'The story knocked at my door, kept chasing me'

INSPIRING TALE

From leading a “very comfortable life” of an adman to adapting himself to the rigours of being a feature filmmaker, Sandeep A Varma traversed the path on the sole strength of truth that pervaded deep in the story of young whistleblower Manjunath Shanmugam.

 The name might not sound familiar, but recall the news headlines of 2005 that reported the brutal murder of the Indian Oil Corporation Sales Officer, who tried to stop petroleum adulteration in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri.      Manjunath sealed two petrol pumps which were found adulterating the fuel and later when he conducted a surprise raid (since the dealers had started operating them again), he was gunned down for his exertions!

Lovingly called ‘Machan’ by his friends at IIM Lucknow, Manjunath’s spirit did not die as his death lead to the formation of The Manjunath Shanmugam Trust that approached adman Sandeep to design posters to push for justice for Manjunath. “This made me realise that I didn’t choose the film. Instead, the story knocked at my door and kept chasing me till I agreed to document it in the form of a film,” says Sandeep. He subsequently met Manjunath’s parents and “contrary to my expectations, they were not proud but grave.

Their emotion made me think what would the brave Manju be thinking about his own death? Is this how we treat our heroes? Did people say at the time of Bhagat Singh that he was naive? Well, there is a difference between being naive and extremely courageous. I realised that this is a story which needed to be told!”

The challenge in the script provided Sandeep the right attitude to adopt towards those who stand up for truth. But, accomplishing the task wasn’t as easy as the decision to make the film. 

He confesses that the biggest fear was “The journey itself. I needed access to all the information. Since Manjunath is in public domain, I was sure that I didn’t want to make ‘one of the movies on Manjunath’ but The Manjunath movie, so I approached Manju’s parents for official permission.” 

He managed to get that, but the shooting wasn’t a piece of cake since he wanted real locations and look-alike characters. 

“While shooting at the petrol pump in Lakhimpur, I had to disguise the film as a romantic feature. Even the local cast and crew were unaware of the original script. It was hilarious when an elderly man, supposedly the owner of the petrol pump, summoned me to express his disgust over romantic films in Bollywood.

He told me to make a film on the real story of Manjunath and I kept nodding with a straight face,” recollects Sandeep, feeling safer now that he is out of the place notorious for mafias and gangsters. He can’t help sharing, “I doubled my life insurance policy before I went for the shoot. After all, it just needs a bullet and you can sit and pontify later!”

Expressing gratitude to his wife who supported and even financed the film since “she too believed in the power of this story”. 

“For me it is about finding the truth. I am not trying to put anyone down but tell a positive story of a brave man. This story will connect with the people who prefer to watch movies from their heart rather than brain. It shall involve them emotionally,” he says indicating that Manjunath could be anyone among us. The film releases today and we can find out the ‘truth’ ourselves.

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