reportage FILM

Supporting Star

How Manish Mundra became an unlikely champion of Indian independent cinema

By TARAN N KHAN | 1 October 2015

I CAUGHT MANISH MUNDRA, by fortunate chance, in June, on the weekday afternoon he was in Mumbai for the launch of the Indian trailer for Masaan. The entrance to the suburban theatre hosting the event was dominated by posters announcing an upcoming big-budget release. In the lobby, a somewhat thin crowd of journalists mingled with Masaan’s cast and crew, as well as several luminaries of what are called Mumbai’s “indie film” circles.

Masaan has, by the standards of mainstream Indian cinema, an unconventional story—involving a sex scandal, inter-caste romance, and an orphan boy who dives for coins in the Ganges. It was shot in Varanasi, and had a comparatively small budget of Rs 6.5 crore. The film’s credits list several producers and co-producers from India and France, but it was Mundra who provided the initial financing that got the project off the ground.

A few weeks earlier, Masaan had premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, under the prestigious Un Certain Regard category, and had won two awards—including one for its debutant director, Neeraj Ghaywan. Mundra was present at that screening, and for the standing ovation that followed it. The film’s rapturous reception in France had created an air of anticipation, and encouraged its backers to release it relatively quickly in India. The trailer release was the first step in that process.

I found Mundra standing at a remove from the action, red-eyed but buzzing. He had arrived that morning from Nigeria, where he works, via Dubai, where he lives with his family. He was dressed in a casual, corporate style, and was flanked by a handful of staff from his recently founded production house, Drishyam Films, as well as some old friends who had come out to witness his success. As the crowd moved towards the auditorium, we ascended the stairs together. Voices chattered in the dark: “You must see my film,” I heard, followed by “It’s not good cinema, but it’s fun.” I took a seat at the back of the theatre. Mundra, after a moment of indecision in the aisle, moved towards the front.

After the trailer screening, the cast and crew lined up onstage to take questions from the press. The conversation was informal, and sometimes irreverent. Mundra stood at the edge of this assembly, and contributed a few, sober lines. Afterwards, as the television cameras made a beeline for the film’s stars, he took some selfies with his friends, and got himself some coffee.

In Mumbai’s hyper-connected film world, Mundra, a youthful-looking 42-year-old, is the quintessential outsider—the managing director of a petrochemical company in Nigeria, a small-town boy with, until his sudden appearance on the scene a few years ago, no links to the industry. In 2011, he backed Ankhon Dekhi, a small indie film by the acclaimed director Rajat Kapoor, which went on to win several important awards. Since then, he has produced 5 more films in India, which have gathered accolades at festivals across the world, including Berlin and Sundance. The recent success of Masaan has only reinforced Mundra’s reputation as a producer with a canny eye for the right projects, and the financial commitment to see them through. Already, he has been written about as the “guardian angel of Indian indie cinema”—a saviour for writers and directors looking to make films whose main appeal is the strength of their scripts rather than their mainstream commercial potential alone. If there was a pantheon of deities such film-makers in Mumbai paid homage to, Mundra would be in it.

Masaan was released in Indian theatres in late July. It charmed audiences, and brought in over Rs3.6 crore in box-office sales over a six-week run—a respectable showing for an independent film in India. In a market where such “alternative” films have historically struggled, this turned more eyes towards Mundra than ever before. Many are watching to see if Mundra and Drishyam Films can turn making bold, independent cinema into a sustainable enterprise. As Varun Grover, who wrote the script for Masaan, told me, “In Mumbai, nobody likes to be the first in line.” But if Mundra’s “calculations work, people will be ready to queue up behind him.”

Once the launch was done, we drove to his five-star hotel, near Mumbai’s airport, to continue our conversation. On the way, I asked how he felt about now being part of the film world. In response, he read out some poetry he had written the previous night:

Ab lakshyaheen maseeha saa main

Bheed mein samaahit hua ja raha hoon

Vyakul man liye, peedaon ke dansh liye

Apne hone ka wajood khoye ja raha hoon …

Iss sab ka ab ant hoga

Ek baar phir se naya aarambh hoga

“In the middle of this crowd,” he translated for me, “people think I am some kind of a messiah, but I don’t feel that way. Already I am searching for the next source of inspiration.” He paused for a beat, then added, “Whatever is going on, will continue. But already my mind is wondering: ‘What next?’”

