As CEO of the Nigeria-based multinational, Indorama Eleme Petrochemicals Ltd, he can barely shave two days off his hectic schedule every month to come down to Mumbai. Yet, he has managed to produce as many as nine movies, all with extraordinary content, in a short span of four years. The next year-and-a-half will add six to eight more to his curriculum vitae.
Meet Manish Mundra, the unlikeliest of Bollywood movie moguls, heading a veritable film factory that has brought about a revolution in the world of indie cinema with a slew of award-winning movies, including Ankhon Dekhi (2014), Masaan (2015), Kadvi Hawa (2017) and, of course, Newton, last year’s sensation and India’s official entry at the Academy awards. For a man who sold cold drinks on the streets in his childhood to support his family, the journey itself has been like a fascinating Bildungsroman.
Newton may not have made it to the final nominations in the best foreign film category at the Oscars, but that has not disheartened the 44-year-old founder of Drishyam Films, a well-known banner by now that has evolved into a one-stop destination for film-makers with great human interest story to tell. Far from it, it has made him all the more resolute to make more meaningful movies in future.
“We have developed enough content in the past two years and will continue to do so,” Mundra tells Outlook. “In the next year-and-a-half, we will be making seven to eight movies. All of these, I think, have good content. I am sure, by the time these movies are released, we will have content for another lot of ten to 12 films.”
Seldom has the Hindi film industry seen as prolific a producer as Mundra, but he is no gatherer of probable ‘hits’; he knows precisely what he is doing. “I have been able to get hold of so many good stories because I take a personal interest in content development for movies made under my banner,” he states. “I don’t leave that job for others. I hold sessions with writers and if any script interests me, I get it developed into a film.”
In his hunt for good content, Mundra had launched an open online contest some time ago to invite scripts from around the world and selected two. “It has been a satisfying journey for me as we have attained our goal of making quality movies, but we want to change our goalpost now. Audiences are motivating us to make more films; we have created a niche for ourselves but we want to increase the frequency.”
He stresses that his banner would would like to deliver a second Newton in two months or another Kadvi Hawa in three. “Audiences should keep getting such films regularly,” Mundra adds.
These objectives have driven Drishyam Films now to collaborate with Eros International to make four movies this year. “We have entered into a pact with Eros, with an understanding to double the number of movies we plan to make every year,” Mundra points out. “Such collaboration with a big distribution company helps a small film to turn big, as it will reach out to a bigger audience.”
Mundra, however, sees little space for big commercial stars in his projects unless they are ready to slash their market prices drastically, so as to be able to fit into a small-budget venture. “It is not that I don’t want to rope in a mega star, but we cannot afford their fees. I want to to make small but good movies, which may not be viable if we hire big stars.”
But then, Mundra thinks that today’s top stars have been under the arclight of exposure too much: “The big stars are doing too many things at the same time. If you switch on TV, you can see Shahrukh Khan doing five different things. Besides, they are ubiquitous on social media and digital platforms. You can see their songs whenever you want to.”
This over-exposure, he feels, has robbed current stars of the aura and mystique that stars had in the past. “There was a time when people flocked to theatres to watch stars who barely had a release or two in a year. That has gone,” he adds. It’s because of the dwindling craze of the stars, he reasons, that they are all gravitating to content-driven cinema. “When the craze dwindles, even a big star starts looking for content,” he states. “I have seen this pattern in recent times, when some big-budget projects have tanked at the box-office.”
Mundra apportions credit for the rise in the popularity of content-rich cinema to an audience exposed to the best of world cinema. “When they watch an international film or a web series, they expect us to come up with strong subjects and powerful performances,” he avers.
Unfortunately, rues Mundra, there is acute dearth of good to mid-level actors who could fit into smaller projects. “The options are few and far between. At times, you see a movie and feel only an Irrfan or a Rajkummar Rao or a Pankaj Tripathi can do it. You can’t think of their replacements. There should always be three or four alternatives for each role, but the choice of actors is extremely limited in the industry.”
Though Newton failed to make the grade at the Oscars, Mundra is determined to keep making better movies that would earn global acclaim. “It was a learning experience. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to promote it, nor did we get any good agent after it was nominated.” Mundra says that most Oscar-winning movies in the foreign film category have a history of doing well at the Golden Globes or top international film festivals—Berlin, Toronto, Sundance etc in the run-up to the awards. “We will try to follow this pattern and try to come up with better movies to win an Oscar,” he says.
Given his abiding interest in films, everybody expects Mundra to turn director. But he is in no hurry. “It is not as though I don’t or cannot do it, but I do not have time. I have to do my job for three-four years before I can think of becoming a director. As of now, I have to keep earning enough money to make more movies.”
Hearteningly, for an independent producer in an industry bristling with corporations with the deepest of pockets, Mundra’s films have gradually started giving good returns, helping him fulfil a long-cherished dream to turn a successful producer of quality cinema. “I have developed an eco-system to make low-cost, quality movies, something which I had wanted to do since childhood. I always saved money to make movies, even though I did not know anybody in the industry.”
It was at his birthplace in Deoghar, the temple town in erstwhile Bihar (now in Jharkhand) where he first saw such dreams in his formative years. But such reveries weren’t easy to realise. At one point, Mundra had to sell cold drinks on the streets to support his family after his father, a businessman, fell on bad times. But, over time, he fought back and obtained an MBA degree from Jodhpur. Later, he got a job with a big corporate firm, before destiny took him to Nigeria. But at no time did he let his dreams attenuate. “Experiences of hard times are necessary in life,” he says, recalling how he landed in Bollywood despite holding a demanding job in a faraway African nation.
In 2013, he saw a tweet of actor-director Rajat Kapoor expressing frustration over not getting any investor for his script, Ankhon Dekhi. Mundra responded by offering to produce the film on an impulse. That one moment in time changed the course of not only Mundra’s life but also the fate of indie movies in the country.