To understand why Manjunath Shanmugam did what he did, you do not necessarily need to watch this film. Sandeep Varma’s film does not tell you that. Neither does it tell you how Manjunath was as a son, a lover, a student or, even an officer, other than that he was honest. It does, however, make a few statements.
For one, the film’s name Manjunath: Idiot Tha Saala tells you that the young IIM pass-out was an idealist, and that his idealism was also his foolishness. After all, it ended up killing him. Then there’s the film itself and the various Hamlet-like moments between Manjunath’s apparition and Golu, his killer. These are the filmmaker’s echo chambers for the audience. Though well-intentioned, it is these scenes that rankle in the film’s narrative.
Otherwise, Manjunath is a fitting tribute to an honest young man, who was killed just because he was “doing his job”. In the end, it raises the inexorable question: was Manjunath honest or was he just a fool? In times of social media and 24 hour news channels, where rage on the street is concomitant to a changing political stratosphere, it might be almost a banal question to ask. But then again, how we answer this question will determine how many of us will understand Manjunath.
It is not that the real Manjunath did not know fear. He did and he feared for his life too, had nervous breakdowns and even thought of getting a transfer from the badlands of UP. He was, after all, an IIM graduate and could as easily have gotten a job in the private sector, one that paid him much more than the PSU he was working for. He also knew that his efforts alone would not stop adulteration of diesel. But he still persisted because he wanted to “do his job”.
As a film, Manjunath has been presented almost like the rough cut of a documentary. Sasho Satyiish Saarthy was apparently chosen for Manjunath’s role because of his resemblance to the actual man. But, Saarthy is also more than a decent actor, and that is perhaps the best tribute to Manjunath.
As Manjunath’s parents, Seema Biswas and Kishore Kadam express a lot without saying much. Yashpal Sharma is Golu Goyal, Manjunath’s killer and the epitome of the exact opposite set of beliefs that he stands for. The film rolls on effortlessly until the point where Golu kills Manju.
This is where Varma should have ended it. Instead, he goes on to show the trails and travails of Manju’s parents and the long road to justice. It is an important point, but it could also have been done as a montage or as written words. Again, the repeated interactions between Manju’s ghost and Golu in his prison cell and the dialogues on what comprises wrong or right choices takes the film to an almost Grecian-level of dialectics.
That said, it would have been difficult to take on a subject like this without feeling strongly about it. In itself, that would lend the film to a preachy tone. Varma should have ideally shown the dirty world of fuel adulteration; it is doubtful whether any other incident would make sense for such a topic. But to expect Manjunath to become for the oil mafia what Gangs of Wasseypur became for the coal mafia is also foolish.
However, debating all this would only make sense if Manjunath got an audience. For a weekend in a south Delhi multiplex, a total of nine people ‘thronged’ the theatre. One would have thought that there would be many IIM and IIT grads interested to see a film about one of their own. But then again, I guess, Manjunath was a fool after all.