In his plush hotel room, with a friend who had tagged along from the screening and three members of his production house looking on, Mundra plunged straight into a photo shoot—his first as a producer. He had come to Mumbai prepared, and laid out a small suitcase with several changes of clothes. “This will look very good with the jeans,” he said, arranging shirts and jackets in neat piles. “And this will work really well for the formal look.”

“Trust me,” he told the photographer, already on his way to change. “This is great.” The photographer just nodded his agreement.

Between poses, Mundra multi-tasked furiously: ordering food (“Let’s get veg biryani, then we won’t need anything extra”), making sure everyone had coffee, breaking off to chat in Marwari with his friend. In between all this, he answered my questions. Each time he had to move away for a shot, or to arrange something that needed doing, he apologised for interrupting our conversation.

As the shoot progressed, I caught snatches of Mundra’s exchange with the photographer. “Not the collar that way,” he said, “that will look too filmi.” Once in a while, I heard, “Oh, that’s so good!” Finally, at the end of 90 gruelling minutes, Mundra scrolled through the photos on the camera with loud exclamations of delight and praise, while the sweat-drenched photographer beamed.

“This is great,” he said, stopping at a black-and-white image. He bestowed upon it the ultimate accolade: “This will have to go up on Facebook.”

 

THE MIDDLE SON OF A LARGE MARWARI FAMILY, Manish Mundra grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Deoghar, a small town in what was then south Bihar and is now Jharkhand, sharing a home with five siblings. His father was an entrepreneur, like many other Marwaris. But, when Mundra was still very young, his businesses began to fail, and the family spiralled into debt. At the age of 12, Mundra told me, he was already having sleepless nights. “First the cars vanished, then it became tough to pay our school fees,” he said.

In the recent past, Mundra has spoken freely about his early hardships to the press. Now, he said to me, he prefers not to dwell on the details. But it is clear his father’s misadventures with profit and risk marked Mundra deeply, and the years of hardship shaped much of what defines him today: his desire for financial security, his ambition and drive, and his soft spot for stories of life in small towns and large families.

As he tells it, Mundra’s life seems something out of a potboiler. It is a rags-to-riches story, couched in the language of extremes—ironic, for someone who has made a name backing what in the cinema world are referred to as “realistic” stories. By the time he was 15, Mundra said, he was committed to “bringing in the income” for his family. One of the ways he did this was by selling bottles of fruit juice, made by his mother, on the streets of Deoghar.

In an evocative post on his blog, which he started in 2009, he recalls what he describes as the worst day of his life, “when I had to loan my mother’s only gold ornament to one of my enemies to get some money for my father’s financial woes.” Despite the gulf of time and circumstances now separating him from the incident, when I asked Mundra about it he shook his head, and said, “I really died that day.” He was then 21 years old.

Despite these troubles, or perhaps because of them, at school Mundra was an exuberant and popular teenager, a provider of film reviews and opinions worth following. Rao Gyanendra Singh, an engineer who still lives in Deoghar, recalled a shared childhood spent running through the gardens of large bungalows left under the care of sleepy watchmen. Many of Mundra’s friends remembered that he used to show off the bottles of fruit juice he sold on the streets. “He always dreamed big, but did small work without any shame,” Seema Sharma, who studied with him through school and college, told me. When her mother was struck by paralysis, Sharma recalled, Mundra learned acupressure so he could come and give her therapy at home. “She still remembers that,” Sharma said. “He was always the helpful boy next door.”

Meanwhile, Mundra nourished a secret passion for cinema, and saved up for tickets to the local theatre. When his mother sent him to shop for vegetables, he told me, “I would save a few pennies by buying from the vendors at the back of the market, who charged less.” But he wasn’t allowed to watch movies, and couldn’t be away from home for three hours straight without arousing suspicion. “So I convinced the watchman to let me watch half the movie on one day, half on the next,” he said. The first film he was “officially allowed to watch” was Guide, starring Dev Anand. At this time, like many young men across India, Mundra came to admire Amitabh Bachchan after seeing him in such films as Kaala Patthar and Coolie. To this day, he is happy, on occasion, to quote dialogue and sing a few lines from Bachchan’s films in the star’s trademark style.

