For the people of Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh, it was a regular Bollywood love story being made without a major starcast. In reality, it was a film on Shanmugham Manjunath, who was shot at with six bullets in 2005 when he made a surprise raid at a petrol pump in Lakhimpur to check the sale of adulterated fuel. “Only the cast and top crew members knew that we are making a biopic on him, titled Manjunath. For the rest of the technicians, the spot boys and the locals, it was a film called ‘Yun Hi Chala Main’,” says director Sandeep A Varma, who shot the film in the stretch leading from Lucknow to Lakhimpur, the area where Manjunath worked as a sales manager with the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC).
The backdrop of a love story helped Varma and his crew avoid the attention of local people and media. “Unlike the collective memory of the rest of the country, Manjunath’s story is still alive in Uttar Pradesh. We didn’t want to put the 100-crew unit at risk,” says Varma. He made the true nature of the project public only after they finished shooting in 2012-end. The biopic follows Manjunath’s journey from his college days in Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Lucknow, to his murder and the public outrage that ensured a swift trial and conviction of his killers. The film releases across India today. Debutante Sasho Satiiysh Saarathy plays the titular role in the film that also features Seema Biswas, Divya Dutta and Yashpal Sharma.
An ad-filmmaker, Varma started working on the idea of making the movie after trustees of Manjunath Shanmugham Trust — an organisation created by the IIM alumni that “works to improve governance in Indian public life” — sought his help for one of their social campaigns in 2008. To portray Manjunath, Varma relied on the information and anecdotes he collected from Manjunath’s friends and professors at IIM, parents and his colleagues. What struck him was Manjunath’s “ordinariness”.
“He flunked a year in IIM, was the lead vocalist of his college rock band and was extremely popular among girls. I spoke to many of his IIM friends and professors, and he came across as someone I would know in college. This made the character cinematically very interesting,” says Varma, who, like his film’s protagonist, is a B-school graduate, from Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi.
“Another impressive aspect of the story is how without much monetary strength, clout or media hype, the trial for Manjunath’s murder was swiftly conducted and justice delivered. It happened because of the numerous volunteers, who did not know him personally but were deeply moved and inspired by his act,” says the filmmaker.
He invested his own money in the project, apart from getting funding from the National Film Development Corporation and Viacom18. “My film tries to draw a larger social picture by using Manjunath’s story as an example,” says Varma, who has worked with filmmakers such as Shekhar Kapur and Sudhir Mishra in the early days of his career.