Mumbai Cha Raja director Manjeet Singh’s next feature film project Chenu has been picked up by Cinéfondation’s L’Atelier at the Cannes Film Festival this year. This means that Cinéfondation will help Singh gain access to international financing to get the project off the ground soon.
Since 2005, L’Atelier has been selecting about 15 projects from around the world every year and inviting directors to meet up with producers, who might be interested in financing a project.
Singh, who is originally from Ludhiana, talks about his films and independent filmmaking in India.
What is Chenu about?
The ongoing caste war between the Maoists and a private army of landlords engulfs a low caste Dalit teenager, Chenu, when his younger sister Chano’s fingers are chopped off for plucking mustard leaves from a landlord’s farm. Chenu loses his innocence and takes up arms for the honour of his family and community.
When did you get to know about the L'Atelier invitation?
Couple of months back, I got an email from Cinéfondation and was pleasantly surprised as I had never applied for it.
Have you been able to get any producers on board? Are you looking at any Indian producers?
Yes. At the moment Marc Almon from Story Engine Pictures, Canada, is a co-producer. We hope to raise considerable amount of money in Canada. An Indian co-producer has not been zeroed upon yet as; we will finalise the partners after the Cannes event.
There’s a lot of talk about the Indian indie nowadays. As an independent filmmaker, do you see a greater acceptance for these kinds of films from the audience, even amidst the emergence of the Rs 100-crore club films? What about the attitude of producers and distributors, who really control what reaches the audience?
Things are slowly, but surely, moving in the right direction. For example, the information and broadcasting ministry’s initiative to offer Rs 25 lakh to each director for the telecast of their films, which have been selected to prestigious festivals and also those, which have won National Awards. What is needed is a little respect and realisation from industry players that there is life beyond making profits. Producers should pick up a story, develop its screenplay and then hire the right director and cast for the project. In India producers are running after directors, who can get a star to do a film, so that it brings them sure profits. No wonder more than 90% of the films flop as the producers and directors involved want to make a quick buck. They don’t even realise how good their finished films are and delay their release for years. How can one expect these people to understand independent cinema?
Your journey in filmmaking
I am an engineer by education. I was always inclined towards visual arts and thought it would be nice if I could make a film, more as a hobby. So I did a one-month introductory film course in the USA. The medium of cinema engrossed my senses 24x7; this was a never-before experience. I knew that if I did anything else in life it would be a waste.
What motivated you to make Mumbai Cha Raja?
The high spirits of the people, especially the children living in the slums, are perhaps not portrayed honestly on screen. Most of the films show them depressed and wanting to run away from their dirty world, but in reality they do not know what exists beyond this. They find joy in trivial things. Perhaps they are closer to nature than us, so are happy despite the problems they face.
Were you inspired by Salaam Bombay, which too dealt with life in the slums?
Actually the actors in the film are drawn from the slums and what you will see on screen are their real-life stories; it’s not fictionalised. Also I wanted to share my childhood memories and document the beauty of (Mumbai’s) Ganesh festival in the film.
Wasn’t it difficult to shoot with non-actors?
Yes, the challenge was to create a shooting environment which would be casual enough so that the children didn’t feel they were acting.