His need to earn for his family led Mundra to neglect his studies until just a few months before his class 12 exams. At that point, “I realised I would get nowhere without an education,” he said. “So I buckled down and studied.” He passed with the highest grades in his class.

After school, Mundra left Deoghar for Jodhpur—“the only other place I knew”—where he lived with his maternal grandparents. While pursuing a degree in commerce, he continued to run his own businesses. One of these involved making and selling dahi­—curd. “I would make 20 to 25 kilos every day and pour it into vessels this big,” he said, pointing to a gleaming coffee table in the hotel room. “I couldn’t touch the malai”—the creamy layer that formed on top. “That was the value, so I had a special technique that left it intact,” he recalled, proudly. “It was wow dahi. People really loved it.”

At the end of college, Mundra had to choose between studying to be a chartered accountant or pursuing an MBA. As he would often do in life, he took the path that promised the shortest distance to financial stability. “For a CA, it takes too long to start earning,” he said. “So I applied to just one place that I could afford—to Jodhpur University, for an MBA.” What if he hadn’t got in, I asked. He looked at me, surprised, and said, “But I had to,” stressing the “had.”

Despite his epiphany about the value of education, Mundra did not go to class much, and once again spent most of his time running small enterprises. “Life is the best teacher,” he told me repeatedly. “A degree is just a passport to get out.” With his “passport,” in March 1997, Mundra headed to Raipur, after being selected for a position with the multinational Aditya Birla Group. It was his first job, and his first step in a rapid rise up a series of corporate ladders. In 2000, he married his wife, Pramila. The following year, the couple arrived in Mumbai. They lived in the suburbs, near Chakala, and Mundra commuted to his corporate office in Nariman Point, at the tip of south Mumbai.

In the city, he encountered the cinema world he had dreamed of, and dreamed of being part of, for so long. “I had a passion for film-making that I couldn’t confess for a long time,” he told me somewhat bashfully. But Mundra understood that, as a young man with no clout or means, “I could leave my job, and struggle for years to break into films, or I could secure myself financially, enjoy my life and then pursue my dream.”

In 2002, he left the country to make “some proper money” in Indonesia, joining the same petrochemical firm he still works with. In 2004, he moved to Thailand, and eventually, in 2005, he landed up in Nigeria. By 2007, aged just 34, he was made the managing director of the company.

Finally, in 2011, he returned to his cinematic ambitions. In August of that year, Rajat Kapoor, who had already directed four acclaimed films, took to Twitter to voice his frustration at not finding a producer for his fifth directorial project. “Chhodo yaar,” he wrote, “i am not going to wait forever for bloody producers. i need them to make a film – but not to do a new play.” Mundra tweeted back in reply, “I am ready to produce. What’s the budget”.

 

LIKE MANY IN MUMBAI’S FILM CIRCLES, Mundra is a prolific user of social media. But in an era of carefully crafted online personas, he over-shares with magnificent abandon. On Facebook and Twitter, he posts a steady stream of questions, declarations and poetry—usually his own. Mundra enjoys painting, and often shares his artwork too. A member of his team described him, delicately, as “unfiltered.” In an industry that is heavy with platitude, he comes across as disarmingly vulnerable in his ability to say what he feels.

Many of the posts on his blog were written long before he turned producer. They give an impression of Mundra as part romantic, part angry young man with a massive chip on his shoulder, with a constant need to “prove himself” to others who were richer, smarter, more attractive—just better.

In a 2013 post, for instance, Mundra lists “Forty Things You Didn’t Know About Me.” Among them: “I used to die for beautiful girls. They would never give a look at me, that made me frustrated and forced me to do well in life”; “I used to compete with rich and famous, imaginary competition, which I still do to date”; “Pain is my part and parcel, I love being in pain, I still cant digest happiness”; “I used to cry in nights and fight with god during my trying times”; “I did not go for my honeymoon as I did not have money!”; and “Beauty still attracts me, one of my biggest weak link.”

“Insecurity was a big part of my life earlier,” Mundra told me when I asked about this post. “I have changed a lot over the past few years, as I have achieved everything I wanted to.”

