ON 4 DECEMBER 2010, I lost a friend. His name was Manish Acharya. He was an independent filmmaker, a gentleman and the funniest guy in any room. He was also husband to one of the country’s finest young artists, son to a devastated father and dad to two.
I met Manish 12 years ago on orientation day at New York University (NYU) where we both attended the graduate film program. Before coming to film, Manish had lived a whole lifetime as a high-profile technology whiz-kid in the US. Having created sufficient financial security for his family, he arrived at NYU to follow his dream of becoming a storyteller.
The grad film department at NYU is small, less than 90 students at a time. Film school buddies (like war buddies) become family quickly and for life. To call the course physically, emotionally and creatively challenging would be an understatement. Manish was an indivisible part of my film school experience. I remember meandering script sessions in the park, lengthy discussions in film-strewn edit suites, reluctant laughter when we inevitably came face-to-face with our glaring ineptitude as experimenting filmmakers and the gradual but dramatic unearthing of our unique cinematic voices. I remember crewing with Manish on more shoots than I care to count; hauling trolley tracks through two feet of snow and up five flights of stairs, disco dancing at a university dive and recently meeting to mourn the death of a dear professor who taught us.
Manish and his wife, Dhruvi, moved back to India before I did. By then they had a son, Malhar, and another, Aman, was on his way. I visited Mumbai once during that time. It was funny meeting Manish in Mumbai but he clearly belonged there. He told me of the film he planned to shoot soon: Loins of Punjab Presents.
Manish made the movie independently. He co-wrote the script, raised the finances, directed, produced, starred in and marketed the film. Mid-way through the shoot he discovered that key crew members had run his budget dry. Manish continued the shoot calmly, managed senior actors with aplomb, did not let a single cinematic shot suffer and at wrap went scampering for money. No one on his crew knew what was going on behind the scenes or the pressures under which he was working. Manish pulled it off single-handedly, with grace, intelligence and courage.
The Friday that Loins of Punjab Presents released, it got a clear verdict: critics and audiences loved it. Manish was recognised as an auteur and Loins took on a cult status of sorts. At the time of his death, Manish had four films in the making, some with big stars, some backed by big studios. All were to kick off in 2011.
There are so many things that need to be celebrated about Manish Acharya. That he turned vegetarian to marry the girl of his dreams, whom he met at a wedding. That he was very proud of her talent and achievements. That he was the most hands-on dad I have ever met and loved his sons with crazy King-Kong-like protective passion. That he lost and gained half his body weight twice in the last decade. That he really could pull some mean disco moves. That folks just gravitated towards him at parties. I called him the Pied Piper of film festivals. Even though he was effortlessly funny and a man famous for his wit, his one-liners were never mean-spirited.
For all the responsibilities he shouldered, Manish lived with a sense of freedom and a love for life that most of us give up on by the time we hit adulthood. His last tweet to me was advice that I should head to Beirut for a vacation. I will. And from there I will write him a letter saying goodbye. Because, for now, it is hard to accept that Manish Acharya is no more.