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Advertising film-maker Sandeep A. Varma’s earnest and well-intended debut recreates the murder of Manjunath Shanmugam, the 27-year-old Indian Oil Company executive who was shot dead on 19 November 2005, Shanmugham, an Indian Institute of Management-Lucknow graduate, was investigating a fuel adulteration racket in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh at the time of his death. His murderer, Pawan Kumar Mittal, the owner of a petrol pump that Shanmugham had sealed, is serving a life sentence along with others accused of the crime. Mittal was sentenced to death by the Sessions Court, which was commuted to life by the Allahabad High Court, and he has appealed the sentence in the Supreme Court.

The 126-minute movie opens, Sunset Boulevard style, with a voice from beyond the grave. Manjunath (Sasho Sattiysh Sarathy) is already dead, but he is resurrected twice, first as a ghost who directly addresses the camera and recounts an all-too-familiar story of how his idealism was snuffed out by institutional corruption, and as a spirit who debates with his killer. Varma’s outrage at Manjunath’s senseless death is palpable, and his crusade against graft most timely, but he doesn’t explain how the adulteration racket works. A figure of 20,000 crore is thrown around at some point, but it isn’t clear whether Golu, Yashpal Sharma’s character based on Mittal, is part of a larger operation. Was Manjunath’s death an unfortunate accident, as the movie itself suggests, or the result of a larger conspiracy? There’s no doubt that Manjunath died because he dared to poke his nose where it didn’t belong, but the hand of an oil mafia, if there is one, remains invisible throughout.

Far more convincing and affecting are the relationships between the characters, shown in plausible and loving detail. Manjunath’s bond with his parents (Seema Biswas and Kishore Kadam) is especially well established despite the mangling of Tamil, the character’s native tongue. Sarathy has no problem handling his character’s dialogue, but Biswas and Kadam struggle to enunciate their multi-lingual lines (Hindi, Tamil and English). Biswas is too accomplished an actor to let a bad accent bother her, and her touching regard and concern for her son and efforts to understand his battle beautifully convey the tragedy at hand.

For a movie whose conclusion is foregone, whose treatment is literal-minded, and whose message is sloppily assembled and delivered, Varma does throw up some surprises. He effectively captures the ordinariness of the milieu that produces Manjunath, and extracts solid performances from his cast. However, the director is less sure-footed about the larger issues thrown up by Manjunath’s death. The repeated refrain that Manjunath’s murder was especially unfortunate because he was a member of the educated elite and was posted in Uttar Pradesh betrays an avoidable class bias. The last act, in which IIM students participate in the inevitable candle-light vigil, needed to have been fleshed out more. Does it take the death of one of their own to stir the collective conscience of men and women trained to make pots of money for themselves and corporations? And does honesty always need sacrificial lambs before it begins to matter? Varma is too busy detailing Manjunath’s reckless bravado to answer these larger, and more important, questions.

Manjunath released in theatres on Friday.

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