Also on the blog, he presents numerous and changing bucket lists from over his lifetime. At 25, he writes in a blog post, he recorded that he “had to become the CEO of a company by 32.” In conversation, too, he made constant references to a strict timeline: of “having” to be married by a certain age, “having” to have a family soon after that, and so on. I asked if he had always been serious about following his self-imposed schedule. “Life has to be lived in phases and there is a time for everything,” he told me, with a touch of annoyance. “No one else will tell you how to plan your journey. It’s up to you to figure it out.”

Mundra’s blog bio reads, “In search for a purpose, the very reason why I exist and what would be my legacy.” Mundra told me he was a spiritual person, and talked of “the energy” that led him on certain paths. “I don’t believe in rituals,” he said, “but I believe in being close to god.” He described making films, and making films of a certain kind, as part of his need to leave behind a legacy of good. He still poses angst-filled questions to the internet on occasion. On Twitter, in June, he demanded, “Life!!! when will I get my answers? Tell me please.”

While Mundra’s trajectory seems unusual, his success has come as no surprise to many who know him well. In July, I spoke to Ashok Machher, Mundra’s former boss at the Aditya Birla Group and the man he calls his “mentor.” He described the young Mundra as a “risk-taker” and a “dreamer,” with “an artistic side” rare in corporate circles. When I asked him about Mundra’s move into the movie business, he said, “I am only surprised he is not a director. He likes to make people do what he says, order the world around him.”

Sanjay Sharma, a friend and flatmate of Mundra’s from a brief foray into Mumbai as a student trainee in 1995, put it another way. “He makes others dance,” he told me, “he doesn’t do the dancing himself.” Sharma was with Mundra at the trailer launch, and recalled long bachelor sessions from years ago, when Mundra would share his grand plans of becoming a Bollywood producer. That day in June, he watched with awe the evidence of those youthful dreams become reality. “Bhaari kaam hai Bollywood mein paon jamaana,” he said—it’s tough to get a foothold in Bollywood. “He always said during those days that he will sign Amitabh”—Amitabh Bachchan. “And he will.”

The more I got to know about Mundra, the more he seemed oddly familiar. He is an archetypal product of a generation—my generation—that grew up, often outside major cities, in the India of the late decades of the last century. To be young then was to dream of making it out, and making it big—as it still is for many in small-town India. In some ways, then, Mundra’s story is a story of our era, when dreams of living abroad, of making lots of money, suddenly seemed within reach, there for the taking. Where Mundra differs from most of his peers, of course, is in just how far he has come.

Since he got out, Mundra’s sense of the world has grown, but he seems emphatic about staying close to his small-town roots and values. Shiladitya Bora, the young CEO of Drishyam Films, told me how he had once suggested booking a BMW to pick Mundra up for an event. “He said not to bother, as he would be happy with a simpler car,” Bora recalled. His hopes for his children—he has a daughter aged 13, and a son aged seven—are also informed deeply by his past. He told me he wants them to learn several different languages, and music. “These were things nobody ever told us when we were growing up,” he said emphatically. “I wish someone had told me. We had no idea about this world.”

 

RAJAT KAPOOR WAS NOT THE FIRST DIRECTOR Mundra reached out to, but he was the first to react somewhat positively to his overtures. “His first response was to tell me: not here please, let’s talk on email,” Mundra said. Perhaps, he added with a laugh, Kapoor suspected the whole thing was a Nigerian internet fraud.

“I wrote it and forgot about it,” Kapoor said about his tweet when we spoke, in July. He recalled the speed with which Mundra moved once they connected. “We talked on the phone, and he asked me the budget,” he said, “When I told him, he said, ‘No problem.’” Kapoor, however, insisted that Mundra read the script first. “When we talked next, he said he was ready to invest in the film.” Sensing that the film-maker remained skeptical of his commitment, Kapoor said, Mundra told him, “Sir, you don’t have to prove yourself to me, I have to prove myself to you.” He went on to invest Rs7 crore in the project.

It quickly became apparent that Mundra came at projects with a decisiveness and broad-mindedness that set him apart from mainstream producers. Soon after the initial exchange with Kapoor, he made a trip to Mumbai and formally signed on as the producer for what would become Ankhon Dekhi. Mundra told me the film’s plot, which involves a large joint family, appealed to him because it resonated with his own upbringing. The film was released last year, and won several Filmfare Awards. For the producer, it was a dream debut. “Thirty-six members of my family came for the premiere” in Mumbai, he said. “When my name came on the credit roll, they all cheered.”

