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Real life is stranger than fiction

Manjeet Singh’s film Chenu,about a boy who gets dragged into a caste war,features in the L’Atelier section of Festival de Cannes.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Published: April 4, 2013 2:59 am

Manjeet Singh’s film Chenu,about a boy who gets dragged into a caste war,features in the L’Atelier section of Festival de Cannes.

The son of a Navy officer,Manjeet Singh had a regular middle-class upbringing in Mumbai. He grew up travelling in trains,dancing at the pandals during the Ganapati festival and navigating the crowded streets of the city. However,it wasn’t until he went to the US for higher studies that Singh started to see the true nature of what he had left behind.

“The middle-class in India live like zombies — we are self-centred,focused on paying bills and EMIs. We get on with life without a thought for people around us. We hardly notice the children who sing in trains or the boys who make a living by fishing out the coins we throw into the creeks. We all enjoyed watching televised series of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata,oblivious to the fact that they strongly perpetrate caste system,” says Singh.

This perspective reflects in Singh’s movies. “Real life is unreal enough to be absurd,so that is where I seek my stories,” he says. His feature debut Mumbai Cha Raja was a coming-of-age story of an underprivileged Mumbai boy in the face of domestic violence,told against the backdrop of the Ganapati festival. It travelled the festival circuit last year,also becoming an official selection for the Toronto International Film Festival 2012.

This year,he works on Chenu — a film on the disparity caused due to caste prejudices. Even as he is at the pre-production stage,it has been chosen for the Festival de Cannes’ L’Atelier section. “The L’Atelier selection does not involve an application process. A project can only be recommended by their reliable sources and the selection is made purely on merit of the film’s script,” says Singh,who will be travelling to France for the festival that starts in May 16.

Chenu is a fictional story of a dalit boy from north India,who finds himself caught in the crossfire between extreme leftist forces — Naxalites — and feudal landlords. The setting,however,is real,and derives from several incidents of atrocities against dalits in Bihar. Some are as recent as three months ago,says Singh.

He had written the original script after the completion of his filmmaking course at New York Film Academy. “I was pursuing a PhD programme in the US after finishing my masters in engineering when on a whim,I decided to do a course in filmmaking. It changed my life and also the course of my career,” he says.

Upon his return to India,he became more aware of his surroundings. “Everyone may not be actively biased against the underprivileged,but we subconsciously imbibe the caste system,viewing them with a patronising eye. For instance,we ignore that our watchman may have a life beyond the box where he spends the day manning our building,” says Singh. This new awareness then led him to follow news reports and meet experts.

His research was extensive and he knew he needed resources,which meant it could not be his debut project. “So I sought other stories and the city I grew up in supplied me with plenty of those as well as interesting characters. That is how Mumbai Cha Raja happened. But Chenu is now ready to be made,” he says. To make this new project financially feasible,the 35-year-old intends to bring on board known actors in important roles although he wants the key characters to be played by newcomers.

His stint at the Producers’ Lab at International Film Festival of Rotterdam and Toronto Festival with Mumbai Cha Raja and the selection in the competition section of Palm Springs International Film Festival 2013 has helped Singh bring on board a Canadian co-producer. “We hope to sign on another producer at Cannes,” he says.

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