Sandeep Varma’s Manjunath, which released on May 9, is an inspiring film. A wake-up alarm for our conscience, a call to return to Gandhigiri. The film is based on the true story of Manjunath Shanmugam, a cheerful Indian Institute of Management (IIM-Lucknow) graduate, working with Indian Oil Corporation, who was shot dead in 2005 by the petrol pump mafia in Uttar Pradesh, after he exposed a massive diesel adulteration scam.
He was only 27. The diesel was being adulterated by cheap kerosene siphoned off from the public distribution system.
A poster of the movie 'Manjunath'
In addition to the corruption, the poor were deprived of cheap fuel, while the adulterated diesel led to greater pollution. Although belonging to a modest mineworker’s family, Manjunath did not moan about the government and general state of affairs like the rest of us, but took personal responsibility for action. He said something remarkable: “If we don’t do anything about it (corruption), we are also chors (thieves).”
Indian cinema has a long and distinguished history of cinema of conscience, including V Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937), Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine, 1981), to Rajkumar Hirani’s films Munnabhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munnabhai (on making Gandhiji relevant today), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti, Mani Ratnam’s Yuva, Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus and Hansal Mehta’s Shahid.
Amol Gupte’s inspirational Hawaa Hawaai too — that also released on May 9 — is as much about making your dreams come true, as helping another’s dreams come true.
Manjunath, the film, has its flaws — it is too long by at least 15 minutes; there’s too much intercutting rock music (by rock band Parikrama), and long-drawn activist-giri. Yet, it’s an important and poignant film, making up by setting an example and its heartfelt call to take action. It understands that life is more important than film, and how many stars reviewers gave it. I found my eyes moist when Manjunath’s parents (Seema Biswas and Kishor Kadam) realise their son’s life did not go in vain, that others are taking his work forward. Many people who were not related to Manjunath have contributed to the cause, including an 80-year-old woman in Haridwar, who believed it was worth fighting the good fight.
Manjunath (Sasho Saarathy) was not fazed when Golu Goyal (Yashpal Sharma), a UP gangster, fully confident that the law is an ass, tells him, “Yeh India hai, aur upar se UP.” You see such people everywhere. But even after he is shot, Manjunath’s “spirit,” equally confidently tells Goyal that his batchmates are posted everywhere, and will see that justice is done. In fact, Manjunath Shanmugam’s killer was given the death penalty in 2007, and the High Court upheld his conviction in 2009, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The ordinariness of Sasho Saarathy, who plays Manjunath, gives his character a quiet conviction. At one point, when Golu asks Manjunath if it’s worth being like Gandhi, Shanmugam looks directly into the camera, as if asking viewers what they think.
The Manjunath Shanmugam Trust formed by IIM alumni works to “improve governance in Indian public life” and gives out integrity awards. They had initially asked ad filmmaker Sandeep Varma to help with their campaign, but Varma felt his story deserved a feature film, which is now produced by ICOMO and NFDC, and backed by Viacom 18 Motion Pictures.
The recent elections have given us an occasion to reflect on what is wrong with our country, and what the government and others can do about it. Manjunath suggests that it begins with me — with each one of us. In today’s materialistic world, where youngsters are often obsessed with fancy salaries, cars, facebook, gizmos and apps, here is a youngster who believed in doing the right thing for his country — and died for it. I urge you to see the film — and preferably with a young adult.
Meenakshi Shedde is the India consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals, an award-winning critic, and curator to festivals worldwide. She can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.