Soon after he committed to Ankhon Dekhi, and as the story of his unusual approach to Kapoor spread, Mundra was approached with another proposal. Again, the first contact took place on Twitter. Swati Shetty, who heads a small production house called Samosa Stories, asked him for help with a stalled project. The film-maker Prashant Nair had written, and wanted to direct, a script about a young man who leaves his village for the big city in search of his missing elder brother. Mundra agreed to produce the film, and this became Umrika. Completed on a budget of R10 crore, the film premiered this January at the Sundance Film Festival, a Mecca for independent cinema, and won an audience-choice award.

Mundra then agreed to produce Dhanak, directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, which tells the story of a blind boy and his ten-year-old sister on a journey to try and restore his eyesight. Early this year, it won an award at the Berlin Film Festival. Along the way, Mundra also produced X, an experimental film with 11 directors taking charge of different segments of a single storyline, and the drama Waiting, which features Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin—both stars known for their commitment to independent film. Umrika, Dhanak, X and Waiting are all awaiting release.

Mundra’s most important step after the success of Ankhon Dekhi, however, did not involve producing films at all. It came last year, when he helped rescue the cash-strapped Mumbai Film Festival, run by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, or MAMI. Srinivas Narayanan, who was then the festival’s director and is now associated with Drishyam Films, recalled how he reached out to Mundra for support. When Mundra heard the total sum of funding required, Narayanan said, “he said the entire amount was too much.” Narayanan asked him to give what he could. “Within a few days, I had Rs50 lakh in the festival’s account.”

The donation gave Mundra a reputation for cinematic philanthropy, and helped him get a place at important tables. This year, he became one of the trustees of MAMI—joining the likes of Anand Mahindra, who heads the multinational Mahindra Group, Ajay Bijli, the owner of the PVR cinema chain, and Siddharth Roy Kapur, the managing director of Disney India.

By the time of the festival, Masaan was already well into production. Varun Grover, who is a lyricist and stand-up comedian as well as a screenwriter, approached Mundra with his script for the film in the summer of 2014. For almost two years before this, Grover and Neeraj Ghaywan, who went on to direct the film, had been meeting prospective producers, but with no success. “We were meeting some really shady people,” Grover told me when we spoke, shortly before the film’s release. “Like a builder in UP”—Uttar Pradesh—“or someone who used to make soaps. They would have agendas like lyrics hamara beta likhega, ya beti ko role de do” (my son will write the lyrics, or give my daughter a role). The project had the backing of Phantom Films—a production house co-founded by the director Anurag Kashyap, whom both Grover and Ghaywan had worked with earlier—but the two were starting to worry that the film may never be made.

Grover had worked as a lyricist on Ankhon Dekhi, and sought Mundra out “just to take a chance,” he said. “Within 30 minutes into the meeting, Manish had agreed to back the film. In two weeks, he had formally signed on.”

When I spoke to Ghaywan, he recalled how his initial meeting with Mundra went from the formal, one-hour session planned into a freewheeling exchange that lasted much longer. “We could have bonded over our corporate experiences,” said Ghaywan, who abandoned a corporate career to take up film. “But we talked instead of small towns, even talking in Bhojpuri, for over six hours.”

What really made Mundra a dream producer, both Ghaywan and Grover said, was the freedom that came with working with him. Much of the praise for Masaan centres on its unstinting honesty, and the finesse of Ghaywan’s direction. “It wouldn’t have been possible to make it this way with someone else,” Ghaywan told me. “Another producer may have said, ‘Increase the humour, or add a few songs.’” Mundra, by contrast, visited the sets only once, and first saw footage of the film only in the early stages of its editing. With debut films in particular, Grover pointed out, “People tend to be not so sure of themselves, so if the producer asks you to make changes, you tend to agree.” Mundra, he said, “never did that.”

