Manjunath is the story of an incorruptible oil-corporation employee who died in a nondescript village in Uttar Pradesh when he was 27, with six bullets in his chest. Even to those unfamiliar with the real-life Manjunath Shanmugam, a Tamilian from Karnataka, this is not a spoiler. Sandeep A. Varma, the director, opens his film with text that tells us as much. The question, subsequently, becomes one of drama. How does one make an interesting movie out of a story whose end everyone knows? A few months ago, we had Shahid, another film about an idealist. But that had courtroom jousts and Hindu-Muslim differences. It had love and sibling rivalry. Manjunath’s story is quieter and also inherently less cinematic. Scenes of an officer going around petrol pumps inspecting the levels of adulteration in fuel don’t exactly set the pulse racing. And that’s how Varma, with his low-key approach, seems to want it.
Manjunathis fashioned along the lines of what is turning out to be the narrative technique of the year. After 2 States and Purani Jeans, here’s another story that begins in the present and keeps flashing back to key events. The present is when Manjunath goes missing. (We know he’s dead.) And in the flashbacks, we see the kind of man he was. The external drama comes in the form of threats from the oil mafia, especially from Golu (Yashpal Sharma). In one scene, Golu pretends to threaten someone else when his threats are really directed at Manjunath (Sasho Sattiysh Sarathy). In another, he bends to touch the feet of Manjunath’s mother (a moving Seema Biswas, who speaks Tamil as if coached by Udit Narayan), and he makes sure that she sees the gun stuck into the back of his pants. And the internal drama comes from Manjunath’s personal life, like his being dumped by a girl in Bangalore, after which he gets drunk and gropes his friend Sujata (Anjorie Alagh). Sarathy plays this scene well, with the right mix of mortification and awkwardness the minute he realises what he’s done. The actor makes us see that Manjunath was an odd man out – a lower-caste individual surrounded by upper-caste classmates in college, a swarthy Tamilian in North India, a man with a strong moral compass in the midst of those who were content to let things lie.
And one of the many things we want to know is this: Did Manjunath feel like an outsider, or did he blend in, with only the people around him thinking of him as an outsider? (His boss refers to him as “these people.” A local calls him kaloo.) When did he first feel that something was happening in the petrol pumps? When Manjunath pulls out a cigarette and sticks it in his mouth, we wonder: Was he always a smoker or did he turn one recently, due to all the stress? What was he thinking when he rushed out at night, all alone, after getting a tip-off about shady dealings? Was there no one around he could take with him, or was he so outraged that he did not give a thought to his safety? Who, for that matter, are the people giving him these tip-offs, and how did he recruit them? Why does he come off, sometimes, like a vigilante, stalking wrongdoers instead of reporting them and letting the law take its course? Was he, as the doctor says, a paranoid schizophrenic (he keeps staring at flies outside windows), and did this feeling of persecution exacerbate his recklessness?
The film doesn’t give us satisfactory answers, and the director, instead, shifts his attention to another set of questions, structured as a debate between Manjunath’s ghost and Golu, one of the killers. Such an outré stylistic device is, frankly, distracting in a film that strives to be realistic. (Another one involves rock shows from a band with Manjunath as the lead singer. After he is shot dead, we cut to a song.) Manjunath, somewhat redundantly, makes an appeal to Golu’s conscience, but Golu has the more interesting questions. Did you give a thought to your parents when you were off waging your idealistic wars? Don’t you think your father, who needs money, could have used the fifty lakhs we offered you as a bribe? (And even if Manjunath hadn’t accepted this bribe, he could have still helped his parents by continuing to work and take care of their expenses.)
This, perhaps, should have been the film’s framing device. Instead of simply dramatising what we already know, maybe the director should have structured his story as an inquiry into the implications of honesty in today’s world. (After all, Manjunath does wonder aloud whether what he did was great or stupid.) Without this kind of scaffolding, the happenings feel familiar. The candlelit vigils, the fight to get justice, the police investigation after the murder (why not gradually reveal what happened to Manjunath as the cops go about gathering clues), the attempts to “humanise” an idealist through his goofy interactions with friends and family – we’ve seen it all. Manjunath is so focused on what happened that it forgets to tell us why it happened. Why not give us a few more scenes about Manjunath’s interactions with the villagers who live without electricity, and who find the kerosene they depend on being siphoned away by the oil mafia? This sort of insight – as Swades so memorably demonstrated – is more conducive to thoughts of bringing about change than simply having a single scene where Manjunath reads the parts about upholding dharma in the Bhagavad Gita. This is the kind of film about which you use words like “well-intentioned” and “earnest” and “solid.” But it never catches fire.
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