Manjunath

The 2005 murder of Manjunath Shanmugam, the 27-year-old Indian Oil employee who’d been threatening to bust the fuel adulteration racket in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, makes for an earnest and compelling film in the hands of first-time director Sandeep Varma. Cutting skillfully between his happy years at the IIM Lucknow campus, and the reaction of his friends and employers to him having gone missing for two days, the film opens nicely, constructing a telling portrait of the man Manjunath used to be, and the ghost of a man he’d become following his obsession with correcting malpractices in the petrol trade.
 
In a smart decision that helps the film enormously, Varma casts new-find Sasho Satish Sarathy as the courageous protagonist, who cannot be bribed or bullied into turning a blind eye at the rampant corruption. We’re introduced to Manjunath’s concerned parents (played excellently by Seema Biswas and Kishor Kadam), who wish he’d take a transfer to Bangalore so they could be closer to him. We also meet crooked petrol pump-owner Golu (the terrific Yashpal Sharma), repeatedly brought to task by Manjunath, who in a drunken rage fires the first of many bullets that kills our hero.
 
Upto this point, the film is riveting. Varma paints an authentic picture of the Indian badlands, and reveals the lasting bond between IIM graduates, and with their professors even. There’s a bruising honesty to the relationship between Manjunath and his mother, and a palpable sense of frustration from his boss who wishes he would just let some things be.
 
The film slips into a morass of clunky plotting in its final act, when the court case takes over, followed by the candlelight vigil undertaken by IIM students. It all feels very rushed and…umm…obligatory. There are other problems too. Repeated confrontations between Manjunath’s spirit and his killer strike a false note, and rock band Parikrama’s multiple appearances become tiresome.
 
Yet these are minor quibbles in a well-intentioned film that wears its message brazenly. I’m going with three out of five for Manjunath. It’s an important story that deserves to be heard.

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