In part, Mundra’s hands-off style could simply be a function of his holding down a demanding job on a different continent. (To attend the trailer launch, he said, he had to take leave from his office.) But Ghaywan, and also Kapoor, said his passion for making good cinema plays a large role in it too. Kapoor described how, midway through shooting Ankhon Dekhi, he shared with Mundra his anxieties about “producers who would give some money and disappear,” and told him he was not sleeping well at night. “He asked me how much I would need to sleep well,” he said, and then “put that amount in the bank.”

Of the Rs7 crore invested in Ankhon Dekhi, to date the film has recouped around R2.2 crore—a total that includes earnings from theatres, satellite broadcasts and home-video sales. Mundra hasn’t been fazed by the loss. “I am not doing this to get rich,” he told me more than once. “It is more important to back these ‘brave-heart’ films than make a profit.” He would rather make one Ankhon Dekhi than ten blockbusters, he said. “Ten years later, I will forget its turnover. But I will never forget how I felt at its release.”

 

MUNDRA IS NOT THE FIRST “GUARDIAN ANGEL” of Indian independent cinema. Through the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, the state-run National Films Division Corporation supported landmark films by the likes of Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah and Sudhir Mishra. More recently, in 2007, the producer Sunil Doshi made a splash with Bheja Fry, which was made on a budget of Rs1.5 crore and netted over Rs12 crore. Meenakshi Shedde, a film critic and South Asia consultant for the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals, told me its important to put Mundra’s contribution in perspective. “There are hundreds of angel investors helping Indian film-makers make artistic films,” she said, “and many producers currently backing good films in several Indian language cinemas.”

But, Shedde said, what makes Mundra formidable is the combination he brings to the table: “deep pockets, his astuteness as a businessman, networking on the festival circuit and an insatiable addiction to social media.” The fact that he is “cherry-picking scripts that seem promising, while decidedly not guaranteeing profits,” makes him “a far cry from the corporate system of appointing panels that award points to scripts based on various criteria.” Kapoor told me that in his directorial career, which spans some 12 years, Mundra came as something of a miracle. “It hasn’t become any easier for me to find a producer for my next film,” he laughed. An aspiring director who has submitted a script to Mundra, and so didn’t want to be named, told me, “To have someone with money read your script on the merit of the story alone, without having to pull in connections or present a star to back you, is very rare in this city.”

In part, Mundra’s rise to prominence is evidence of a gap in the cinema market for small, niche films. After Ankhon Dekhi, Mundra told me, he received hundreds of pitches over Facebook and Twitter, and scripts flooded his email inbox. If he liked one, he said, he agreed to back it—and that was it. His only other requirement for backing a project—also an unusual one in Mumbai—is that the director be a “good person.”

Mundra put his run of winning projects down to the spiritual “energy” that he said guides his life. But his instinct as a viewer plays a role in this success too. A short while after he moved abroad, he started watching cinema from across the world, and realised that “India was a very small part of the things going on.” He now watches two or three films a week, from his large library at home. But he is no festival buff, and wears the status of an outsider like a badge of honour. “My ignorance is my asset,” he said. “I don’t have all this baggage, so I can simply connect to the story as the average member of the audience would.”

Clearly, Mundra has a certain knack. As Grover put it, “He is from the petroleum industry. He knows ki yahan pe oil milega.” (He knows where he will strike oil.)

Ranjan Singh, an associate producer with Phantom Films, which co-produced Masaan, pointed out another of Mundra’s defining features. “He is putting money on projects back-to-back, and has supported a fair number of films in the last 18 months,” he said. “This has made an impact.” In a market where making a film is only half the journey to its success, he added, Mundra “sees the process through, and released both Ankhon Dekhi and Masaan fairly quickly.”

Initially, Mundra had no intention of sticking around this long as a producer. “I thought it would be something I would check off my bucket list,” he told me. “I would make one or two such films, and then be done.” But, as any natural entrepreneur would, on realising he’d found a niche in the market, he decided to stay.

Mundra set up Drishyam Films this February. Its goal, he said, is to create “a system to help nurture content-driven stories—help develop them, make them, release them. We want to complete the whole process, give a commercial touch to the release … We are hopeful it will get its money back and can also make a profit.”

I visited the Drishyam office in July, in the heart of the suburb of Andheri—a hub of the Mumbai film industry. It was still a work in progress, with walls coming down and cubicles coming up. From the windows, I could see cars pulling up to the premises of Yash Raj Films, a production house known for churning out big-budget blockbusters.

