Director Manjeet Singh On The Challenges Of An Indie Filmmaker

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on June 22, 2015

Mumbai Cha Raja is the story of Rahul and Arbaz, two adolescents from the slums of Mumbai, who engage in many mischievous pranks in an attempt to escape the harsh realities of their lives.

The film directed by Manjeet Singh was screened at Toronto International Film Festival 2012 and Palm Springs International Film Festival 2012, among other international film festivals. Besides this, the film was also selected for the Producer’s Lab at Cinemart, International Film Festival Rotterdam, 2012 and had won a Special Jury Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival 2012. However film buffs in India haven't yet had the chance to watch it, given that the film hasn't yet found a distributor in India.

We recently spoke with Manjeet on the film, his influences and the challenges of being an Indie filmmaker. Published below are some excerpts from the interview.

1. Tell us a bit about yourselves, your childhood and upbringing?

I grew up in Navy Nagar, Colaba, Mumbai. And I remember taking an interest in drawing, sketching and colouring during kindergarten school. Perhaps I started drawing before I could write. And that's how my connect with cinema began, through the visual medium. My dad who was in the Indian Navy, was posted in Mumbai for most of his tenure. I was born in Jamnagar, Gujarat, but we moved to Mumbai, when I was a few months old.

After dad retired from the service, we moved to Belapur, Navi Mumbai where I continued with my schooling and become a mechanical engineer by default. After that, I then aimlessly went to the USA to pursue masters in engineering. I guess the isolation and the bubble I entered while I was in the USA, made me discover my passion for cinema.

2. How did films happen? How and when did you realize that you want to be a filmmaker?

Towards the end of engineering, I learnt photography. While doing the masters at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, I audited a class in photography. This was the time I would roam around with a camera everywhere, shooting portfolios of friends. I always had a wish to make a film as a hobby. So when I had time on my hands, while waiting for the work-visa approval, I decided to learn the basics of filmmaking. I dropped out of the PhD program at Virginia Tech, Virginia and moved to New York City to enroll in a part time film-making course.

I was never a film-buff, but liked a few films. But the exposure to the process of film-making was completely engrossing. The visual medium of cinema, be it camera, editing, scripting or direction struck me. It was like I found a purpose to life. I gradually wound up my engineering career in the USA and moved back to Mumbai, hoping to get my hands dirty in the most busy film-making place in the world. Soon after landing in Mumbai, I started contributing to along with passionate aspiring film-makers. Among them were Srinivas Sunderrajan, Vasan Bala, Neeraj Ghaywan, Chaitanya Tamhane & Ashish Shukla who have also gone on to make films and get acclaim for their work.

3. What are your inspirations in life? What kind of films do you love and which filmmakers do you admire?

The infectious positive energy emitted by an art work and pure artists have been an inspiration to create art, which would inspire other fellow artists.

I love films of all genres, which are made with honesty and for the love of cinema, with decent craftsmanship. I get put off by films which are heavy on craft, but have no soul. Among the masters Ray and Kurosawa are the two filmmakers I admire. While Coen Brothers, Hector Babenco, Brillante Mendoza (earlier works) are the contemporary filmmakers I admire.

4. There are filmmakers who rise through the ranks by assisting others, and then there are others who jump right in. You’ve chosen the second path? Why & how difficult has it been to go straight out and make your feature debut?

I actually worked on one film as an AD, but did not get the credit for it. I do not have much on-sets experience. And I realized that to be a film-maker you need to have stories. This is how I moved on to discovering and writing stories. The first script I ever attempted, Chenu, made it to Cannes L'Atelier, after being rejected multiple times at many national and international programs. It was too ambitious to attempt as my 1st film. It's turning out to be too tough a thing to crack as a second film too.

The Indian producers I have met so far think it's way off the beaten track. There is tremendous interest from overseas namely Canada, France and Hollywood. But I am hopeful of finding a gutsy Indian partner, who understands its importance and will get things rolling.

Thanks to the internet, all the information a film-maker needs is out there, but one should know what he or she needs. This passion for cinema made me watch a lot of films, read about the film-making process from the masters and be updated with the latest technology. When the DSLR's arrived, I could not resist the temptation of starting the film.

5. Tell us a bit about Mumbai Cha Raja and how you came to it? How did it all start?

Mumbai Cha Raja was a film I could pull off, within the resources I had. Since the resources were limited and unreliable, going with a set script did not make sense. That's why, I decided to go with the flow and started the film with just the treatment, which also kept on changing as we discovered new things and were not able to pull off a few things.

