A boy from Deoghar went from selling saris and cold drinks, to becoming the CEO of a Nigeria-based fertiliser company, to becoming indie cinema’s champion producer
Up a collapsible-gate elevator, on the seventh floor of a building in Andheri, is Manish Mundra’s modest office. It stands bang opposite the sprawling Yash Raj Films (YRF) campus. The location seems symbolic. Jostling for space amid industry giants, in a year or so, Mundra has emerged as a name to be reckoned with. Not for pouring money into masala-action films. But for emerging as a messiah for indie cinema.
The 43-year-old Mundra looks nothing like a movie producer, let alone an indie-movie producer. He doesn’t talk art-y, or French New Wave cinema. And until he bailed out the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) in 2014 with a Rs 50 lakh donation, he hadn’t even heard of it.
In his linen shirt, jeans, rimless glasses, a red thread on his wrist, you’d peg him for a businessman. Then you notice the steel Rolex, and the Mont Blanc pen he pulls out of his backpack, and you’d say, OK, successful businessman.
You wouldn’t be absolutely wrong.
When Mundra isn’t producing films (and he isn’t most of the time), he’s in Nigeria, heading a fertiliser company. He visits Mumbai for a day every month on an average. “I don’t even have a room in this office,” he says.
And if you think that’s incredible, the abridged coming-of-age version of his life is even more so.
The boy from Deoghar (now in Jharkhand), did start out as a small businessman. After his class 10 exams, young Mundra decided it was better to make money than focus on his studies. He sold saris, then cold drinks. “I was a teenager, and I’d lost my way. During standard 11-12, I never went to school, and I thought I was going to drop out.” An epiphany at this point made him pack his bags and move to Jodhpur. There, he’d get his MBA, get a corporate job (at Aditya Birla), and walk down a solid-but-predictable career path.
He wasn’t done having epiphanies, though. At one point, Mundra, now married, found himself in Mumbai. “From 2000 to 2002, I lived here. Every day, I’d take the train from Andheri to Churchgate, then the share taxi from outside Eros [Cinema] to the office at Nariman Point.” One day, holding a handrail, half his body hanging out of the train door, Mundra says he nearly dozed off. “I was about to fall out… ‘This isn’t life,’ I decided.” He started hunting for opportunities abroad, and joined a fertiliser company in Indonesia. From there, he’d move to Thailand, and eventually to Nigeria.
Some day, though, he told himself, “ek pikchar to banani hai”. “It was a box I wanted to tick,” he says. The Rolex, and the Mont Blanc must be the smaller boxes; but this was the big one. “Now I’m out of boxes.”
You see, Mundra grew up watching films. Not indie films, but mainstream Bollywood. The big, hand-drawn mural of Amitabh Bachchan on his office wall is proof. “In a town like Deoghar, circus and films were the only windows to the world outside.” Mundra would get to see a movie only after his parents had seen it. “They were my Censor Board. They’d go for the 6 to 9 show. Sometimes, they’d come back and say, ‘Tumhare layak nahi hai’.”
For the ones he was allowed to watch, he’d go early, to look at the photos of key scenes they’d put up outside. They were substitutes for movie trailers. “You don’t remember them?” he asks, eyes lighting up.
Mundra says he always had a creative side. But he only now has the time to indulge in them. He writes poetry (some of which he happily reads out), paints, blogs. And he makes films.
The story of how he found Ankhon Dekhi (2013) via Rajat Kapoor’s frustrated tweet, and decided to produce it, is the stuff of indie lore now. But while it won critical acclaim, and gave Mundra his box to tick, it didn’t make money.
He used the learning from his first film, and took his next, Masaan (2015), to international producers. Not only did it work, the film won two awards at Cannes 2015. And Mundra decided he was in it for the long haul.
He now has a team to look after the production, and he’s started a VFX office. He still takes calls on the films his banner, Drishyam makes, and says he only picks stories that touch him.
But though it might seem so, he isn’t just a rich film buff pursuing a hobby. He’s every bit the canny businessman he’s worked hard to become. He picks scripts that can be produced on a budget, and refuses song-and-dance formula (“There are enough people making them”). The money, he says, comes from personal investments, though he doesn’t clarify what they are (“Not shares; I don’t invest in them”). He wants to take his films to markets abroad, but is cynical about newfangled festivals that have cropped up: “They are just places to have a good time,” he says.
What about the donation to keep MFF alive? How did that make business sense? “Oh, it didn’t,” he says, adding, “I heard about the festival, and thought it needs to survive… I’m just an emotional fool.”
He’s anything but that.
Waiting, directed by Anu Menon, co-produced by Drishyam Films, and starring Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin, releases on May 27