Shiladitya Bora, the Drishyam CEO, told me the company’s model draws on those of global icons such as Annapurna Pictures and Miramax Studios, both known for their success at marketing independent cinema. Drishyam, he said, wants to make films that do well “globally as well as at the Indian box office,” and to “be known as the best in our space, distinct, and not necessarily small, but sustainable.” He described the company’s plans to produce four films every year, including one by a debutant director and one international project. Currently, it has three in the works, including a film by the Iranian-Kurdish director Shahram Alidi.

Like most producers associated with “indie” cinema in Mumbai, Bora has a marked aversion to the term, preferring “good-content cinema” instead. “Indie,” he said, is “an overused term in India. It’s come to mean ghareeb films, with poor aesthetics, that cut corners and are boring. We want to challenge that.”

So far, Mundra and Drishyam’s financial record has been mixed. Ankhon Dekhi made a loss, but Masaan, Bora said, has recovered close to Rs2.3 crore from international sales alone—“around 30 percent of Masaan’s total budget.” Add on earnings from other sources, such as music rights and DVD sales, “and in Masaan we will easily see profit of 1.5 to 2 crores.” Drishyam’s pursuit of international revenues looks set to continue. Dhanak is scheduled for simultaneous release, in November, in India, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

But Mundra has invested in more than just production. After helping the Mumbai Film Festival, he took over the Screenwriters Lab, an incubator for fresh talent and content run in collaboration with the Sundance Institute, which organises the Sundance Film Festival. In September, Drishyam also opened a post-production and visual-effects facility that it hopes will help generate revenue. All of which has given the company a profile that belies its age.

Throughout our conversation, Mundra emphasised that he was in the business of making films “for fun and passion.” “If it doesn’t work out,” he told me during the drive to his hotel, “I will simply shut my shop and do something else.” But despite such talk, there is more at stake. If Drishyam’s efforts succeed, several industry insiders told me, it will be a boost for the current momentum of Indian independent cinema. If not, Mundra may join the ranks of those who created brief moments of change, before fading away.

 

iIN THE DAYS FOLLOWING MASAAN’S RELEASE, Mundra popped up frequently on my social media feeds. He tweeted incessantly, relishing every piece of news and praise, every review and online declaration of plans to watch the film. When Masaan had been in theatres for a week, he put up smiling selfies captioned “Happy.”

About ten days after the release, I talked to him over the phone. He was in Nigeria, and relentlessly upbeat. “My wife said she liked the film, my paisa is vasool,” he said (I have got my money’s worth). “Nothing matters to me more than my family.”

Soon after that, he sent me a message on WhatsApp: “We’ll have to think out of the Box (office collection) for film-making. Return on Investment incl(udes) Critical Appreciation n Love.”

More recently, when three Drishyam films were selected for a prestigious film festival in Busan, he put up a tweet punning on the phonetic similarity between the name of the South Korean city and the Hindi word bhushan: “Bhushan Film Festival! So many Indian films. Happy!!!! ( Ok, Busan Film Festival)”

During the telephone conversation, he told me that soon after Masaan hit screens, he returned to Deoghar after a gap of 16 years. As the film gathered accolades, Mundra took photographs with his schoolteachers, and in front of his crumbling old home. The trip was part victory lap, part his way of coming full circle. “I had to go back to the place where I saw all those dreams,” he said.

Mundra can afford to look back, and insisted to me that he now has “nothing to prove,” but he didn’t seem in the mood for rest. Besides Drishyam and his job in Nigeria, he runs and contributes to several charities, including a school for girls in Jodhpur. The day we met in Mumbai, after the trailer launch and photo shoot, he was due in Dubai to launch Drishyam Films UAE. His wife, he mentioned between shots, was readying to produce documentaries. “I need an Oscar,” he told me, in the same tone as he’d said “I need to be married” and “I need to be rich.” “I need an Oscar. Not for myself, but the film should have it, by 2017.” In every few sentences, I heard new, larger plans.

The only thing not expanding, it seemed, was his blog, where the frequency of posts has tapered off. Mundra had a ready explanation. “I am working on a book,” he said, “and if I give it all away for free, who will buy it?”

