THE ‘VIJAY’ OF INDEPENDENT CINEMA
How Manish Mundra become India’s indie scene saviour
Before he heads to the 68th edition of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in the French Riviera, where his fourth production, Masaan (co-produced along with Macassar Productions, Phantom Films, Sikhya Entertainment, Arte France Cinema and Pathé Productions), will be screened in the Un Certain Regard section, Manish Mundra is taking a two-week long detoxifying break at an Ayurveda Center in Bangalore, to ring in his 42nd birthday by himself.
While there, he’s received a script from an aspiring Indian writer-director he’s not familiar with, in his email, the address of which he had publicly given out a few months ago, inviting any and all potential screenwriters and directors to send across their original screenplays. Even between his hectic schedule of meditation, yoga, detox and Ayurveda sessions, Mundra’s already found time to read the script and admits that he was ‘swallowed into it’ the very first time he went through it. “It’s such a wonderful story that it made me cry,” says the soft-spoken Mundra. “I wrote back to the writer to come meet me in Bangalore. He’s coming tomorrow, and I’m making his film.”
That’s all it takes for Mundra, the producer of last year’s acclaimed Indian indie, Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi, which was screened as the opening film of the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival in August, to make a film. There’s not been a method or formula or returns-based calculation that has led Mundra to wholly fund five completed films so far, and the four other films in development.
“If a script I read connects with me and lingers with me after I’ve read it; if it’s a film set in reality and depicts human behavior and relationships in a way that you and I can relate to, because hamare saath bhi aisa hua hai, ya ho sakta hai (it has happened with us or can happen with us), then it’s a good film according to me, and I decide to make it,” Mundra explains. “It’s not a science for me, it’s instinct.”
How it all began
It’s this remarkable instinct possessed by Mundra, who, till a couple of years ago had no connection with the Indian film industry but led his life as the CEO of a Nigeria-based multi-billion petrochemical company that he built ground-up, which has seen each of the four projects he’s backed be selected and/or win a prize at a major international film festival last year.
Before the official selection of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan this year, multi-director anthology X – The Film screened as the opening film of the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival, Prashant Nair’s Umrika won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak won The Grand Prix of the Generation Kplus international Jury for the best feature-length film at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.
With Ankhon Dekhi, his first production and his foray into the world of films, it took even less than instinct for him to part way with his own income: it took a tweet by Rajat Kapoor. The story is already the stuff of legend among India’s fledgling but strong-willed and gifted indie film community. Acclaimed theater and film actor Kapoor, who had also directed four feature-length films, was looking to finance his fifth film but after doing rounds of various independent producers and studios, was headed nowhere.
Letting out his frustration on the social media platform of Twitter, where he had over 130,000 followers at the time of tweeting, Kapoor lashed out against ‘Bollywood’ and said he was putting his script on the backburner and going back to doing theater for a while. Mundra, who was among his followers on Twitter, tweeted back to him saying that he was a fan and that he would like to produce the film. After a brief but rather funny back-and-forth where Kapoor was initially hesitant suspecting some sort of a hoax (Mundra being based out of Nigeria, the country most famous for internet hoaxes, could not have helped), Mundra flew down to Mumbai, signed a six-page agreement at face value, and immediately transferred a chunk of the film’s approximately Rs 9 Crore budget to Kapoor, and went back again, leaving Kapoor to make his film the way he wanted it.
It was less a calculated risk or investment for Mundra, but more the culmination of a long-cherished dream, to one day put his money where his heart is: in the creation of ‘cinema’, his first love. “It’s all a plan of God,” smiles Mundra, “so if not for Rajat’s tweet, some other tweet would have happened. I had been tweeting to other filmmakers without any luck, but I didn’t have any other connection to the film industry. My objective of joining Twitter was to be connected with filmmakers and to get into films.”
From as long ago as he can remember, Mundra has been obsessed with films. Growing up in the era of the potboiler ‘80s cinema led by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and Mithun Chakravarty, as a young boy, he ‘lived movies.’ “Watch a movie on the big screen was the ultimate experience for us at that time,” he fondly reminisces. “Films were like a celebration; the entire family would get together to watch a film and post it, spend the next 6-7 hours in storytelling and discussions around it.
“The films of the ‘80s made you feel like the hero. You didn’t just want to be besides Amitabh Bachchan on the big screen, you felt that you were Amitabh Bachchan and you were Vijay. You lived like Vijay and even talked like Vijay (mimics Amitabh Bachchan’s voice as he says this). I don’t think I ever missed any Amitabh film after I passed standard 10th. And I was motivated by that euphoria to make it in life. The idea of people knowing you, clapping for you and saying that you’ve done something big, was the charge I needed to be successful.”
So it’s not a mere coincidence that Mundra’s life trajectory has mimicked that of ‘Vijay’. At the time of his birth, Mundra’s father was a successful businessman, but soon lost his money, having taken a few missteps. Growing up in Rajasthan, in a state where he was unable to pay his school fees at times, Mundra decided to take inspiration from ‘Vijay’ and be a ‘somebody’.
“I grew up with a patch on my back that I was a ‘poor’ guy,” he recalls. “There was a time when we would struggle for food and I spent sleepless nights crying and wondering why I was poor. But that inspired me to make something of my life. From class 9th, I began earning for my family. In the mornings, I would go to school and in the evenings, I would sell soft drinks from a roadside stall so I could afford the fees. During my graduation, I sold curd for two years and did various other odd jobs too.
