Manjunath, a biopic written and directed by Sandeep Verma, is a film that has the least limelight amongst the slew of releases this past weekend. When I had seen the trailer of the film long back, I had immediately been intrigued by it as I had only heard scant bits of the original death case of Shanmughan Manjunath. The film looked like a good compensation for my callow overlook as I was growing up. I decided to watch it first thing amongst the multiple releases and was a little underwhelmed. With literally no buzz around it, a film can still do decently well at the Box Office if its made stunningly. While Manjunath is an honest biopic, it leaves a lot to desire.
Shanmugam Manjunath (1978–2005) is a marketing manager for Bharat Oil (originallly The Indian Oil Corporation (IOC)) who was murdered for sealing a corrupt petrol station in Lakhimpur Kheri, UP. This incident inspired several students at IIM, IIT and other institutes culminating with the IIM students setting up the “The Manjunath Shanmugam Trust” which ultimately fought for him during the trial for his death case and saw that justice was delivered to him. The film follows a docu-drama kind of approach as it unfolds incidents leading upto Manjunath’s death. Director Sandeep Verma picks up his story from where the corruption around him had started attacking Manjunath’s nerves like a typhoon, ultimately leading to him being considered mad, his recovery, his fight against mixing of kerosene in diesel, his execution and thereafter the national outrage. The film’s premise makes for a fervor filled journey and it works because the story is rooted in one village and one situation, but a situation which has impacts around the country. The film stays true to Manjunath’s original life, as documented in media and otherwise, without giving in much to fiction. It raises some very important questions to the educated lot of this country, who have come to terms with the ‘chalta hai’ attitude. The scene in the market where Manju argues with his best friend Gautam will stay with you for long. It mocks the very fake idealism of people with a lot of sincerity.
The problem here is that Verma’s hand as a director comes out amateurish, as he is unable to flesh out bespoke striking sequences/moments that will make such a film hard-hitting. The initial reasons for his madness appear half-baked, and so do the story after his death when the journey to redemption looks rushed while the parents’ arc looks haphazard. Some creative choices made by Verma clumsily bog down the film which could have been very engaging otherwise. Verma uses original songs by the indie-rock band Parikrama, all through the film which only upset the tone and the mood of this village setting. The biggest facepalm moment arrives when right after Manjunath is shot, his spirit breaks into a stage performance. Again, this usage of the spirit to tell the story and then have moralistic arguments with his murderer in the jail is awry. Another problem with the film is the usage of a weird mix of English and Hindi dialogues, leaving a million inconsistencies in the origins of character. Frankly, most of the dialogue of the film is mundanely corny and it becomes worse in English. Cinematography also reeks of an amateur hand as even I could see the camera going out of focus in many scenes. Editor Sandeep Francis plays around in the first 30 minutes of the film when he shuttles back and forth in time, but settles on a easier route for the remaining.
Manjunath is a complex character and debutante Sasho Satish Sarathy tries to give his best to the role. He brings in the required naivete and honesty, but also comes with a certain playfulness and instability of the man. But he does fall short in front of his opponent, Golu Goyal, played by a seasoned Yashpal Sharma. Sharma gets focus occasionally but shines like no other. Seema Biswas is effective as Manju’s mother, while Kishore Kadam is miscast as his father. So is Rajesh Khattar as Manju’s boss as he struggles to play a guy from UP. Divya Dutta, as Anjali (the one who started the trust), suffers from an underwritten role. Anjori Alagh (Manju’s friend) does not get much scope while Faisal Rashid (Gautam, Manju’s best friend) hams it up well.
On the whole, Manjunath is a very important film that brings us back to the scores of atrocities committed against men and women who stand up agaisnt corruption or other social evils. It is a well-intentioned attempt, apart from being a very sincere one. The film is falling despicably at the Box Office due to our ignorant film audience. I met someone connected to the film industry itself today who had no idea about such a film releasing. Irrespective of the technical shortcomings of the film, this is the dire state of most significant films which need all your attention. I am going with a slightly bumped up rating for this venture, only for its honesty.
Rating – 2.5/5