As we talked in the hotel room that afternoon, the crowd around us gradually thinned. The photographer left, followed by Mundra’s colleagues. By evening, Mundra was alone, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but gamely holding up under my questioning. In another few minutes, he had an appointment to hear a script for a potential new project. And then he would get on a flight back home.

I asked about his plans for retirement, if he had those worked out as well. “Of course,” he said, seriously. He will move back to India, he told me, and work on his charitable projects from Jodhpur. “I have 20 to 25 years left on this earth,” he said. “That means about 2,400 weekends. That’s how I plan my life.”

In the brief silence that followed, he rubbed his eyes, then gave me a polite smile. “So,” he asked, “what’s next?”

I CAUGHT MANISH MUNDRA, by fortunate chance, in June, on the weekday afternoon he was in Mumbai for the launch of the Indian trailer for Masaan. The entrance to the suburban theatre hosting the event was dominated by posters announcing an upcoming big-budget release. In the lobby, a somewhat thin crowd of journalists mingled with Masaan’s cast and crew, as well as several luminaries of what are called Mumbai’s “indie film” circles.

Masaan has, by the standards of mainstream Indian cinema, an unconventional story—involving a sex scandal, inter-caste romance, and an orphan boy who dives for coins in the Ganges. It was shot in Varanasi, and had a comparatively small budget of Rs 6.5 crore. The film’s credits list several producers and co-producers from India and France, but it was Mundra who provided the initial financing that got the project off the ground.

A few weeks earlier, Masaan had premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, under the prestigious Un Certain Regard category, and had won two awards—including one for its debutant director, Neeraj Ghaywan. Mundra was present at that screening, and for the standing ovation that followed it. The film’s rapturous reception in France had created an air of anticipation, and encouraged its backers to release it relatively quickly in India. The trailer release was the first step in that process.

I found Mundra standing at a remove from the action, red-eyed but buzzing. He had arrived that morning from Nigeria, where he works, via Dubai, where he lives with his family. He was dressed in a casual, corporate style, and was flanked by a handful of staff from his recently founded production house, Drishyam Films, as well as some old friends who had come out to witness his success. As the crowd moved towards the auditorium, we ascended the stairs together. Voices chattered in the dark: “You must see my film,” I heard, followed by “It’s not good cinema, but it’s fun.” I took a seat at the back of the theatre. Mundra, after a moment of indecision in the aisle, moved towards the front.

After the trailer screening, the cast and crew lined up onstage to take questions from the press. The conversation was informal, and sometimes irreverent. Mundra stood at the edge of this assembly, and contributed a few, sober lines. Afterwards, as the television cameras made a beeline for the film’s stars, he took some selfies with his friends, and got himself some coffee.

In Mumbai’s hyper-connected film world, Mundra, a youthful-looking 42-year-old, is the quintessential outsider—the managing director of a petrochemical company in Nigeria, a small-town boy with, until his sudden appearance on the scene a few years ago, no links to the industry. In 2011, he backed Ankhon Dekhi, a small indie film by the acclaimed director Rajat Kapoor, which went on to win several important awards. Since then, he has produced 5 more films in India, which have gathered accolades at festivals across the world, including Berlin and Sundance. The recent success of Masaan has only reinforced Mundra’s reputation as a producer with a canny eye for the right projects, and the financial commitment to see them through. Already, he has been written about as the “guardian angel of Indian indie cinema”—a saviour for writers and directors looking to make films whose main appeal is the strength of their scripts rather than their mainstream commercial potential alone. If there was a pantheon of deities such film-makers in Mumbai paid homage to, Mundra would be in it.

Masaan was released in Indian theatres in late July. It charmed audiences, and brought in over Rs3.6 crore in box-office sales over a six-week run—a respectable showing for an independent film in India. In a market where such “alternative” films have historically struggled, this turned more eyes towards Mundra than ever before. Many are watching to see if Mundra and Drishyam Films can turn making bold, independent cinema into a sustainable enterprise. As Varun Grover, who wrote the script for Masaan, told me, “In Mumbai, nobody likes to be the first in line.” But if Mundra’s “calculations work, people will be ready to queue up behind him.”

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Taran N Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai. Her work can be found at www.porterfolio.net/taran.

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