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The Dream Catcher

A petrochemical CEO, Manish Mundra, is the unlikely new producer of India’s independent cinema

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh |
Updated: May 28, 2015 12:00:32 am
Manish Mundra, India's Independent Cinema, CEO petrochemical firm, Amitabh Bachchan, Talk A still from Masaan (left); Manish Mundra

During the 15-odd days that he spends in Nigeria and Senegal on business every month, Manish Mundra often visits the local DVD stores. Instead of going by their titles, the CEO of a petrochemical firm, picks up DVDs that boast selection in top international film festivals such as Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance on their covers. In the days to come, it wouldn’t be surprising if Mundra found his name on the covers of one of these DVDs. In the past one year, three of the movies produced by Mundra — Masaan, Umrika and Dhanak — have travelled to prestigious film festivals and picked up awards.

At the recently-concluded Cannes film Festival, Neeraj Ghaywan-directed Masaan won two awards — FIPRESCI, International Jury of Film Critics prize and Promising Future prize in the Un Certain Regard section. In the last edition of Sundance Film Festival, the Prashant Nair-directed Umrika won the audience choice award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section while Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak was adjudged the best feature film at the Grand Prix of the Generation Kplus International Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival. Before his hat-trick at the film festivals, Mundra debuted as a producer with the critically-acclaimed Aankhon Dekhi that released in India in March last year.

Speaking over the phone from a health retreat on the outskirts of Bangalore, Mundra recalls his journey from being a small-towner with movie dreams the size of a giant Amitabh Bachchan cut-out to being a successful indie movie producer. “Like any other child of that era, I would return home after watching a Bachchan film and mouth his dialogues. Yet, I was aware of the fact that I didn’t fit the bill as an actor. I would tell myself, when I have the money, I’ll make a movie,” says the 42-year-old, who was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan and raised in Deoghar, Bihar.

It’s sheer chance that turned Mundra, an MBA without any film connections, into a producer. In 2013, actor-director Rajat Kapoor, struggling to source funds for his last release Aankhon Dekhi, sent out a tweet. Mundra responded, offering help. A film with an offbeat subject, with a motley crew of lesser-known actors, Aankhon Dekhi didn’t fare well at the box-office. But it found much deserved appreciation from movie-buffs and picked up a number of trophies at major award events this year.

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How has he managed to put his money on the right films, not once or twice, but four times? Mundra makes it sound simple. “I’m a film buff and I read the script from that point of view. If I like the story, the audience will most likely like it too. The decision to produce a film is an emotional and instinctive one,” says the producer, who reads scripts on weekends and sometimes at night after a hectic day at work. His discovery of world cinema — albeit a little late, in 2002 when he left India for work — has helped him gain perspective too. “A cinema not driven by stars but by simple, honest storytelling, has been missing in India,” explains Mundra.

Irrespective of his success as a producer, Mundra won’t quit his other job. It provides him a steady source of income giving him the liberty to take risk in his movie business. “I chalk out the budget with the filmmaker, write the cheque, disappear and then return when the film is ready,” he explains his role. He also understands that the “system” is skewed in favour of big-budget films driven by stars. This makes it difficult for small movies to survive on merit alone. Thus, Mundra wants to build a model that will help sustain these films. “We have ventured into distribution and the Drishyam-Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab will ensure that there are enough quality writers around,” he says. The first edition of the lab was held in Goa in April this year. During his Cannes sojourn, Drishyam took another big step towards becoming a studio by signing three international films.

Even as he grows as a producer, Mundra asserts he will stick to producing small films. “I want to make films that don’t exceed a budget of eight crore, and let them grow big and travel to international festivals before releasing in India. I want to forego the traditional marketing of big hoardings and ads. Instead, we would directly connect with audiences on social media and build a brand loyalty,” he says.

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