to make my money somewhere,” Mundra justifies. “A film like Masaan or Umrika needs five-to-six crores for production and release. My corporate job is the reason I can do all this nonsense,” he laughs.
Mundra may be well-known today, but there was a time when he had the means to make films, but knew no one in the business. “I used to tweet to directors telling them that I’d seen and loved their work, and wanted to get involved with their upcoming productions,” he says. “I remember tweeting to Anubhav Sinha around the time of RA.One, but he was on the verge of finishing his film.”
After several tweets in the dark, one hit the bullseye. Rajat Kapoor had faced a roadblock with the financing of Ankhon Dekhi and vented on Twitter. “Manish responded to my tweet saying, ‘I will fund your film’,” recalls Kapoor. “I sent him the script, and in three weeks’ time, he was in Mumbai.”
Like some sort of a deus ex machina, Mundra simply handed Kapoor a cheque, and disappeared into his daily life of corporate meetings. “I had my doubts; most producers disappear after a few meetings,” says Kapoor. “But he was a different breed.”
The way ahead
Mundra continues to adopt unique production techniques. He is using his corporate knowledge for his cinematic ventures. “We handle everything from scripting to distribution to the release of the film,” he says. “Even the posters are made in-house. We’re trying to bring down production costs. And we will soon launch a VFX team.”
At some point in the near future, Mundra wants to be able to quit his job, but not to make films. “There are other things to do as well,” he says excitedly. He’s a poet (“most of my stuff is in Hindi) and an artist (“I love to experiment with watercolours”).
And when he’s not pursuing any of these passions, Mundra loves to sit back and, well, watch movies with his kids. “I watched Whiplash with them,” Mundra says. “There were some harsh words in it, but I make for a more lenient censor board for my kids, than my parents were to me.”
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From HT Brunch, October 11
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