“But I believe that if you pass through tough times, they should happen in your teens because that teaches you how to survive throughout life and makes you fearless. Since I had nothing to lose, I made very clear and precise plans of what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do an MBA when others were doing IPS and IAS so I could become a CEO by 32, so I could earn enough by 40 to leave the business world and join films somehow. That was always the plan.
“Sometimes I failed and didn’t achieve my goals, sometimes I over achieved and crossed it. But by 32, I was a CEO and by 40, I produced a film. I still continue my job on the side though, but that is only because I want to continue funding films completely from my own money, and not depend on external support for P & A or distribution. I also want to continue giving back to the society that gave me so much because at the end of the day, you don’t want to die rich, you want to die satisfied. And that’s what drives me.”
Mundra, who runs a non-profit school in Jodhpur that provides free education and funds for over 250 students every year, is now writing a book based on his life to inspire the youth that “even if you have nothing in your hands but big dreams, you can achieve anything. If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” But before he helps shape the dreams of others, he now has a bigger dream, rather vision, for India’s unstructured independent film scene – to turn it into a self-sustaining, content-driven industry.
The first step in this process has been to establish his company, Drishyam Films, which would solely be focused on the curation, production and distribution of independent films. Mundra has already set the ball rolling with it, by appointing industry veteran Srinivasan Narayanan, the outgoing director of the Mumbai Film Festival, as the Chief Mentor, and the dynamic Shiladitya Bora, who until recently ran indie distribution outfit PVR Rare to much success, as its CEO. An office has been setup in Mumbai, and a team of cinephiles as young as 32-year-old Bora, has been brought on board for the specific tasks at hand: to focus on international film festivals; to ramp up the digital, social media and publicity arm; and to develop the line production outfit; apart from a CFO to manage the commercials. The ultimate aim is singular: “To create a platform where fresh, new talent with the courage to say, ‘I can make a film’, can actually be given the resources to make it.”
“When you look back, even mainstream films of the ‘80s had realism,” says Mundra. “You see a Laawaris or Muqaddar Ka Sikandar today, and they make you feel. A film like Guide, which was perhaps the first film that made me fall in love with cinema, is relevant even today. In that era, we had great filmmakers like Govind Nihalani, Prakash Jha or Shyam Benegal making meaningful cinema that was also celebrated. But around the 2000s, we deviated majorly and now we only care about making money. Apart from Marathi cinema, no other Indian cinema has managed to create a space for parallel cinema to exist or prosper in the last 20 years.”
Mundra has a solution to this problem. The solution is all heart, but he explains it through business terminology: “As I see it, for an indie film to do well, it only needs an audience of around 300,000 people in the first 3 days, which is not a huge target. To get that audience, we’ll have to do something called ‘Market seeding’. The idea is that without working backward from the point of view of turnover or profit margin, at this time, we only need to invest in films with good content and good stories. The investment must include money for promotion as well as social media so that an awareness is created and an audience is cultivated over 15 such films in the next 3-4 years.”
“So that’s what we are trying to do at the moment with Drishyam,” he continues. “I will invest as much money as needed in seeding good films, and then hopefully, if we have two more years like this, where our films circle big international film festivals, and in India, we are able to get the films across to the maximum audiences, then in four years, we will have enough traction to invite more investments and more importantly, more filmmakers to get the conviction to make good films, because by then, we’ll have both the platform for good films to thrive and prosper and the audience in place to watch it.”
Since Drishyam is only in its nascent stages, Mundra has also partnered with the renowned Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab and invested over a Crore to the ‘Drishyam-Sundance Screenwriters Lab, which will curate scripts and mentor aspiring screenwriters every year, with Mundra picking up the best scripts to produce through his production outfit. The next goal is to open offices in Europe and America, and attract co-producers internationally, not for investments at this stage, but to give the right kind of exposure to these films in the international markets. Mundra also plans to produce films in the Middle East and in Europe, to further establish the brand of Drishyam Films, and to create new channels for exhibition and distribution too, and unite the whole market with India as its base.
Ask Mundra what he can bring to the table in the international market, and he proudly says, “We are not looking for profits and that’s what makes us unique. Our philosophy is only to make good films, and I’m committing money to see them through to the release. Masaan cost Rs 3 Crore to make but I’ve put in Rs 5 Crores so I can release it myself, and not be dependent on anyone else. Whoever wants to join in, is welcome to, because I don’t want to be the Amitabh Bachchan or the lone ‘Vijay’ in this case. I want to be Naseeruddin Shah, and join hands with everyone to create a prospering independent film industry.”
Having already put his massive vision into action, this year will see the release of all four of Mundra’s upcoming films, with Masaan slated to release in June, following by Dhanak, Umrika and X. There’s also Anu Menon’s Waiting, starring the very same Naseeruddin Shah Mundra speaks so highly of, and four other films in different stages of pre-production. Ask him if his next aim is to work with his idol Bachchan, and Mundra chuckles and wistfully says that it will happen when the right script comes along. “But for now, the next aim is to bring home an Oscar for India. It’s high time,” he smiles.
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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on May 15, 2015
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