It’s a depressingly familiar story. A graduate from one of India’s most elite business schools decides to investigate corruption and loses his life in the process. Shanmugam Manjunath was 27 years old in November 2005 when his bullet-riddled body was found in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh. The Indian Oil Corporation employee had earlier shut down two petrol pumps for selling adulterated fuel, and six men, including the fuelling station owner, were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder. Manjunath’s short but heroic life has inspired a movie, directed by Sandeep A. Varma and is awaiting a release in March. Manjunath is the story of how a master of business administration from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Lucknow became a martyr to the cause of justice.
The case could easily serve as a warning to business school graduates to bury their noses into balance sheets rather than involve themselves in the messy realities of India. But it is this very class of Indians—the so-called cream of the crop—that Varma wants to convert. “The problem is of educated elites who have abandoned” social issues, says Varma, himself a graduate of the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani. “There are several issues to be addressed, there is a great deal of inequality, and there are people who can analyse things and make a difference. The film tells business graduates that you are making money for yourself and the company, but that there is no social perspective. You are dictating the quality of lives, and it’s not only about profit maximization.”
The 2-hour movie, which has been produced by Varma and the National Film Development Corporation for about Rs.3.7 crore, deals with Manjunath’s personal radicalization and his clashes with the perpetrators of fuel adulteration. Manjunath’s increasing belief in his mission leads to arguments with a money-minded batchmate. Manjunath counters the friend’s platitude that “Hamesha se chal raha hai (Corruption has been around forever)” with, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
Varma worked hard to ensure that the film is gripping rather than depressing. “In spite of feature films being the most powerful way, I don’t believe that everything is capable of being made into a film,” says Varma, who runs an advertising company, Icomo, and has previously directed Kahin Door, a Sakshi Tanwar starrer that was distributed exclusively on the Internet. “Some of these things get idealistic and cinematically boring. It’s like the friend you had in college who kept telling you not to smoke.”
One such dramatic technique is to shift the focus from the killing, whose details might be familiar to many viewers, to its fallout. Even after his death, Manjunath hovers over the story in the form of a ghost who pricks the conscience of his killer, named Golu. “The film had to start where the headlines ended,” Varma says. “If you make the film like a documentary, it will end in death, so I decided to reassign the conflict. The film is not about whether Manjunath lives or dies, but whether he wins or loses.” Golu and Manjunath’s ghost debate the relative values of pragmatism versus ethics—Golu tells the ghost that in his next birth, he should be reincarnated as Golu, since Manjunaths don’t win.
The truth is that Manjunath did win, in a manner of speaking. The convictions followed soon after his murder—a rare feat in a country where judicial delays are the norm rather than the exception. The Manjunath Shanmugam Trust, which is supported by the IIM network, hands out The Manjunath Shanmugam Integrity Award every year to social activists and organizations. Varma got involved with Manjunath’s story after he was approached by the trust to prepare promotional material for an awards function a few years ago. The deeper Varma dug, the more he got immersed in Manjunath’s story. He was fascinated with how young Manjunath was when he decided to fight the good fight. He met the victim’s parents, and was told by Manjunath’s mother that she was hurt that everybody assumed her son was “naïve”. Varma says, “She said that on the contrary, he was courageous and consciously chose his work over his family.”
Varma’s research led him to believe that Manjunath was a “genuine hero” and “totally evolved beyond many people his age”. He was also attracted to how “normal and believable” Manjunath was. “He was an average student who repeated a year, just like you and me,” he says. “He sang in a rock band in college.” The role of Manjunath is played by an actor from Bangalore whose identity is being kept under wraps by the film-makers. The cast includes Yashpal Sharma, Seema Biswas and Kishore Kadam.
Varma isn’t finished with the Manjunath story—he has planned two more related projects. One is a documentary that follows the events after Manjunath’s death, such as the formation of the trust. The other is a proposed “heroes project” for television— a series of portraits of anti-corruption crusaders. The list will include Satyendra Dubey, the whistle-blower who was allegedly killed because he exposed a highway construction scam in Bihar in 2003; Yashwant Sonawane, the additional district collector of Malegaon in Maharashtra who was burnt to death in 2011 allegedly by an oil adulteration gang; and Akhil Gogoi, the Right to Information activist from Assam. “I need to get the feature film’s promotions in place first, that’s the flagship,” Varma says. “The plan was always to have an amplified promotion. There is no reason this film shouldn’t get a big release. You have to get over the cynicism of the trade.”