6. You’ve written the script yourselves. What was the writing process like?

I had the character of the protagonist in mind.  A troubled boy facing domestic violence problem, who is forced to live on streets. The story was also an excuse to share childhood memories like stealing potatoes, games, festivals, swimming in rainwater and to document the annual Ganesh festival, a trademark of Mumbai's culture.

Keeping these things in mind, I wrote the story outline collaborating with Jai Hind, the co-writer of the film. On sets, depending on the location and other factors, we came up with the plan to orchestrate the scenes. The actors were given reference dialogues on sets and they improvised them.

7. The film features kids in the lead roles who are non actors. Why non-actors? How did you cast them and how was the experience of working with these kids?

I am not sure if kids can play a character, which they are not. The idea was to cast the kids as close to the requirement of the script and take a gamble of making them forget that they are acting on sets. Arbaz, the charming balloon seller, wasn't a character in the treatment note, but we needed a friend of the protagonist. Arbaz sold balloons near my house. And I observed that almost every passerby was consumed by his charm and could not pass without talking to him. He was a sweet talker. I was convinced he would look great on screen.

My connection with the underbelly was the samosa seller in my locality. I gave him a brief description of the boy for casting. He sent a group of 8-10 boys. A road-side Chinese food outlet, which was shut during day time, provided the roof for our casting workshop. The kids were also comfortable, since they did not feel out of place. Shaheed Kabeer, my associate director, had experience of conducting an acting workshop with kids.

We decided to just have a session of various exercises, which would help the kids relax and open up. We learnt that Rahul actually had a domestic violence problem, so we made the choice of casting him as lead. We never taught the kids to act. As luck would have it, they turned out to be great actors. They are super smart, they learnt the importance of clap before the shot is rolled. They would give the clap themselves and  start acting.

 8. The film went to festivals and won recognition internationally, yet it has not released here in India. What happened? Can we expect to see the film in theatres sometime soon? What are your plans for the film now?

It had a decent run at the festival circuit, got good reviews, but for some reason it was not good enough to convince an Indian distributor to pick it up. Distributors like the film, but they don't think it can make them money. Talks are on with people, who think with a limited release, little money can be made.

The Hollywood producers liked the film a lot and want to work with me on future projects. One of them thought we could improve the film by shooting a few scenes and re-structuring the film a bit, he could come on board as a producer and put this film through his first look deal with a major Hollywood studio. But as luck would have it, there was a problem with the kids and they were not available. Now I am thinking that I should at least release the film during the upcoming Ganesh festival this year. I have a unique plan to raise funds and release the film. And I will tell you more when the right time comes.

9. You are one of the few true-blue indie filmmakers who’ve gone ahead and made a film without much support from those in the industry. What have you learnt in the process? What would you do differently if you could do it again?

It was a blessing in disguise that I was cut off from the industry and worked in my own bubble, where internet and film festivals were the only connect. I guess the membrane of this bubble was semi-permeable, which only allowed positive energies and influences inside. Thank God, I was protected in my bubble for so many years, which enabled me to create stories/screenplays which are proving to be the stepping stones for the next level. If I would do things differently, I would lose it all. I realized that to make it to the next level, I needed to come out of the bubble and meet the correct people.

10. There are quite a few filmmakers around now who are making interesting films with unique voices. There is a new group of producers out there too like Guneet Monga & Manish Mundra who are backing films that are small yet interesting. Is it getting easier for filmmakers like you to make the kind of films you want?

With the advent of digital technology, anybody who is confident of being a filmmaker is going ahead and making the films they believe in. There is no room for excuse for not making a film now.

The role of NFDC in setting up the Film Bazaar has done wonders for making Indian films visible at top film festivals. It is a great platform for upcoming film-makers to make right connections and show their work to the top professionals from the festival circuit and get a major boost. My film was in the Work-in-progress section of FilmBazaar and that was a shot in the arm. All the major festival people knew about it. Now they are interested in my future projects too. I guess Guneet was exposed to international co-productions, by starting at FilmBazaar. And she has done wonders with Indie films, by getting the right co-producers, sales agents.

Manish Mundra is a wonder-man. He is able to gauge the honesty and spirit of the writer/director. Once he is convinced, he gives full support to the film-maker. I hate comparing people, but he is doing what Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures is doing for American Indies. Both are driven with a passion to support good cinema by unconditionally supporting the film-makers.

11. What's next?

I am in talks for stories I have written and I am reading scripts sent for consideration.


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